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Boston's fish pier facing the crosscurrents of change: Boston's 86-year-old fish pier isn't what it was. In 1936, 339 million pounds of seafood were unloaded there; last year's figure was less than nine million. Elegant new buildings are edging in, but CLF sees a glorious future for the venerable pier; New England's fishing stocks are coming back.

Does Grimsby, England ring a bell? In Tom Stoppard's 1978 drama Night & Day, a modern morality play that thrusts a small-town journalist onto a treacherous international stage, Grimsby and its newspaper represent all that is local, backwater, and becalmed.

But in 1915 Grimsby was a thriving port city on the North Sea, and home to the largest fish market on earth. The proud runner-up was none other than Boston. At more than a half-million square feet, Boston's just-opened Fish Pier -- "made entirely of cement, brick and glazed tile, thoroughly hygienic ... and fireproof" -- could berth 40 vessels, while simultaneously unloading them and 40 more besides. Promotional materials disseminated by its owner, the Boston Fish Market Corporation, touted it as "the best appointed ... of any fish market in the world" -- Grimsby's notwithstanding.

Although Fish Pier and its massive twin buildings look much the same today, nearly a century later, much else has changed. The pier and its 25-or-so small processors, wholesalers, and distributors find themselves up against an economic juggernaut, most of which is beyond the horizon yet is still able to buffet the future prospects of these mom-and-pop operations.

The days of landing hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh groundfish like cod, haddock, sole, and halibut are long gone. Yet Fish Pier, located on the northwest side of the South Boston Seaport about a mile and a quarter, as the seagull flies, from the sacred cod hanging in the State House, is a resource that many marine experts, environmentalists, economists, and urban architects fear may soon be left behind. The pier is valued as a living symbol of Boston's rich, maritime past, and -- more importantly -- as one of its more promising opportunities for the 21st Century.

Salvatore Patania is the patriarch of Ideal Seafood, based on the pier. Ideal owns two of the largest stern trawlers that still fish out of Boston. The Linda and the Maria/Jo-Anne, both nearly 100 feet long, haul in groundfish caught all the way out to the Hague line, the international boundary between U.S. and Canadian waters. Patania's company, which he runs with the help of his wife Evelyn and brother Frank, also slices fish into fillets, and distributes them to area buyers. It even supplies the No Name Restaurant, a local (unmarked) landmark right next door.

Patania's grandfathers lived in neighboring villages in Sicily. His father came to Boston around 1949. "We've always had boats in the family," he says. To Patania, a storm is coming from two directions, the sea and the shore.

* Fishing Has Become a Complex Business

First, there are the regulations. Today, Patania observes, "you're fishing less, and it's harder. You have to be more particular about where you fish, how you fish, the type of gear you use, and when you can go out. It's like a chess game now. You have to think about your next move." Fishing restrictions set by federal authorities are aimed at allowing overfished stocks to recover. Not all restrictions are bad, Patania says. It's just harder to make a living. "The fishermen who survive are probably the most skilled," he says.

But the other source of worry does not win acceptance, begrudging or otherwise. It is the Massachusetts Port Authority, the massive, independent public agency that operates Logan International Airport and the entire Port of Boston. Massport is the largest landowner on the 1,000-acre South Boston Seaport, and it has controlled Fish Pier since 1972.

The immediate concern to Patania is that the agency serves as his landlord. That's also the case for the two dozen other small processors and distributors in the parallel pair of three-story buildings that extend 735 feet down either side of the nearly quarter-mile-long pier. Their leases expire in 2004, and so far Massport has been coy about whether it will renew them. According to tenants, this has thrown a wrench into the businesses. Facing a mere three-year time horizon, they argue, it's well-nigh impossible to secure financing to modernize aging facilities, and, some say, to continue complying with toughened federal seafood inspections.

For its part, Massport isn't saying much. Executive Director Virginia Buckingham, in her third year on the job, recently stated that the agency "is currently performing a comprehensive analysis of Fish Pier and other Massport properties to determine how it can best be positioned to serve the greater Boston fishing industry's needs -- well beyond 2004." The study is supposed to be finished by the end of the year.

Privately, Buckingham is reported to be a big fan of a revitalized Fish Pier, despite active skepticism from some of her powerful lieutenants. But publicly, the agency's silence, and what many on the pier view as a history of callousness, have erected a sea wall of distrust.

