Port city’s shift toward a tourist-focused economy poses conflicts with its proud but faltering fishing industry
Jay Fitzgerald, Special to the Journal
Sep 13, 2013, 6:00am EDT
After suffering from another plunge in fishing-industry business tied to federal catch limits, Scott Memhard wonders how much longer his Cape Pond Ice Co. can remain open.
A half-mile away on Gloucester’s waterfront, Sheree DeLorenzo Zizikwonders when she can finally start work on a new 101-room hotel at the site of a former Birds Eye food plant to serve the influx of tourists this city has seen over the past few years.
The plights of the two companies — a struggling ice maker serving fishing boats since 1848 and a partnership hoping to build a gleaming new hotel hosting out-of-town visitors — shows how this city of nearly 30,000 residents is slowly transforming amidst a depression-like downturn in the local fishing industry.
The transition hasn’t been painless or simple. The industry’s decline has prompted city officials to explore changes to the allowable developments within its port area, in anticipation of potentially opening up some of the land to non-fishing uses. These efforts have raised concerns that city officials could go too far and permanently alter the waterfront’s character, making it tougher for the fishing industry to rebound if the strict catch limits are eventually lifted.
For now, though, the fishing industry seems more concerned with survival. Commercial fishermen are reeling in the wake of new groundfish restrictions that took effect on May 1. “It’s horrible,” said Russell Sherman, owner of the 72-foot Lady Jane trawler in Gloucester. “My catch is way down (by more than 20 percent), and I’m trying to sell my boat. We operate on only a 10-percent margin. But I can’t sell the vessel because no one wants it. There’s no way out of this business, except maybe just to bail out.”
There are no statistics yet about how many commercial fishing boats may have gone out of business since the new fishing limits went into effect this spring. But Gloucester’s fishing industry has clearly been in decline for decades now, due to a depletion in groundfish stocks in the Gulf of Maine and a series of increasingly stiff catch limits.
From 2009 to 2011, the number of Gloucester commercial fishing vessels licensed to catch groundfish, such as cod, haddock, flounder and gray sole, fell to 70 from 98, a 29-percent plunge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.
Other fishing port cities, including New Bedford, have also been affected by new catch regulations. But the most recent fish-catch restrictions have hit Gloucester especially hard due to its relatively heavy dependence on groundfish catches, and cod in particular. The restrictions included a 77-percent cut in total allowed Gulf of Maine cod catches and a 60-percent reduction in Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.
Gloucester’s industry woes haven’t stopped with its groundfish fleet. During the past five years, the number of commercial licenses issued by the state for lobster, shellfish and other near-coast species has dropped to 398 licenses in 2013, down 16 percent from 470 licenses in 2008.
Gloucester’s fishing-fleet reduction has spilled over into other city businesses that depend on a thriving seafood industry, such as Memhard’s family-owned Cape Pond Ice. The company has seen the amount of ice its sells to local fishermen decline by 50 percent just in the past year, Memhard said in the early 1980s, Cape Pond Ice sold 40,000 tons of ice a year, but the firm will be lucky if it sells 2,000 tons to fishermen this year.
“I can’t tell you how tough it’s been,” said Memhard, whose firm is trying to offset its fishing-business losses by selling ice to liquor stores and farms that need ice to keep butchered chickens and turkeys chilled. “Everyone in the industry is suffering.”
Cape Pond Ice’s plight is so severe that Memhard is asking officials to remove his waterfront property from the city’s “Designated Port Area,” one of a number of zones created by the state in the late 1970s to maintain water-dependent industrial activities in port communities. DPAs prohibit the altering of industrial uses within such zones without specific state approval.
Memhard said he wants to keep his ice company open, but needs to diversify his property’s waterfront activities to stay in business. He envisions one day maybe having a restaurant or some offices on his property. “It will help us survive,” he said of his petition to the Legislature that is being backed by Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, and other city politicians.
Some fishermen are supporting Memhard’s property-use request, saying he needs to do something to keep his ice company running. But they worry that more changes could be coming to the city’s waterfront zoning. Russell Sherman, for example, opposes a general lifting of restrictions for other waterfront properties. He warned that Gloucester could become “another Newport, R.I.” — a reference to that city’s transformation over recent decades from a bustling fishing and Navy town to a tourist mecca.
As Memhard seeks a specific DPA exemption for his property, the city of Gloucester has asked the state Office of Coastal Zone Management to conduct an overall “boundary review” of the city’s designated two-mile port area. City officials say they requested the review, which won’t be completed until next year, in order to exempt current residential properties within the DPA zone from future restrictions.
Despite the fishing industry’s severe problems, Gloucester’s overall economy appears to be doing relatively well, with the city’s unemployment rate closely tracking the state’s overall jobless rate in recent years. In July, the unemployment rate in Gloucester was 7.4 percent, up from 6.7 percent in July 2012. For the same month, the state’s overall jobless rate was 7.2 percent, compared to 7 percent in July 2012. The jump in Gloucester’s jobless rate over the past year is roughly in line with overall state trends, and it’s actually much better than what’s seen today in New Bedford. That port city’s unemployment rate spiked to 14 percent in July, up from 13 percent a year ago.
Gloucester officials think the difference between their city and New Bedford is simple: The North Shore city’s economy is slowly diversifying with an increased emphasis on other marine-related businesses. For example, the nonprofit Ocean Alliance recently opened a new headquarters in Gloucester in a renovated former paint factory on the tip of Gloucester’s Rocky Neck. And Neptune’s Harvest, an organic fish fertilizer company whose products are sold to farmers and home gardeners, also recently opened operations on Gloucester’s Commercial Street.
Sarah Garcia, director of harbor planning in Gloucester, said Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s administration is committed to attracting other marine-related businesses, such as marine biotech companies and robotics firms whose products can be used for underwater sea explorations.
Then there’s the tourism industry. The local whale-watch and cruise-ship business has been growing, spurred in part by the 2006 opening of the new Gloucester Marine Terminal. The terminal also has a successful Seaport Grille restaurant — and it’s near where Sheree DeLorenzo Zizik and New Balance chairman Jim Davis, a summer resident in the Gloucester area, want to build their new Beauport Gloucester Hotel. In recent years, the new terminal has started for the first time attracting cruise ships, some holding as many as 2,800 passengers, who disembark in Gloucester for day trips to sight-see, shop and eat at local restaurants, Zizik said.
Zizik said her proposed hotel has received all necessary city permits. Construction is being held up by legal challenges by nearby neighbors, though she expressed confidence the hotel will get built. Zizik, who owns both the Cruiseport Gloucester reception hall and the Gloucester Marine Terminal, said Gloucester as a whole is doing surprisingly well despite the fishing industry’s sinking fortunes.
There are few vacant storefronts in Gloucester’s downtown. The city also recently spent $1.3 million on a new harbor walk with new waterfront decks, streetlights and markers providing information about historic sites.
While Gloucester’s historic waterfront is dominated by fishing industry boats and firms such as Cape Pond Ice, there are already some non-marine-industry businesses dotting the water’s edge, including restaurants and offices. “Gloucester is going through a real transformational stage,” said Robert Heidt, chief executive of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.
Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association and executive director of the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, doesn’t like what she’s seeing in Gloucester, from the new fishing restrictions to calls to change the boundaries of the designated port area. She fears the city could be eventually abandoning its commercial fishing heritage.
“The fish (stocks) will come back one day,” Sanfilippo said. “But what if there’s no fishing industry left? Once we develop our waterfront like other cities, what will make us different? Some see (non-fishing) development in Newburyport and Salem and say, ‘Why do we need fishing?’ That worries me.”