The Last Fish Tale : The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town
The bestselling author of Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster has enthralled readers with his incisive blend of culinary, cultural, and social history. Now, in his most colorful, personal, and important book to date, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a disappearing way of life: fishing-how it has thrived in and defined one particular town for centuries, and what its imperiled future means for the rest of the world.
The culture of fishing is vanishing, and consequently, coastal societies are changing in unprecedented ways. The once thriving fishing communities of Rockport, Nantucket, Newport, Mystic, and many other coastal towns from Newfoundland to Florida and along the West Coast have been forced to abandon their roots and become tourist destinations instead. Gloucester, Massachusetts, however, is a rare survivor. The livelihood of America's oldest fishing port has always been rooted in the life and culture of commercial fishing.
The Gloucester story began in 1004 with the arrival of the Vikings. Six hundred years later, Captain John Smith championed the bountiful waters off the coast of Gloucester, convincing new settlers to come to the area and start a new way of life. Gloucester became the most productive fishery in New England, its people prospering from the seemingly endless supply of cod and halibut. With the introduction of a faster fishing boat-the schooner-the industry flourished. In the twentieth century, the arrival of Portuguese, Jews, and Sicilians turned the bustling center into a melting pot. Artists and writers such as Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and T. S. Eliot came to the fishing town and found inspiration.
But the vital life of Gloucester was being threatened. Ominous signs were seen with the development of engine-powered net-dragging vessels in the first decade of the twentieth century. As early as 1911, Gloucester fishermen warned of the dire consequences of this new technology. Since then, these vessels have become even larger and more efficient, and today the resulting overfishing, along with climate change and pollution, portends the extinction of the very species that fishermen depend on to survive, and of a way of life special not only to Gloucester but to coastal cities all over the world. And yet, according to Kurlansky, it doesn't have to be this way. Scientists, government regulators, and fishermen are trying to work out complex formulas to keep fishing alive.
Engagingly written and filled with rich history, delicious anecdotes, colorful characters, and local recipes, The Last Fish Tale is Kurlansky's most urgent story, a heartfelt tribute to what he calls "socio-diversity" and a lament that "each culture, each way of life that vanishes, diminishes the richness of civilization."
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June 02, 2008
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Excerpt from The Last Fish Tale by Mark Kurlansky
The First Gloucester Story
From hence doth stretch into the sea the fair headland Tragabigzanda fronted with three isles called the Three Turks' Heads.
Description of New England, 1616
There are two kinds of stories told in gloucester: fish tales and Gloucester stories. A fish tale exaggerates to make things look bigger. It is triumphal. When in the early seventeenth century George Waymouth reported that the cod caught off New England were five feet long with a three-foot circumference, this may have been a fish tale. We don't know. Surely the Reverend Francis Higginson's reports from Salem in 1630 that lions had been seen running wild in Cape Ann, or that the squirrels could fly from tree to tree, were fish tales.
A Gloucester story is just the opposite. It is a story of miserable irony in which things are shown in their worst light, a story with a sad ending.
Often the history of a place begins with the person who named it. But in the case of Gloucester, the story begins with the men who didn't-- the ones who tried to name it and failed. The naming of Gloucester is an entire cycle of Gloucester stories.
The earliest Europeans to arrive at what is today Cape Ann are thought to have been the Vikings, who, according to the written Icelandic legends known as the Sagas, sailed in 1004 down the North American coast from Labrador to Newfoundland to a place they called Vineland. For a long time it was debated whether to believe this story. But in 1961 the remains of eight Viking turf houses dating to the year 1000 were found in a place in Newfoundland known as L'Anse aux Meadows. Where, then, was Vineland? Today many historians believe that it was the coastline of New England, named after the wild grapes that grew there. According to another story, in 1004, Leif Ericson's brother Thorwald landed on Cape Ann and named it Cape of the Cross. But neither the name nor Thorwald went far. Thorwald died on the expedition and those historians who believe the story at all think that he is buried somewhere on Cape Ann. And that is the first Gloucester story.
In 1606, Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer of the coast of Maine, sailed down to Cape Ann, and seeing three islands off its tip-- now called Thachers, Milk, and Straitsmouth Islands--he named the peninsula with the great gray granite boulders marking its headlands, the Cape of Three Islands, which even if said in French, Cap aux Trois Iles, is not much of a name. He noted that there were actually two rocky headlands and a passage between them, which he sailed through taking depth soundings as he went, thus charting the course that fishermen home from the sea have been using ever since--from Thachers around East Gloucester to Eastern Point, into the harbor between West and East Gloucester. Champlain thought this was an extraordinary harbor, deep and sheltered with ample mooring space, and he spent three months charting it. He named it Le Beau Port, which was a little more poetic than the Cape of Three Islands, but was destined to be no more durable. Being a skilled seaman, he found anchorage in the safest, most leeward cove in the harbor, but that was not to bear his name either. Instead, the sheltered nook is known today as Smith Cove, named after the young English adventurer, thirty- four-year-old Captain John Smith, who arrived eight years later, in 1614.
This Englishman was very different from Champlain. Though they both were prodigious writers, Champlain's writing revealed little about the man or his life. It is not even certain what year he was born. But Smith's writings are very much about himself, full of praise for his own extraordinary deeds. Historians, distrustful of Smith's braggadocio, tended not to believe what he wrote. Only in recent years has it come to be understood that most of his yarns of daredevil adventures are true.
Smith was a self-made man in more than one sense of that phrase. He not only made his own way in the world--though always assisted by his remarkable ability to attract the patronage of the wealthy--but he also used his writings to establish a colorful persona for himself.
When he was still a teenager he went off to the Lowlands, as did many adventurous young Englishmen, to help the Protestant Dutch fight for their freedom from the despotic Roman Catholics of Spain. The savage combat of that war produced many disillusioned young veterans for the new colonies. But Smith, after three years of fighting the Catholics, did not cross the Atlantic and instead joined the Austrian army to fight the Turks, the true infidels, in Hungary.