The One that Got Away

Joe Brancaleone’s lifelong friends jeer him at public meetings. But Gloucester’s fish are gone, and he wants them back.


Gloucester, Mass., is–or was–a city of fishermen.

The Brancaleone family were among the finest of those who earned their keep seeking the cod, haddock, and flounder that thrived in the fertile waters off New England. When Giuseppe Brancaleone, the head of the family, steamed out of Gloucester harbor to the offshore fishing grounds of Georges Bank, other boats followed discreetly behind. When his sons, each in a boat somewhere on the vast fishing grounds, talked on the radio, disguising in idle conversation their assessments of where the fish were, other fishermen listened eagerly.

Giuseppe’s grandson, Joe, still remembers when the fishing was good. “We used to land 80,000 or 100,000 pounds of fish on each seven- or eight-day trip. Haddock would be knee-deep on the deck. But by 1988, it took 10 to 12 days just to land 30,000 pounds.” Joe and his cousin saw the writing on the wall and advised their fathers to sell the family boats, to get out before they lost everything. Joe is still active in the industry, but he now manages a Burger King.

Other fishermen have gone to work at fish processors, at restaurants, wherever they could find jobs. A few are employed at a local Gorton’s factory that makes fish sticks and canned chowder from fish now trucked in from other areas. Others are trying to sell their boats, but have discovered there is no market. Some are refitting their vessels to catch whiting or shrimp, while they wait and hope that cod and haddock stocks will recover.

Fishermen abandoning their boats for work onshore signal the end of an era. Just as we once cherished dreams of the wide-open West, we cling to powerful myths about the sea–its limitlessness, its enveloping presence. When fishermen come ashore to work at fast-food restaurants or as mail carriers, it’s as if the frontier is closing, the cowboys are disappearing, and the vast expanse of uncharted places is shrinking. So we have been quick to defend our fishermen, and reluctant to rein in their activities.

In 1976, as foreign factory trawlers devastated the New England fishery, fishermen went to Washington, D.C., to protest that foreigners were stealing “American” fish. In response, Congress passed the Magnuson Fishery and Conservation Act, which unilaterally seized a 200-mile territorial jurisdiction for the United States. American fishermen took advantage of federal subsidies to modernize their fleet, equipping them with sophisticated sonar and computerized navigational systems designed to zero in on schooling fish. Armed with this technology, the fishermen went to work on Georges Bank and, within a few years, nearly wiped out the fishery they had originally sought to protect. Today groundfish populations on Georges Bank are at record lows.

The Magnuson Act also put fishing policy in the hands of regional councils. In New England, the Fishery Management Council was for many years dominated by members of the industry who favored the short-term economic interests of the fishermen over the long-term health of the resource. It wasn’t until 1991–when environmentalists sued the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the regional councils, for abdicating his responsibilities–that the New England council moved to develop tougher policies.

Today Joe Brancaleone chairs the New England Fishery Management Council. Under his leadership, the council has come forth with a plan to conserve and rebuild the Georges Bank fishery. The plan limits a fisherman’s days at sea, calls for larger mesh nets (that won’t sweep up young fish before they can spawn), and requests electronic tracking systems to ensure that boats don’t poach in closed fishing grounds. But Gloucester fishermen, including many of Brancaleone’s friends and relatives, are angry. They jeer and interrupt him at public hearings and are pulling out every political stop to defeat the plan. “It’s tough,” says Brancaleone, “when you see guys you’ve known all your life yelling and hollering that the council is trying to put them out of business. But they don’t realize that there are so few fish that they’re going out of business anyway.”

The fishermen have come up with their own conservation plan and have persuaded many officeholders who need Gloucester votes to support them. But fisheries scientists say their alternative does little more than preserve the status quo.

In the meantime, as fishermen spend more of their shore time lobbying in Washington, the federal government is showing less resolve to carry out its mandates. In February, when young haddock were schooling in the Great South Channel just south of Georges Bank, the fishery council voted to close the fishing ground until the haddock dispersed. In March, the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected the recommendation, citing hardship for fishermen. The government is trying to bail out the fishing industry, providing fishermen with $30 million to refit their boats, market underutilized species, diversify into other fisheries, and invest in aquaculture.

Much is at stake now. Hesitation on the part of NMFS or the fishery council to take tough and unpopular stands could spell the end of the Gloucester fishery.

No matter what happens, many fishermen will lose their jobs. The question is whether these losses will be permanent or temporary. If Joe Brancaleone’s efforts succeed and the fish return, the Georges Bank of the future may look like the fishery of the past. But right now, any future is hard to imagine.

Deborah Cramer is a writer living in Gloucester, and is working on a book about the Atlantic Ocean.