The Decline of Gloucester

by Quintin Tyree

One night at the St. Peter’s Clubhouse by the harbor, Giuseppe Noto was outraged, continuously slamming his calloused hands on the pool table. “The bank, they called me yesterday!” Noto shouted. “I lose my house, my boat, my family. All my life I fish. What else can I do. This is my life. The fish, they are my life.”1 He was expressing his worst, yet not unimaginable, fears. Noto, a Sicilian immigrant, had moved to Gloucester with his family to pursue his fathers American Dream. Unfortunately, government restrictions and regulations were destroying his livelihood as a Gloucester fisherman. Increasingly, these regulations were causing him to have to pay unnecessary fees and restricting the amount of fish he can catch. Specifically, Noto was expressing this anger because he “had just returned last week from another unprofitable, nine-day trip to the Georges Bank, off Cape Cod, only to hear more bad news: a Federal panel had recommended that the Commerce Department virtually shut down commercial fishing in the Georges Bank.”1 Noto could see the writing on the wall. Adoption of these recommendations could lead to a possible hiatus from fishing in Gloucester for several years. Unfortunately, Noto and his family are a microcosm for the majority of fisherman in Gloucester. Not only are the fisherman going out of business, but the younger generation are moving away from their family’s passion and heritage.

History of Gloucester

Gloucester is a city on Cape Ann, home to the oldest sea port in America. Cape Ann is the easternmost land mass in Essex County, Massachusetts, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing has been the lifeblood of Gloucester since its founding in 1623. By the 1800’s, Gloucester was considered to be the largest fishing port in the world. The biggest stride was made in 1924 when a local resident developed the first frozen packaging device. This new technique would allow Gloucester to ship their fish all over the world without using salt. Not only would this advance Gloucester ahead of the pack in terms of quality, but Gorton’s of Gloucester’s frozen food packaging company would soon become the largest frozen seafood company in the nation, still to this day. Gorton’s is one example of the many companies that thrived alongside the booming fisheries. Some of the other businesses included ice producers, salt importers, fish processors, rigging suppliers, paint producers, companies focused on building ships and their parts, and many seafood restaurants and bars. All of these companies combined to make Gloucester one of the prominent fishing communities in the world.

Gloucester Harbor
Aerial view of the harbor. Image credit: Gloucester’s website
Virgilio’s Bakery in Gloucester

The industry really boomed in the mid 1800’s, when immigrants from primarily Italy, Canada, the West-Indies, and Portugal flooded into Gloucester. While Gloucester did have a nearly perfect harbor and great fishing atmosphere, many immigrants moved here mainly to “escape the discrimination experienced in other New England Communities.2 According to Griffen and Dyer (1996), “Probably 80 percent of Gloucester’s fishermen are Italian (mostly Sicilian). Although large immigration flows ended in the mid-1970s, there are at least 26 vessels (out of approximately 200) on which only Italian is spoken. Even among the fishermen who arrived at a very young age, Italian is often the first and virtually only language spoken.”3 These immigrants are now a major part of Gloucester’s community and culture. Resident and seafood restaurant owner, Kathi Turner, said that despite the language barrier, “they are integrated in the community and play key roles in many political and community organizations. They are not an isolated group at all. The only difference is that at home they may still speak Portuguese or Sicilian or mainland Italian.”4 Kathi further emphasized that these immigrants belong in Gloucester and that without them, Gloucester wouldn’t be the same place.

For years, Gloucester thrived as one of the largest active seaports in the country, containing up to 319 vessels in its harbor in the early 2000’s. The number of active vessels has been reduced to 27, less than 10 percent of what it was only a decade ago.5 This sharp decline is primarily due to regulations imposed on the fishermen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These regulations have made it nearly impossible for fisherman to live sufficiently off their income. The town of Gloucester, along side the fishing industry, has been on a steady decline in recent years. This decline has negatively impacted how the town functions and how the community represents itself. However, the main thing that the residents agree on is that they are all reluctant to leave their heritage and history behind them. Fishing will always be recognized as the heart of Gloucester, and many people are fighting to keep it this way. Within Gloucester, there are several non-profit organizations that run primarily to help the city recover and best determine the steps for the future. Some of these include the Northeast Seafood Coalition, Fishermen’s Wives Association, the Cape Ann Museum, the Fisherman Preservation Fund, and more. While these organizations represent Gloucester in the fight to save the fishing industry, they’re facing an uphill battle. The environmental defense fund lives off a budget of about $110 million a year while the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the one fighting the environmentalists and NOAA, runs off a budget of $275 thousand a year.6

____Our Lady of Good Voyage ________ Statue at the top of the Church ________ Goucester Fisherman Memorial

Governmental Regulations

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, was first passed in 1976. Originally, it was meant to “prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, and ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood.”7 The first edition of the act was actually beneficial for Gloucester’s fishing fleet because it prevented foreign vessels from fishing within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The benefits ended in 1996 when the act was modified to have an increased focus on fishery-specific management plans. There would be a specified “objective and measurable criteria for determining when a stock is overfished and when overfishing is occurring.”7 This marked the first time that fisherman’s catch rates had to be monitored and analyzed to prevent overfishing.