Speak with Tory Bramante, who runs Atlantic Seafood, and he'll point to the old New England Fish Exchange building at the pier's very end, near where the huge ice house and power plant used to be, until they were torn down. It's a graceful, three-story structure, with classical overtones. A scallop shell decorates its tympanum, and a carved, stone head of Neptune -- starfish and barnacles encrusting his beard -- sits atop a large arch that frames the landside entrance. For years, the building housed Boston's fish auction, which at one time set prices for all major groundfish caught in New England and well beyond. As one commentator observed in the early 1980s, "The auction was somewhat laconic, but nevertheless genuine, offering real ties to a period when commerce was personal."

Massport recently reinvented the Fish Exchange Building -- as a well-heeled meeting venue. Since 1996, the Exchange Conference Center has offered its services to those in suits, rather than slickers. Services include nearly a dozen well-appointed meeting rooms, high-tech video capability, ISDN lines, and, as its promotional brochure makes a point of mentioning, "Yacht accessibility at the back pier for guests embarking or disembarking from cocktail cruises ...."

Bramante notes with bitter irony that, before the $7.2-million renovation began, Massport had allowed the old Fish Exchange building to deteriorate until safety concerns prompted it to ask the exchange auction to seek alternative quarters.

Sal Patania explains, "The way they took it over, they had to force us out. It isn't as if they said, `It's a shame we have this great big building that's going to waste.' Massport put it into that condition, then came back as a savior -- they're going to remodel it. But [before the takeover] they wouldn't fix the plumbing. If you started to argue, they'd call the board of health."

* The Decline of Fish Pier

These days, the Boston fish auction takes place weekday mornings at 6:30, in a cramped and none-too-glamorous room in the east pier building. Every few days a ship or two lands, and its catch is auctioned off in 1,000-pound lots. On most other days, the fish arrive by refrigerated truck, perhaps from New Bedford, now the region's largest commercial port by far. Half the value of all landings in Massachusetts come through that old whaling town. All told, Fish Pier is a far cry from its heyday six decades ago. In 1936, the pier was port of entry for 339 million pounds of fresh seafood. In the early 1990s, that number had fallen off to about 16 million pounds, with as much again trucked from other ports. Last year, landings languished at less than 9 million pounds, a mere three percent of their former glory.

Yet if you speak with Gerri Frattollilo, since 1985 the stern-willed president of the New England Fish Exchange, there is reason for hope. Frattollilo came up from the bottom rung, having started at the auction as a switchboard operator nearly 40 years ago. Today, just off the exchange floor, she sits in Spartan circumstances that recall the humble beginnings.

Frattollilo interrupts the conversation to take a phone call. (The auction ended hours ago, but sales -- in cents a pound -- continue.) "We have cod-scrod 86, scrod-haddock 86, medium hake 50, small hake 35, cusk 35, catfish a quarter, small gray 61. No, they scratched the haddock, they scratched the markets. I knew it." Her voice reflects the weariness of a long and so far very uncertain campaign.

"Fish Pier could be saved," Frattollilo asserts flatly, turning back to the conversation, but even so, she notes, it's probably only half what it was when she came here in the early 1960s. One reason for the decline is that, as the waterfront has been developed over the past two decades, the marine infrastructure has been forced to make way for more profitable enterprises. As a result, says Jimmy Bramante, Tory Bramante's uncle and the operator of two fishing boats, "there isn't a vessel repair facility, or anything [like one]" nearby. He says that the last one, an aging shipyard over in Charlestown, closed three years ago. Now, if a hull needs a patch, or an engine an overhaul, you have to take your boat to Gloucester, New Bedford, or Providence. As do others on the pier, Jimmy Bramante blames Massport for allowing this to happen.

* A Case For Fish Pier

Industry experts say that the issue for Fish Pier is twofold: how its small enterprises can fit into, or supplement, the city's much larger fish processing and distribution operation, and how the pier can be integrated into development of the South Boston Seaport District. The discussion has just begun.

The Conservation Law Foundation has taken an interest in the pier, for both these reasons. As CLF's Priscilla Brooks, puts it, "Fish Pier has been a symbol of New England's fishing heritage for nearly a century. It continues to provide a crucial opportunity for local fishing boats to land their catches directly into Boston, and to receive the highest prices."

Fish and seafood landed elsewhere in the region often get trucked to Boston for processing and distribution, just as small buyers from as far away as New Hampshire and Vermont head to the city once or twice a week to purchase it. As Brooks points out, "Boston is New England's largest market for seafood."

