The seaport that could slip away

Mark Kurlansky considers the future of Gloucester, Mass., and its fishermen.

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Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s previous bestsellers, “Cod,” “Salt,” and “The Big Oyster,” are familiar with this author’s use of both recipes and historical lore to describe the fishing heritage of Gloucester, Mass.

His books also give a nod to nearby Rockport and other parts of Cape Ann, as well as to the area’s maritime painters, writers, and inventors, including Winslow Homer, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, T.S. Eliot, Charles Olson, and Clarence Birdseye (whose freezers put an end to drying salt cod).

You’ll also find salt, cod, and even a few oysters in this new mix, but mostly The Last Fish Tale is the story of one fishing village and its struggle for identity and survival.

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The history of Gloucester, first designated as a city in 1873, also expands to include “The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town.” That subtitle is quite a mouthful, even by big cod standards, and readers may feel as if they are being dragged – skittering and bouncing – over this vast ocean floor of a topic like a big trawler’s drag nets.

While Kurlansky’s practiced catch is always varied and interesting, in “The Last Fish Tale” it extends from the Grand Banks to the North Sea and the Mediterranean. It’s easy to feel a little battered by the sweeping approach, as Kurlansky goes for the broad overview. You may need to come up for air between chapters.

Kurlansky’s tale begins specifically enough with the dramatic (and often drunken) pole-walking event, part of the city’s annual St. Peter’s Fiesta, celebrated on the weekend closest to June 29. A Sicilian fisherman brought the custom to Gloucester in 1926, when he arrived with a statue of St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, and of “shipbuilders and net makers and also of stonemasons, bridge builders, cobblers, and locksmiths – a blue collar maritime saint, the perfect patron for Gloucester.” The event continues today, along with the festival’s more solemn songs, blessings, and prayers for the fishermen.

Gloucester’s losses at sea may number “as many as ten thousand” according to “incomplete records [that] go back to 1623,” says the author. A memorial – “The Man at the Wheel” sculpted by Leonard Craske – stands on the west side of Gloucester harbor to mark those losses. The inscription underneath is the beginning of Psalm 107: 23-24, “They that go down to the sea in ships....” The fishermen’s families in the wider Gloucester area clearly know the rest by heart: “that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” Kurlansky argues that these tragedies have helped to form Gloucester’s tightly knit community.

Seafood lovers will enjoy Kurlansky’s inclusion of recipes for Chouder (circa 1751), Skully-Jo Fish Bake, a lobster salad made with egg, mustard, and butter, an English crab soup, and a Bacalhao Sebolada which requires a pound and a half of salt cod, soaked overnight. Also “very Gloucester” are linguica recipes from the Azores, Sicilian cannolis, and various Italian pastas. From another fishing community, called Mousehole, in southwestern England, there’s a “starry gazzy” pie, originally made with pilchards (a local sardine), where the fish tails stick up through the center of the crust and the fish heads gaze out in a circle around the fluted edge.

Kurlansky’s biggest bite, however, is the history and evolution of the fishing industry, not just in Gloucester, but worldwide, and his overview on the nature of its survival or collapse. In telling the history of Gloucester, he travels extensively to the European fisheries that have already collapsed and others that seem on the verge of doing so, in order to make his forecasts.

He offers up the points of view of the fishermen and their families, the scientists, the various governments and their often ill-fated attempts at regulating the fisheries, and, to a lesser extent, the Realtors, yachtsmen, and artists that gather around the outskirts. He questions whether the fish stocks can return to a healthy level and whether Gloucester can survive with its fisheries and identity intact, or whether this hope may be the biggest fish tale of all.

It’s clear from the words of Gloucester’s own 1998 poet laureate, Vincent Ferrini, that “for Gloucester to no longer be Gloucester” would be “unthinkable” and it’s clear that Kurlansky finds it deeply and personally unthinkable, as well. This is a poignant and cautionary tale, with an end that has yet to be written.

Martha White is a freelance writer in Rockport, Maine.

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