Sea of Despond

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Sunday, August 3, 2008


The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town

By Mark Kurlansky

Ballantine. 269 pp. $25

Bursting with ironies, Mark Kurlansky's epic history of Gloucester sweeps from the 17th century, when English colonists starved amid the world's greatest marine abundance, to the 21st century, when opulent resorts line the coast of a depleted ocean. As Kurlansky tells us at the outset, "A fish tale exaggerates to make things look bigger. It is triumphal." But he calls this book a "Gloucester story," which is "just the opposite" -- "a story of miserable irony . . . with a sad ending."

Gloucester's annual pole-walking ritual offers a rich example of the town's ethos. Dozens of the townsmen, many drunk and all reckless, try to walk the length of a 40-foot greased pole poised high over the sea to seize a flag at the end. Inevitably they plunge, frequently with injury, into the frigid water below. Why do they do it?

The question resonates as Kurlansky chronicles the many thousands of deaths of Gloucester men who have chosen what he calls "the world's most dangerous trade": commercial fishing. We hear that "Why?" echoing in his account of the 1766 storm that sunk 19 vessels, through the 19th century when yearly death tolls rose above 100, and up to the modern catastrophe made familiar by the book (and film) The Perfect Storm.

Kurlansky contends that fishermen are driven not by greed but by the excitement of fishing, the "special brotherhood" of fishermen and the satisfaction of participating in "a commercial activity that promotes egalitarianism." But this somewhat romanticized vision is challenged by his own accounts of the economic necessity that drove immigrants to face the perils of the sea. The fleets of bottom draggers owned by multinational corporations, which are annihilating the fish stock and strip-mining their habitat, further dispel the fantasy of a "peaceful, egalitarian society." The Gloucester fleets of Gorton's, the famous seafood company, are now gone, and the company employs Gloucester citizens only in its factories.

As industrial fishing devastates the sea and thus self-destructs, Kurlansky wonders whether Gloucester will be reduced to just "another seaside resort." He takes us on a quick tour around other dying North Atlantic fishing ports and an in-depth exploration of its "sister city," the Cornish town of Newlyn, to show the universality of Gloucester's fate. The story of Gloucester, he suggests, may be the last tale of all fishing societies.

-- H. Bruce Franklin is the author of "The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America" and many other books.

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