Excerpt of The End of the Line by Charles Clover
(Page 4 of 5)
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The square-jawed fisherman on the Gloucester memorial is
how the city still likes to think of itself. There is even a new
incarnation of him on the big yellow sign of Gortons of
Gloucester, the largest fish-processing firm left in town, on the
Harbor Loop. His cutout figure rises above the rectangular
Gortons sign, which tells you that the company was founded in
1849. Yet there is a rich irony here.
Gloucester has an important, perhaps preeminent place in
the history of food preserving in the modern era as well as fishing.
For it was here in the 1920s that Clarence Birdseye, considered
to be the father of the frozen food business, first built a
plant after perfecting flash-freezing techniques in his kitchen.
His Birds Eye brand of frozen food gained national distribution
in 1930. Birdseye fixed the problem that shopkeepers in the Depression
could not afford freezers by leasing them one. His
business duly became a model for frozen food commerce across
the world. Birdseye chose the site for his plant because it was
close to large amounts of cheap and highly perishable fish, the
value of which he would prolong by freezing. So I rather expected
Gortons of Gloucester to say it got its succulent fillets of
white-fleshed fish just across the road at the Gloucester Fish Exchange,
the daily fish auction.
Theres no mention in Gortons literature or on its Web site
of where its fish comes from, even though both tell you that the
companys fillets come grilled, breaded, and beer-battered, with
a variety of flavorings. A helpful employee let me in on the secret.
The fillets contain Alaskan pollock, caught and processed
by American companies in Alaska and then shipped several
thousand miles around the continent frozen in containers.
Gortons also sources its pollock from the Russian side of the
Bering Sea, which is processed first in China. It imports farmed
shrimp from South America and Asia and assorted other species
of fish from elsewhere around the world. The reality of presentd ay
Gloucester is that the port has not been able to supply the
volume of fish Gortons requires since the mid-1980sbecause
of the collapse of New Englands fisheries. American consumers
now eat more imported fish than fish produced at home.
There is no memorial in Gloucester, as yet, to the bounty of
nature that once existed, the profusion of shad, alewives, scup,
menhaden, sturgeon, and salmon the founders encountered
when they reached the shores of America. Nor is there one to
the whales that existed a century ago or the giant halibut, barndoor
skate, and much larger shoals of giant bluefin tuna that existed
even within living memory. You might think there was a
call for some such commemoration, since every visitor who has
heard of the contribution the cod made to New Englands early
prosperity and campaign for independence must wonder what
happened. Perhaps it remains a sensitive subject. But the story
of the plenty that once existed and its sad decline is one you
have to piece together for yourself.
I traveled to Gloucester from England because I had been
told by a knowledgeable friend that New England was twenty-
five years ahead of Europe, and probably ahead of anywhere
else in the world, in reacting responsibly to the collapse of its
fisheries. I would defend that observation. But I have to confess
that as I began to research what had happened to the abundance
that once existed off New Englands shores, I was shocked to
discover how great that collapse had beenand how fragile
and uncertain that recovery remains.
I arrived in Gloucester at 9 p.m. one day in mid-December. The
thermometer was down to 11 degrees Fahrenheit and wisps of
snow were falling to join several inches on the ground by the
time I rolled off Route 128 into Gloucester and found my way
to the Cape Ann Marina. I was desperate for a decent meal, having
spent two days grimly eating overly generous portions of
© 2006 by Charles Clover. This piece originally appears in Charles Clovers The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (The New Press, November 13, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.