In old fishing city, catch of the day is no longer for sale

In Portsmouth, N.H., where fishermen have been working the waters since the 17th century, fishmongers can't buy wares on the docks.

Since 1623, fishermen have trawled this cold, rugged coast for salt cod - dubbed "God's fish" for its bountiful numbers. At its height, the local delicacy could be found everywhere from England to the Azores.

Today, they're still plumbing for pisces around New Hampshire's biggest - actually, only - port. On any given day, diesel-driven draggers chug up the Piscataqua River and unload their holds at the slippery downtown docks of the Portsmouth Fishermen's Co-op.

But for the first time in almost 400 years, city seafood restaurants and fishmongers can't buy their wares on the docks. The local market shut down indefinitely this month, a symbol of the decline of both the fish and the industry that helped hew New England's character.

Where fishermen used to mend nets, a park now sponsors Shakespeare festivals. The favorite fare at Jumpin' Jay's fish house isn't cod - it's the Hawaiian opah, or "moonfish."

As for the co-op, lifelong fisherman Dan Coyle's assessment is both brutal and succinct: "This is a dump, and nobody seems to be doing much about it," says the captain of the Second Starr. "Our prospects are not too good."

Earlier this month, the co-op - its walkways slathered with salt slime - was essentially reduced to a packing house for the Gloucester, Mass., exchange, where the fish are now shipped. In an irony not lost on Portsmouth residents, fish caught here will now have to be imported from out of state before locals can buy it in restaurants or grocery stores.

To be sure, ambitious home cooks can still buy cod, shrimp, and flounder directly from a boat captain. But the sight of commercial fish buyers waiting on the dock for boats to come in is now gone, perhaps for good.

To some, the change is all about dockside economics. But others fear it's a sign that this antique city is turning up its nose on its wharf. To those people, like Mr. Coyle, the slide out of the local market is symbolic of the fishermen's growing irrelevance in a city slowly shedding its blue-collar past.

Indeed, instead of expanding the co-op, Portsmouth has invested in new parks and high-tech industries.

It's not as if the fishermen aren't surviving. Indeed, new boats and glittering pick-up trucks line the wharf.

But like the cod, they are having to get used to cutting a lower profile, and acknowledging that all the old seafaring names - Marconi, Levesque, Coyle, Frisbee - are retreating relics of another time, and another city.

Today, the fishers' biggest markets lie in far-flung places like France, where gustatory experts slice into New England monkfish tails, and in London, where the "fish" in many fish 'n' chip shops is the New England dogfish, a small shark. One local is even having a go at turning the skin of local eels into wallets for sale in Asia.

In fact, some say the co-op could still live up to its hope of becoming a major market along the New England coast, competing, if not in size, at least in viability with the Portland Fish Exchange in Maine and New York's famous Fulton Fish Market.

"The market could work if they'd let us expand and do it right," says Ron Mann, who works as the co-op's in-house mechanic. But expansion would mean taking down the popular picnic tables and gazebos of Four Tree Island, a spit of neighboring shoreline now turned into a park. And the new residents of Portsmouth are unlikely to favor a move that puts tradition over aesthetics.

Today, million-dollar homes, not boat shacks, dot the recently dubbed "E-coast". Rising property values have largely driven the fishermen from the harbor village "to the woods," says Earl Sanders, owner of the Old Mill Fish Market on Marcy Street. They've been replaced by young families, who commute to Newburyport, Mass., or the burgeoning bio-businesses now clambering across the old Pease Air Force Base.

Making matters worse in the eyes of many locals, the legislature voted earlier this year to take power away from the city and put the port's future in the hands of a state development authority. "This is trouble," says Portsmouth Mayor Evelyn Sirrell. "We have no control over the contracts that they're setting down right now."

But state officials say they aren't about to put the fishing industry in dry dock. For example, Bill Bartlett, chairman of the Pease Development Authority, which now oversees the port, says the state's Ports and Harbor Commission is readying money to repair the docks. And the fish market may yet return.

The state is dedicated to maintaining a diverse economy, including fishing, he says. "It'd be a miserable world if everyone did the same thing."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.