Poster protesting the NOAA. Image credit: Dead in the Water Film

In 2007, NOAA modified the restrictions even tighter. This new system revolved around fish stocks and the total fish allowed per catch for individual species. Every fish stock has a species-specific total allowable catch (TAC), which assessed by an NOAA regulator in units off total weight of the catch for a given time period. A portion of the TAC, called quota shares, is then allocated to individual fisherman. Quota shares were given in Gloucester based on historical participation from 1996 to 2006.8 Not only does this quota system restrict the amount of fish a current fisherman can bring in, but it strongly discourages new fisherman to join the fleet, because of the relatively small quota share that they will be given. John Bell, former Mayor of Gloucester and current President of the NE Seafood Coalition, said “We have been let down by stock management by the US government. It’s supposed to be there by law, to not only help make fishing sustainable but also to make sure we survive and our community survives. They have gone out of their way to make sure that are not around.”6

While the fishermen are upset about losing money due to these restrictions, the focus of anger is on how NOAA calculates these fish stocks. Two main methods that NOAA uses to calculate fish abundance and distribution are by going out on active fishing-vessels or going to random sites to measure on their own. One out of every four trips by a fisherman must have a NHOA trained neutral observer on the boat. This requirement poses a significant financial burden on the fisherman because these government-mandated observers can charge up to 800 per trip. This cost is not covered by the government despite being the ones forcing the observers to be present. The 800 dollars is very impactful when several boats are making only $1200 a day. Furthermore, if reported fairly, the neutral observers data would be an indicator of abundance, yet their data is having the opposite effect. Their information is not being used in the stock assessment, but to estimate mortality. The government imposed inspectors are using the data to promote the narrative that fish are in danger, when in fact the opposite is true. A good catch day on the water should mean that the fish are in abundance. However it is being reported that the fishermen are catching too many fish, and are jeopardizing the fish stock. (Image on the right is of the water front in 1937 9)

Gloucester water front in 1937. Image credit: Arthur Rothstein

The second method NOAA uses is the selection of a random location through a computer software and taking a one-time sample of TAC and distribution. They return to the same location annually to observe year-to-year changes. The fault in this method is that the scientists are under-sampling, by only returning to a few random locations and applying them to the entire Gulf of Main. Scott Memhard, the President of Cape Pond Ice said: “The Golf of Main is 63,000 square kilometers. 8 square kilometers out of 63,000 square kilometers get sampled annually. The stations are randomly selected, through a computer, and they only tow for 20 minutes.”10 Even if we were able to say that 8 square kilometers accurately represents the abundance of 63,000 square kilometers, 20 minutes is way to obtain a proper sample. Additionally, the scientists don’t account for movement or migration of the fish. The water is obviously warming, according to both fisherman and scientists, but the scientists continue to sample the same locations year after year. These scientists are ignoring the well known fact that fish move as water temperatures change. The changes in temperature can also influence the depth of the fish. So even if the scientists are in the right place, they may be missing the fish entirely because they didn’t cast their nets low enough.

Another complaint stems from how stock of individual species is calculated. The first time every species is assessed individually. After that, they use one or two stocks to estimate the availability of other fish in the same group. The main group being tested are ground fish, which include cod, halibut, flounder and more. Maritime attorney, Stephen Ouellette, says “we had available about 200 metric tons of ground fish (17 species, 20 stocks), regulators are restricting access based on how well one or two stocks are doing. This year we will land about 30 metric tons. So we have basically about 85 percent of the available fish that the scientist say can be caught, being left in the ocean.”11 Several factors can influence the abundance of fish and distribution, but according to fisherman, most of these factors are ignored in order to maintain the results they want. John Bell said, “They don’t want fisherman to own the ocean, they want to own the ocean. They have tried to take fishing policy and fisherman from places where fishing is abused, and stick it to New England. They do it in order to increase the support for there own organization.”6

Cultural Impacts

While Gloucester is very much a working city, the majority of the jobs are from fishing related industries. According to the US Census data from 2000, “major employers that provide over 100 jobs in Gloucester include the following businesses (number of employees listed in parentheses): Varian Semi Conductor Equipment Associates (950), Gorton’s of Gloucester (500), Battenfeld Gloucester Engineering (400), Shaw’s Supermarkets (350), Addison Gilbert Hospital (325), NutraMax Products (220), and Seacoast Nursing and Retirement (160). Cape Pond Ice (50).”12 With the exception to Addison Gilbert Hospital, NutraMax and the Seacoast Retirement home, the major job suppliers are those that are associated with fishing. The decline of the fishing industry has serious implications for several companies. For example, Cape Pond Ice was a thriving ice manufacturer which produced ice for the packaged fish in Gloucester.