Her recently published study, Taking Stock: A Critical Review of New England's Living Marine Resources Economy, catalogues the continuing importance of the regional seafood industry, and suggests that the industry's recent decline could be reversed through careful management of fish stocks. The study concludes: Were all the region's overexploited commercial fisheries operated on a sustainable basis, in the long term, their productivity would quadruple -- pumping an additional $461 million per year into the New England economy. Brooks also thinks it makes sense for CLF, which for years has sought ways to control overfishing, to become an advocate for the shore-based infrastructure that will be needed to handle the full capacity of a sensibly managed resource.

On the land side, the issue is how to keep waterfront activities on the waterfront. This is required by state law, although that law, Chapter 91, does not mandate any particular uses (hence, perhaps, the reference to yacht berthing in the renovated Fish Exchange building's marketing brochure). Yet a working waterfront -- with emphasis on "working" -- has been a key concern for harbor advocates.

"We're not talking about a sanitized place like Back Bay, but a place on the water," says Vivian Li, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Harbor Association. "If the waterfront were to be just offices, it could be anywhere. We're talking about people who live on the water and like those saltwater smells -- who think that it's funky, that it's quirky."

Fish Pier sits on a sort of urban frontier. It's just a few doors down the waterfront from Fan Pier, site of the new federal courthouse and the subject of an ongoing, massive development scheme that is tilting decidedly toward upscale offices, hotels, and condominiums. It's right across the slip from Boston's World Trade Center, and adjacent to a hotel and office complex, the leading edge of the urban wedge.

CLF attorney Seth Kaplan is helping to advocate continuing with Fish Pier's traditional role. His task is to make a persuasive case for hanging on to an industrial island that sits in the shadow of Boston's burgeoning commercial downtown.

Kaplan notes, "In much the same way that efforts to revitalize urban residential neighborhoods should respect existing residents and communities, we must be careful not to wash away the seafaring and marine heritage of the waterfront as it is developed. Sane and sustainable development means retaining and building our current infrastructure, not starting over from scratch elsewhere. And it means avoiding unneeded energy use and pollution, by putting the resources near to the people who need them."

To calibrate this vision, it helps to know how Fish Pier fits into Boston's substantial fishing industry, and to consider what other cities have done to keep fishing and other urban uses together. A key point is that Boston is home to two fishing industries.

* Boston's Two Fishing Industries

The first is international in scope, and draws product from all over the world. When cod are scarce on Georges Bank, millions of dollars' worth may be flown in fresh from Iceland. Fish processed in Boston, whether from the Gulf of Maine or the Gulf of Mexico, gets shipped to consumers as far away as Florida and California., Inc. is a Bedford-based firm that provides daily industry news and helps distributors sell seafood online; the company's website calls it, "a seller-centric vertical seafood industry exchange and market information service."

According to president, John Sackton, New England fish stocks account for less than 5% of the product handled by Boston's major distributors. He says that while other sectors of the industry are struggling, the availability of wholesaling and distribution jobs in Boston has increased markedly. A recent study by University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth economist Daniel Georgianna backs this up. The study cites data showing that, while only 10 % of New England's groundfish were brought to port in Boston, the city produced half of the region's fish fillets.

One interesting feature of Boston's fish industry is that much, if not most, of the catch processed here travels in and out of town like many a more sophisticated traveler, through Massport's flagship facility -- Logan International Airport. According to an agency spokesperson, fish and fish products are among the top five product lines that pass through the airport.

In theory, much of this fish processing could be done anywhere, or at least anywhere near a major international airport, but the fact is that it has flourished in Boston, probably due to Fish Pier's historic prominence. In turn, the city has developed a worldwide reputation for fresh, frozen, and processed fish and seafood, whether from New England or elsewhere.

In this country, Boston's only peers in seafood marketing are New York, Miami, and Seattle, according to Ken Coons, executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Association (NEFDA), a regional industry trade group. Coons says, "Fresh seafood is a global business, like produce and flowers."

Boston's second fishing industry, focused on Fish Pier, is mostly local, and very much a minnow compared to its neighbors in the Marine Industrial Park, the North Jetty (a new development that some pier companies fear represents Massport's long-term strategy to relocate them elsewhere), and the farther reaches of the commercial waterfront. Although a significant percentage of fish going through the Boston auction arrives by truck, most of the product handled by Fish Pier's 25 firms is regional in origin. Much is also regional in destination. In fact, much is consumed right in Boston.

This difference in scale suggests an argument for retaining Fish Pier as it is.'s Sackton frames the question in economic terms: "Boston and New England have major fish resources on Georges Bank. What is the best way to maximize the value of those resources?"

