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Gloucester looks to balance fishing with tourism

Gloucester may be slowly transforming from a fishing port to a new tourist destination.
Gloucester may be slowly transforming from a fishing port to a new tourist destination. John Tlumacki/Globe staff/Globe Staff

GLOUCESTER — On Monday, what was left of the fishing industry in Gloucester all but died. Again.

Come Friday, there was a groundbreaking for a controversial new upscale hotel and conference center on the city’s waterfront.

In between, a week of great tumult went by in Gloucester as outside forces and internal realities again pushed to the forefront a question that has nagged the city for decades: Does it make sense to bet Gloucester’s future on its past?

The drama began suddenly on Monday, when federal officials announced the latest blow to the fishing fleet: an emergency order that effectively bans cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine in an attempt to save the iconic fish from decimation.

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The ban – which will last at least six months, if not indefinitely – has essentially grounded all but the largest fishing boats that are able to go far offshore, outside the restricted area. Smaller day boats say the ban eliminates their ability to catch any bottom-dwelling fish – the basis of the industry – since they cannot do so without accidentally catching cod.

All around, there is bleak pessimism about the opportunity for the city’s famed fishing fleet to ever truly go back to work again. The cod ban is just the latest blow in decades of cutbacks and catch restrictions meant to restore fish populations the federal government says are alarmingly low.

“You used to be able to walk across the harbor, stepping from boat to boat,” said Enzo Russo, the owner of the Trish II, as he looked out at the mostly empty port. “Now it’s over. It’s all over.”

On the backs of cars around the city, there are bumper stickers that read: “Give a man a fish, he eats. Teach a man to fish, he starves.”

At Fisherman’s Wharf, the seafood auction house where boats unload their catch, Nick Giacalone pulled a sheet off the wall listing all the vessels the facility once served. “No longer in business. No longer in business,” he said as he went down the names. “He’s gone. He’s gone. It goes on and on.”

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Of the 40 boats on the list, he said, only three or four still regularly fish. On Thursday, the first day of the cod ban, they unloaded zero boats.

And all around, there are stories just like that of Fisherman’s Wharf – large, underused facilities that were built to serve the fishing fleet.

Waterfront facilities. With scenic views.

To protect working waterfronts, the state in 1978 declared Designated Port Areas in Gloucester and other communities, reserving commerce in the zone for infrastructure necessary for fishing – icehouses and mechanics and auction houses. The statute requires that 50 percent of any parcel be used for the marine mission.

But on Friday, after a seven-year battle that involved many contentious community meetings, officials broke ground on the Beauport Hotel Gloucester, a 96-room hotel and conference facility on the site of the long-vacant Birds Eye food packaging plant on Commercial Street. The hotel is being financed by Sheree Zizik, who runs Cruiseport Gloucester, and Jim Davis, the chairman of the New Balance shoe company, who has a home in Gloucester. Davis recently gave $500,000 for the naming rights to a new high school football stadium.

The hotel is just steps outside the Designated Port Area, in a dense industrial and residential area locals call the Fort. Many fear the hotel will be a toehold, the beginning of a transition from a working waterfront to a tourist waterfront.

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Fishermen have fiercely fought any tourist-related development for that reason, saying the industry has no chance to come back if there is no infrastructure to come back to. After this week’s cod fishing ban, fishermen from the state pier to the St. Peter’s Club, a longtime watering hole for the city’s mariners, wondered if it wasn’t time to face the inevitable reality of a Gloucester after fishing.

At Cape Pond Ice’s sprawling plant on the waterfront, only a tiny fraction of business now comes from “icing” the fishing fleet. Owner Scott Memhard received an exemption last spring to the Port Area restrictions in a bid to keep the business alive. He has taken a part-time job tutoring kids at the local high school in order to make ends meet.

“If you don’t rezone this area, those businesses that are supposed to support the fishing industry aren’t going to survive until whenever it comes back,” said Lenny Gilardi, the bartender at the St. Peter’s Club. “You can’t hang your hat on fishing anymore. Maybe tourism is the future.”

Such admissions are stark in a city long steeped in a disdain for tourism. That was for Rockport, its picturesque neighbor on Cape Ann. Gloucester was for “they that go down to the sea in ships,” as the plaque reads on its famous fisherman statue.

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But while tourism is no longer a dirty word in Gloucester, there is still a long way to go for complete buy-in to transitioning the downtown to something along the lines of a Newburyport.

Carolyn Kirk, the mayor of Gloucester, says the city’s future is still with fishing, but the industry has to evolve. “The methods of fishing today are not going to be the methods of fishing tomorrow,” she said. She points to marine robotics and biosciences, as well as fish farming – something she recently went to Japan to study – as potentials that would allow the working waterfront to evolve into a new future.

“I don’t see the Designated Port Area changing,” she said. “What we have to do is expand and modernize the allowable uses.” The port, she said, is the city’s greatest asset, and the city needs to hold onto it. “Gloucester’s better than giving up.”

On Friday morning, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Beauport Hotel, Kirk told a cheering crowd that there was fear of change, fear of losing Gloucester’s identity, but assured the audience that “Gloucester’s future is not to be feared.”

Behind her, the site of the hotel was already taking shape along a small beach that opens onto a majestic view of the western harbor. Off in the distance was the Ten Pound Island Lighthouse, which has long provided direction for Gloucester’s ships. It is the same lighthouse that the fishermen’s memorial faces.

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“For nearly four centuries, the history of Gloucester has been the story of America’s greatest fishing port,” the text on the memorial begins.

The next chapter in that story is currently being written.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.