Low activity in the Harbor. Image credit: Jay Albert
High activity in the Harbor. Image credit: Jay Albert

Now, due to the significant decrease in fishing, Cape Pond Ice has resorted to producing several other products that can be used outside of the fishing industry, such as ice sculptures, special effects ice and dry ice. On the other hand, not all companies are able change their business model to account for the decline. If that’s the case, these companies have no other choice but to sell their property or suffer the losses. Yet once again, it is not that simple because of governmental restrictions. Scott Memhard describes Cape Pond Ice’s problem saying: “The irony for us here is that the federal government is telling our Gloucester fisherman that they’re not allowed to fish at economically viable levels to cover the overhead of maintaining their boat, while the state government reserves all of Gloucester harbors infrastructure real estate for marine industrial use, which puts all of Gloucester’s harbor, more or less, in a DPA (designated port area). A Developer can not develop it outside of a commercial maritime use. Even though we don’t have any boats left to pump ice into, we are still forbidden by state legislation for using our real estate for anything else than pumping ice.”10 All the infrastructure on the harbor must be used for maritime use, further limiting the things Gloucester can do to recover from the decline. Not only can they not fish, they can’t use their harbor for recreational uses because such uses are not designated as commercial maritime infrastructure. The regulations have not caught up with the reality of the fishing industry.

When I asked John Bell what the atmosphere was like during the fishing industry’s peak, he said that he’d “literally walk around the streets in Gloucester, in the winter time especially, and there would be dead fish everywhere that had fallen off the trucks. Just fish everywhere. A whole lot more activity. For example, around that time, vessels were well manned. You know, today, even the day boats should have three to four people on them, yet there going out with one maybe two at the most. If you looked out on the harbor, you would see traffic going back and forth all day. The water would have fish oil in it all the time. It was just a lot more evident around you.”6 His story painted a scene very different than what was visible when I visited and saw one or two vessels leaving the harbor over the course of three to four hours (The two pictures on the right are examples of high and low activity in the harbor 13). While this does seem like a drastic change, it is important to note that he is talking about a change that took place over the course of about 50 years. For a someone living in Gloucester who isn’t working in the fishing industry, this change wouldn’t be as evident. Kathi Turner discusses this in the sense of short versus long term observations. In the short term, an average citizen “wouldn’t notice when one company closes or when a couple boats retire and no one fills their spots. It wouldn’t have a huge impact on the culture. It’s more generational.”4

Not only is the fishing industry extremely important to the culture in Gloucester, but its importance spans into mainstream media. One of National Geographics strongest franchises, Wickid Tuna, is a show about the fishing in Gloucester. This show started in 2012 and is still very popular, going on its sixth season. This has become a good source of income for the fisherman involved, giving them another way to make money doing what they love. In 2000, the movie The Perfect Storm was released, telling a true story about a fleet from Gloucester who encountered the “Perfect Storm.” This movie received international acclaim and showed people how dangerous ground fishing can be. In spring of 2018, the documentary “Dead in the Water” will come out, telling the story of the decline in fishing in Gloucester due to government restrictions. (Click on the documentary cover to see the trailer)

The Future of Gloucester

In Dona Brown’s book Inventing New England: regional tourism in the nineteenth century, she explains how tourism has shaped and “manufactured” the image of New England. In chapter four, “Manufactured for the Trade,” Brown explores the island towns, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to see how the fall of their industries affected their cultures. She explains how the residents of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard had to modify their way of life in order to attract tourism as a source of income.14 Due to the collapse of their whaling industry and relative isolation, tourism was virtually the “only means of making a living on Nantucket (p.123).”14 Despite Gloucesters harbor still being an active fishing port, I was curious as to whether or not Gloucester could be following the same path that Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard took. I found that in Gloucester, the expression of their heritage is driven by pride rather than profits. Kathi Turner believes that Gloucester will never have to rely entirely on tourism. She thinks that “there’s a lot more value placed on the macro benefits of having access to our own natural food right off our coast, then there would’ve been when whaling and the products from whaling went away. There’s still always going to be a supply and demand for what Gloucester provides. In places like Nantucket, they lost the supply and the demand.”4 In addition, she said that “people want to see real fishing ports and there’s an authenticity to that, its not manufactured. That’s very much the culture of Gloucester. You can’t recreate that.”4 In other words, Gloucester may be advertising themselves in a certain way to attract people who are looking for an authentic New England seaport experience, but they are not manufacturing this image. Their image is a combination of embracing their heritage and also being aware of the profits that can be made. As Turner said, “does it change why we do it? No, but it does mean we might have to do it differently to cater to people who don’t have access to it.”4