NEFDA's Coons points out that Boston's seafood industry is very complex. It actually consists of several somewhat different enterprises. Sackton and CLF's Brooks argue that Fish Pier's survival critically depends on rediscovering and focusing on one of them -- its niche in the local dining scene. Fish Pier is currently Boston's only accessible landing area. Virtually all fresh fish brought into the city by boat is landed there. The catch arrives at the back doors of processing and distributing businesses that can immediately fillet and ship it to stores and restaurants across the metropolitan area.

Americans consume about 15 pounds of commercial seafood per capita each year, a level that has remained stable for the past decade, and they prefer it very fresh. New England consumers prefer fresh, native New England species -- scallops, lobster, cod, haddock, and sole -- a fisherman's platter of favorites. But hardly anyone else seems to. Sackton says that with the exception of the Chicago area, seafood from Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine lose its appeal outside New England. In other words, Cape Cod is here, and Pompano Beach is there.

The fresh fish business is risky. As UMass.-Dartmouth's Georgianna writes, "Fresh fishery products are marketed under extreme time pressure and with incomplete information. The products must be sold within a week to ten days to final users, who are very concerned about product quality.... Buyers take serious risks with their suppliers, expecting high quality product delivered on time.... To avoid risk, customer loyalty develops between processors, their suppliers, and their buyers."

* Fish Pier Loyalists

Cheryl Williams is an example of that loyalty. Early each weekday morning, she drives her empty pickup truck down Boston's Northern Avenue to the waterfront. A few hours later, she's back at her shop on Cambridge's Huron Avenue, The Fishmonger, with a selection of hand-chosen, ultra-fresh fish -- only what she expects to sell by closing time.

Williams says the advantage of being able topurchase fresh fish right on the pier is that "you can pick out whole fish -- especially in bigger categories like swordfish and tuna, which can vary a lot [in quality]."

Listen to Jasper White, one of Boston's elite chefs, whose latest venture, a lively seafood restaurant known as Jasper White's Summer Shack, opened last year in Cambridge's Alewife neighborhood. White is one of Fish Pier's biggest fans; he wrote the introduction to a facsimile edition of The 1913 Boston Fish Pier Seafood Recipe Cook Book, published five years ago.

White is outspoken about the need to preserve Fish Pier, and to preserve it as is, barnacles and all -- not as another Faneuil Hall. He grants that the Boston Fish Exchange auction has ebbed considerably in significance, but if it were left up to him, he says, "I'd have the state fix up [the pier] and give it back to the fishermen as a working pier.... It has color, and everything a city should have. When I want to show the city to chefs from out of town, I take them to Fish Pier for a flavor of what Boston is."

What Boston is: that gets to the core of Fish Pier's essential value. Robert F. Goodwin teaches marine affairs at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and he has studied major urban ports across the nation, particularly those in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and New York, ports that in one way or another attempt to weave a working maritime industry into a thriving terrestrial cityscape. He says that among the key questions everywhere are: How much funkiness can tourists take? And how many landlubbers can long-liners tolerate?

The answer is unknown, but Goodwin has seen places where sea and land work together in harmony. Seattle, for instance, has put in place what he terms "policies and practices that deliberately attempt to preserve a maritime presence on the waterfront." Although many years have passed since commercial fish were landed downtown, the waterfront there includes a cruise ship terminal, temporary mooring for visiting vessels, and a large retail fish market. In fact, whenever piers are remodeled, they must continue to accommodate ships.

But the thing that's missing now is the answer to a troubling question: What will Massport decide to do?

Agency spokesperson Georgeanne Tacelli insists that "Fish Pier will continue to be a significant maritime resource to Massport." The harbor association's Vivian Li is no less optimistic. She sees an ally in Massport's Virginia Buckingham.

But NEFDA's Ken Coons is far less sanguine. As he says, "The area is rapidly changing, and suits are replacing fishing boats. The current tenants know that they will eventually be displaced, as leases expire."

If that happens, says Jasper White, "I'm never going down there again ..."

Over the summer, CLF filed formal document requests aimed at forcing Massport to disclose its plans for Fish Pier.

Jimmy Bramante, the fishing boat operator, is gearing up for battle. As he puts it, "You know, we have a saying in Italian. `You put one nut in a bag, and it doesn't make any noise. But put two, three, four nuts in there, and they can make quite a racket.'

"You never know what you lost till you lose it. You know what I mean?"

Rusty Russell, a writer based in Cambridge, Mass., teaches environmental law and policy at several Boston-area universities.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Conservation Law Foundation
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Author:Russell, Rusty
Publication:Conservation Matters
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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