Gloucester Harbor is a full-service port and regional hub for the commercial fishing industry in New England. Its infrastructure supports fishermen, not only from Gloucester Harbor, but from nearby Rockport and far-away Ellsworth, Maine, or Cape May, New Jersey.
Due to decreasing landings of fish since the 1980s, Gloucester Harbor’s status as a port and regional hub is threatened. Local businesses that have supported fishing and fishermen for centuries as now either failing or moving away from fishing to other activities.
The experience of Gloucester Harbor demonstrates that the idea of inexhaustible natural resources is indeed a myth. From after America’s Civil War, Gloucester Harbor thrived on large-scale groundfishing in the Atlantic Ocean. Catches of cod, haddock, redfish, and flounder were plentiful and seemingly endless. As the 20th Century approached, the industry sought new technologies to boost the harvest, and those technologies worked well. Without regulations to restrain the volume of fishing, overexploitation went on unchecked.
But the industry grew too efficient, and news of the rich fishing off Georges Bank attracted fishing fleets from Russia, Poland, East Germany, Japan, and Spain. The US government took regulatory action to try to protect the fishing resources for its citizens, slowing the onslaught. But in the 1950s, modern new ships replaced the old wooden fishing boats, and new floating processing plants increased efficiency in plundering the sea.
The high-water mark for New England’s fishing industry came in the 1980s when fishermen harvested the last plentiful crop of adult haddock. Since then, harvests of almost all species have declined, and the industry has collapsed. The US Congress has been forced to establish programs to help many failing New England communities by buying vessels, retraining fishermen to other occupations, and subsidizing health insurance for families dependent on fishing.
Today, species that once fed Americans by the millions are “commercially extinct.” These include Atlantic halibut, haddock, yellowtail flounder, and ocean perch. Even the popular Atlantic Cod may soon join the list of species that are commercially extinct.