Very few American places continue cling to identities rooted in distinctive local cultures. Gloucester, Massachusetts, the subject of Mark Kurlansky’s new book The Last Fish Tale, is one rare exception. Perched on the inhospitable rocks of Cape Anne, Gloucester has held itself apart from the mainland New England culture for centuries.
Founded by Puritans in the 1600s, the town’s identity has been shaped by wave after wave of immigrant fishermen, and in particular by large populations of Sicilians and Portuguese-speaking Azorean Islanders. Local dishes tend to have a distinctly Mediterranean flair, and residents still celebrate the Sicilian Festival of Saint Peter — who is, of course, the patron saint of fishermen. The festival’s central event is a contest in which local men attempt to capture a flag at the end of a 40-foot pole jutting out three stories above the ocean. Participants often show up for the competition in elaborate costumes, including some in drag.
Gloucester’s unique local culture is Kurlansky’s primary subject in The Last Fish Tale, in which he uses a series of anecdotes, interviews, tall tales, poem excerpts, pencil sketches, and even recipes to capture the feeling and flavor of Gloucester life. Along the way, he traces the town’s economic, social, political, and environmental history, while also offering a fascinating account of its surprisingly rich arts scene, which has counted Edward Hopper, Charles Olson, and T.S. Eliot among its full- or part-time residents.
Throughout the book, Kurlansky handles his complex and wide-ranging material with ease, and makes a compelling and highly entertaining case for Gloucester as a place like no other.
But, after centuries of stubborn and eccentric independence, Gloucester is now poised on the brink of economic and cultural disaster. “It took 400 years to build this culture,” Kurlansky writes, “and it all could be lost in a few decades.” The global fishing industry is on the verge of complete collapse, and Gloucester’s fishermen have been among the first to suffer the consequences. Many of them are now out of work, or else have resorted to leading whale-watching expeditions and tours themed after the movie The Perfect Storm.
Because the local economy is in shambles, opportunistic developers have begun sweeping in, aiming to smooth over Gloucester’s rough edges in order to make town more palatable for tourists and Boston commuters. Residents are struggling to find work, and they fear that the price of their town’s survival might be the demise of its beloved local culture — that the best future that Gloucester can hope for is to abandon fishing and become a living maritime museum for tourists.
Kurlansky identifies decades of unsustainable overfishing as the underlying cause of Gloucester’s current predicament. He compares present-day fishing methods to strip mining, and argues that they are just as environmentally destructive.
Traditionally, Gloucester fishermen used small, wind-powered boats in order to catch a few specific kinds of fish for local and regional markets. But since World War II, fishermen in Gloucester and around the globe have seized on new technologies in order to haul in ever-larger catches. Fishermen have simply been catching “more fish than [are] available in the sea,” and the world’s oceans have seen a precipitous decline in fish populations as a result.
Elected officials have responded to the crisis by regulating the activities of commercial fishermen, often by limiting the amount of fish they can catch or the number of days they are permitted to spend out on the ocean. But at the same time, elected officials have thus far lacked the will to take on the big fishing companies, whose bottom-trawling ships continue to the decimate fish populations and severely damage the ocean floor.
For Kurlansky, the solution to the problem is straightforward: if the world’s fishermen would return to traditional, smaller-scale fishing methods, fish stocks would rebound, and old-fashioned fishing communities like Gloucester might also enjoy a new lease on life.
But as long as government regulations continue to favor big fishing companies and their massive bottom-dragging trawlers, Kurlansky believes that it is highly unlikely that many fishermen will find it economically feasible to adopt the fishing practices of their forefathers. Meanwhile, Gloucester’s fishermen will continue to struggle to support themselves and their families, and will be forced to take up occupations in other fields (such as tourism) instead.
Kurlansky finds the prospect of a Gloucester without fishing to be “unthinkable,” because, as he puts it, “Gloucester would not be Gloucester.” He is not, however, particularly optimistic that the community will be able to weather its current crisis with its identity intact.
Instead, Gloucester is more likely to emerge from the fishing industry’s collapse by becoming a tourist trap, or perhaps a suburb of Boston—reduced to a nostalgic theme park of its former self, or else to another American nowhere, scarcely distinguishable from any other place.
Amid all the anecdotes, recipes, and fishing lore in the pages of The Last Fish Tale, there is also a profound message about the inextricable links between a place’s natural environment, its economy, and its culture. Without the fish of the Atlantic or the rocks of Cape Anne, Gloucester simply wouldn’t have been the same, and its culture also would have taken a dramatically different shape.
Observantly, Kurlansky connects the dots between Gloucester’s plight, the imperilment of fisheries, and the broader environmental challenges presented by oceanic degradation and global warming. No doubt human beings will find a way to endure the current era of widespread and calamitous global environmental change — but, like the fishermen of Gloucester, it seems very likely that our ways of life will be fundamentally altered as a result.