Gloucester’s population structure by sex in 2000 (US Census Bureau 2000)
Figure 1

As a member of the Fisherman Preservation Fund, Kathi Turner said that one of their main concerns is training a new generation of fishers, because “if we don’t have younger fishers, it doesn’t matter how much infrastructure we have or how many boats we have. If there’s no one who wants to do that for their living than it doesn’t matter.”4 Figure 1 15 is a population structure chart created based off data from the US Census Bureau in 2000. This age structure shows a peak between the ages of 40 to 49. This is aligned with the population structure chart for the entire US, with the 39 to 44 year olds making up the largest percentage of the population. However, Gloucester has a much lower percentage between the ages of 20-29. This trend deviates from the population structure chart for the entire US and is most likely an indication of the out-migration after high school and college looking for other profesions because the fishing industry isn’t as strong as it previously was. As shown through the story of Mr. Noto, children are no longer following their parents footsteps because of the uncertainty of the fishing industry and the difficulty earning a living in that profession.

In addition to the decrease in the younger generation’s desire to fish, little help is coming from outside Gloucester. For a new fisherman trying to join Gloucester’s fleet, they must get passed what locals call the “economic barrier to entry.”6 The regulations are designed in a way that gives benefits to the fisherman who have been in business the longest, and none to the new fisherman trying to join. For a new fisherman, you have to have permits, you have to have a boat, you have to have certain training, and you have to have a certain amount of capital even to start. “You can’t really grow a boat like you can grow a restaurant. It just doesn’t make a really good starting business model.”4

Gloucester is home to the oldest sea port in the nation and it is going to stay that way. Despite all the efforts of the government to gain full control of the ocean, Gloucester’s people keep fighting. Whether they are meeting together in organizations or having their voices be heard through the media, the residents of Gloucester aren’t allowing the government to push them around. While the future of fishing doesn’t look as strong as it has in the past, Gloucester’s heritage isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, the reality is that the industry is in a hole, and doesn’t have a younger generation to pull them out. “Anyone in the fishing industry now is a survivor. They’re not in the industry to become a millionaire. They’re in the fishing industry because they believe in the business, and it’s something they love to do.”4 The hope is that the younger generation will have the same beliefs and continue the fight for Gloucester’s fishing fleet.

Cover photo is an inlet to the harbor, courtesy of Gloucester’s website.

Quintin Tyree is a student at Dartmouth who plays Rugby and Basketball and is undecided.


  1. Giuseppe Noto (Fisherman in Gloucester), interviewed by Sara Rimer of the Gloucester Journal, Gloucester, MA, October 1994 

  2. Lyceum, Gloucester, and Sawyer Free Library. “List of Vessels Belonging to the District of Gloucester.” Sawyer Free Library, Gloucester, Mass., 

  3. Griffith D, Dyer CL. 1996. An Appraisal of the Social and Cultural Aspects of the Multispecies Groundfish Fishery in New England and the Mid-Atlantic Regions. Conducted by Aguirre International under NOAA Contract Number 50-DGNF-5-00008. Available at:  

  4. Kathi Turner (Restaurant owner in Gloucester), interviewed by Hutch Tyree in Gloucester, MA, November 2017. 

  5. Dave Leveille (Sector 2 Fishing Manager), interviewed by David Wittkower, the director of Dead in the Water. Gloucester, MA, April 2017. 

  6. John Bell (Former Mayor of Gloucester and current President of the NE Seafood Coalition), interviewed by Hutch Tyree. Gloucester, MA, November 2017. 

  7. United States, Congress, “Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.” Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, NOAA Fisheries.  

  8. Wittkower, David, director. Dead in the Water. Film. 2017. 

  9. Rothstein, Arthur. Waterfront, Gloucester, Massachusetts. September, 1937. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. 

  10. Scott Memhard (President of Cape Pond Ice), interviewed by David Wittkower, the director of Dead in the Water. Gloucester, MA, April 2017. 

  11. Stephen Ouellette (Maritime attorney), interviewed by David Wittkower, the director of Dead in the Water. Gloucester, MA, April 2017. 

  12. “Gloucester Community Profile .” NOAA: Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 

  13. Albert, Jay. Typical Harbor Scene. September 2005. Cape Ann Images. 

  14. Brown, Dona. Ch. 4, “Manufactured for the Trade” in Inventing New England: regional tourism in the 19th century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 

  15. “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, Gloucester.” U.S. Census Bureau,