Nailing The Lie
Gloucester, Massachusetts, likes to describe itself as Americas
greatest fishing port. Its claim is inscribed on the most poignant
edifice in Gloucester, the fishermans memorial on the seawall
at Cape Ann. A bronze statue of a bearded fisherman in a
souwester and oilskins, gripping a ships wheel, stares out over
the harbor and the clapboard houses toward the sea. Though
you will find that a greater tonnage of fish is landed today in
Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and that Gloucesters old rival, New
Bedford, Massachusetts, tops the list of U.S. ports for value because
of its shellfish landings, it seems rude to quibble with
Gloucesters estimation of its own preeminence, for in terms of
human endeavor and suffering Americas oldest fishing port has
history on its side. The fishermans memorial, installed in 2002,
commemorates 5,300 men from the town who died at sea in the
pursuit of fish.
The core of the inscription reads: These courageous men have been known by names other than fishermen. They were father, husband, brother, son. They were known as the finest kind. Their lives and their loss have touched our community in profound ways. We remain strengthened by their character, in- spired by their courage and proud to call them Gloucestermen. The story told in Gloucester has an awesome dignity that arises out of mass human sufferingso many untimely deaths spread among the population of one not so very large community. The toll has its equal only in the memorials to the dead of the Civil War and the First and Second World Wars.
The roll call of the drowned over nearly four centuries is cast in raised lettering on bronze panels arranged in a semicircle on the seaward side of the statue. It begins with the Englishmen who came in 1625 to handline and trap for cod on the submerged banks that run from here to Newfoundland. Over the next two centuries, English surnames are joined by ones from Scandinavia and Ireland, often via the Canadian maritimes. In the past two hundred years, many if not most of the fishermen have been of Sicilian and Portuguese extraction. You will still find boats in Gloucester whose crews speak Italian and have their satellite TV set to Italian stations. I met a man of Italian descent in Gloucester who said his family had been fishing in Gloucester for eight generations. In New Bedford, the capital of whaling in the nineteenth century and now of the sea scallop fishery, the fishermen are of mainly Portuguese descent.
You can deduce many things from the number of names inscribed on the Gloucester fishermans memorial. In 2001, the most recent year recorded on the bronze panels, two fishermen, Thomas Frontiero and James Sanfilippo, died at sea. In 1927, the most terrible year in the past century for the fishermen of Gloucester, the sea took forty-one. You would rightly conclude that fishing is one of the more dangerous occupations in the world. You might also conclude that either it has gotten a lot safer or there are fewer fishermen going to sea. Both happen to be the case.
You might be tempted to ask why the number of fishermen has dropped, why the fish dock is half empty, and why many of the buildings around it have an air of dereliction that contrasts with the prosperous-looking tourist buildings and marinas of this attractive seaside town. The reason the dock is underused is because there are fewer boats and many times fewer fish landed in Gloucester than once was the case. The story of the overexploitation of New Englands fisheries is one you will find the city of Gloucester still reluctant to tell in any of its public pronouncements, for it is the counterpoint to Gloucesters heroic figure of hardiness and heroism. It throws a rather different light on the bronze fisherman facing out to sea.
© 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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