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January 2013 Issue

Reinvention for a Maritime Economy at a Crossroads
By Carolyn A. Kirk

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, America’s oldest seaport, the Atlantic Ocean has always been a gateway to economic opportunity. For years, that opportunity meant fish, but regulatory challenges in the Northeast groundfishery has forced the community to rethink how to leverage its greatest asset—the ocean—into broader economic activity.

Gloucester has crafted a vision for a maritime economy that combines the marine research, science and technology sectors with traditional industries. The goal is a working harbor that is home to both fishing boats and study vessels, fish auctions and research labs, and seafood processing centers and subsea robotics launches.

Commercial fishing, long Gloucester’s signature industry, is cemented in lore by Fitz Henry Lane’s paintings, Sebastian Junger’s 1997 bestseller (and later motion picture) “The Perfect Storm,” and the shows “Wicked Tuna” on the National Geographic channel and “Nor’easter Men” on the History Channel. But Gloucester’s fishing industry is much different today than its pop culture image. Decimated by federal regulations, the local fleet has been relegated to a system of quotas and catch shares, both of which are driving consolidation in the fishing industry.

Gloucester’s fleet comprises roughly 75 boats, which hauled just 77 million pounds of fish in 2011, a 63 percent decline from two years prior. At its height, the fleet exceeded 300 vessels, with reported landings as high as 5 million pounds in one day. Today, every fish caught and landed in Gloucester is caught sustainably. But as regulations have taken hold, Gloucester—a perennial top port in America—has dropped down the list of the top U.S. fisheries. The impact on the local community led the U.S. Department of Commerce to issue in mid-September a formal economic disaster declaration for the Northeast fishery, with Gloucester at the epicenter.

Despite the current climate, fishing will always remain an integral part of Gloucester’s heritage and economy. The future, however, will be based on a more diversified maritime economy. The goal is to thrive by taking full advantage of Gloucester’s 62 miles of coastline, which can fully support a maritime technology and research cluster.

Gloucester has access to the most productive areas of the Atlantic, including Georges Bank, Jeffreys Ledge and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The city is also close to prominent national technology and innovation clusters in Cambridge and Boston, and many of the world’s top colleges and universities that dot the New England landscape, offering access to a deep pool of intellectual talent. It is also near various naval stations and shipyards.

In Massachusetts, marine science and technology companies produce economic output valued at $1.5 billion, and across New England, the value is an estimated $4.8 billion. Markets such as marine instrumentation, research and support services already offer significant opportunities in the Northeast. And, in the years to come, the “wired ocean,” a networked system of monitoring, prediction and management, offers growth opportunities for marine firms focused on optics, precision machinery, high-pressure materials, and sophisticated computer software and hardware.

Gloucester intends to insert itself aggressively into the regional and national conversation on new maritime economics. City officials created a Maritime Economy Working Group and hosted in late 2011 a New Maritime Port Economy summit with industry leaders across the country.

This summit made clear that marine science and technology is undergoing seismic shifts, as oceans are now key to understanding global challenges such as climate change, and they offer relatively unchartered areas of exploration for new biological discoveries, although marine resources are increasingly scarce.

The summit also illuminated that Gloucester is in the midst of a national and global concentration of marine science and technology resources that can offer sophisticated understanding of the oceans, with the Port of Gloucester representing a $4.6 billion industry.

In 2012, the city released a report with a plan to revitalize the working harbor, based on the summit findings.

The city’s marine science and technology “campus” is abuzz with activity. The University of Massachusetts Amherst Large Pelagics Research Center is deploying new pop-up satellite tracking devices on bluefin tuna. A satellite campus for Endicott College is developing a new graduate program in maritime studies. Maritime Gloucester has been operating a subsea robotics program since at least 2005. Ocean Alliance’s RV Odyssey is studying the effect of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Also based in Gloucester is NOAA Fisheries Service Cooperative Research Programs’ study fleet, which develops electronic reporting hardware and software for the collection, recording and transferring of more accurate and timely fishery-based data.

In a national context, the U.S. government is setting up the Integrated Ocean Observing System. One of the big questions for ports seeking reinvention like Gloucester is how to define their role in making traditional resources relevant to this new national ocean infrastructure. Is offshore observing strictly a virtual world, or is there a role for experienced seamen and a maritime cultural interface to move forward our understanding of ocean potential? Ports at an economic crossroads must find a way to integrate into a changing economy if they are to continue to survive and thrive.

Carolyn A. Kirk is the first woman popularly elected as the mayor of the City of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Now in her third consecutive two-year term, she has worked on efforts to transition the city’s port economy from fishing and seafood processing into a more broad-base ocean economy that includes marine technology and research. Kirk oversees the Gloucester Maritime Working Group.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.