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 tasteless food.
© 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.
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