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

  • ISBN13:


  • ISBN10:


  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-03-10
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • Purchase Benefits
List Price: $15.00


The bestselling author ofCod,Salt, andThe Big Oysterhas 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: fishinghow 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 boatthe schoonerthe 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 Taleis 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." From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

The First Gloucester Story

From hence doth stretch into the sea the fair headland Tragabigzanda fronted with three isles called the Three Turks’ Heads.

—John Smith,
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 Îles, 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.

According to his immodest but generally accurate journals, Smith showed great cunning and courage and was rapidly promoted to the rank of captain, but then was captured by the Turks, who sent him into slavery in Turkey. There he found himself owned by an aristocratic woman whom he called “the young Charatza Tragabigzanda.” According to Smith, her name meant “girl from Trebizond.” Smith and his “fair mistress,” as he put it, developed some kind of friendship and it seemed a happy time until she gave him to her brother. The exact nature of Smith’s relationship with his fair mistress is unclear, but throughout his life he would be rescued and befriended by young women of social standing. Many historians believe that Tragabigzanda had sent him to her brother to learn their language and customs—she had communicated with Smith in Italian—and that her plan was then to marry him. But Smith either did not understand or did not think much of this plan. He murdered her brother and escaped, traveling by horse to the Ukraine, then Poland, and on to Western Europe.

colonialism was the great opportunity for young English adventurers of the early seventeenth century. There were no traditions and few rules, and a resourceful young man could invent as he went along. Smith was personally involved in the two most important British colonies in North America, Virginia and Massachusetts. At the time, Virginia was seen as the more promising and it was the one that attracted sponsors and investors. But Smith believed that New England had better prospects for the future. The reason for this, he argued, was its wealth of fish. Smith maintained that New England fish were a natural resource worth more than gold. “The sea is better than the richest mine known,” he wrote.

This stance was surprising in an age of exploration dominated by highborn men who considered themselves above such activities as fishing and bringing fish to market. The traditional source of wealth for the great men of the Age of Exploration was gold.

It was his 1614 voyage that had convinced Smith of the importance of fishing. Having never been a man of affluence, one of the goals of his voyage was to somehow get rich. He had hoped to find gold but could find none. He then tried whaling, but did not encounter a suitable species. The only thing left was fishing, an activity he despised. So he ordered his men to go fishing, while he had himself and a crew lowered in a small boat to begin charting the coast, an activity he had developed a great fondness for in the Chesapeake. The little boat would move into every inlet and measure its nooks and turns, sounding depths so that their value for future ships would be documented.

Smith charted the coastline with great accuracy from the mouth of the Kennebec in Maine to Cape Cod and tried to name everything as he went. The British had simply referred to the area as part of Virginia, and it was Smith who gave it the name New England. But less successful were some of his other names. The island off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that he dubbed Smyth’s Iles—his creative spelling, farfetched even for its day, would become infamous among latter historians—is today the Isles of Shoals. His name for the granite- studded peninsula, today Cape Ann, was Tragabigzanda, and he called the three islands the Three Turks’ Heads in remembrance of three Turks whom he beheaded in duels six months before his capture.

Along the way, always looking for a little profit, he picked up fur pelts. He identified and sounded twenty-five “excellent good harbors,” but for reasons that are not clear he neglected to sound the harbor on the tip of Tragabigzanda, perhaps because Champlain had already done so. He did name the points along the tip of the coast including Halibut Point, which still bears the name, though while it is known as an excellent spot for catching striped bass and sometimes bluefish, there is no record of its ever being a place to land halibut.

Smith returned to Europe not only with his charts but also with seven thousand “green cod,” or salted fish, and forty thousand stockfish, or dried cod, that his men had landed off of Monhegan Island in southern Maine. England had recently opened trade with Europe and Smith was able to sell the fish in Málaga, where the price was high. Málaga also had a slave market, where he was able to sell twenty- seven locals whom he had lured onto his ship in New England.

The slave sale did not receive wide attention, but the reputed fortune he made on the fish became legendary. Some years later Massachusetts Governor William Bradford heard that it had been 60,000 fish, a fish tale. The fish, the map, the name New England—all made a strong impression back in England. In fact, it was this story combined with Smith’s map that convinced the exiled Pilgrims in Holland to start their colony in Smith’s New England.

It was not a moment too soon, according to Smith. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while explorers were searching for gold and spice routes, fortunes were being made on fishing, especially fishing cod. France and England were to fight repeated wars to secure control of North America’s fish.

In an age without refrigeration, the fish that was eaten by most people was salt cured. Cod, a large and plentiful fish with white, flaky flesh, a high degree of protein, and almost no fat, was considered the best fish to salt cure. Sixty percent of the fish eaten in Europe was salt-cured cod.

Since mariners did not know how to measure longitude, it was difficult to measure east-to-west progress on Atlantic crossings. Latitude, on the other hand, was easily fixed by the stars and so sailors knew where they were from north to south. So the easiest way to cross the Atlantic was to pick up a wind, fix the latitude, and stay on it, which was called “westing” and “easting.” The French wested to Nova Scotia and the English to Newfoundland and Labrador. Only the Basques and the Portuguese could have wested to New England. But they didn’t, perhaps because the Basques while pursuing whales had by chance discovered the more northerly cod grounds years earlier.

Europeans had been fixed on fishing in northern latitudes, but by the second decade of the seventeenth century, this was changing. As the fishing moved south Europeans discovered a basic truth of marine life. While cold waters are richer in nutrients, and therefore have more plentiful and more desirable fish species, these species grow faster and larger in the southern part of their range. The southern part of the range of the Atlantic cod is New England.

In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold, an Englishman who worked with Smith a few years later in establishing a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, crossed the Atlantic in search of the by-then old and often disproved theory that there was a westward passage to China. It is extraordinary how much evidence it took to convince Europeans that North America was very large and in the way. Realizing that there was no route to China around Nova Scotia, Gosnold followed the coastline south as far as Narragansett Bay. Along the way he noted not only the plentitude of cod—he said they constantly “pestered” his vessel, which may be another fish story—but also that the schools swam in more shallow water, closer to shore, and that the fish were far bigger than those to the north. He renamed the peninsula that the Italian, Giovanni da Verazzano, had named Pallavisino after an Italian general. Gosnold called it Cape Cod, and that was one name Smith did not try to change.

The following year fish merchants in Bristol sent out two vessels to confirm Gosnold’s findings and their commander, Martin Pring, concurred that the fishing in New England was better than in Newfoundland and that there was an abundance of rocky coastline, ideally suited for laying out salted fish to dry in the sun.

But meanwhile the French in Nova Scotia were also mov-ing down the coast, enticed by impressive catches landed by Basques from St. Jean- de-Luz. Smith wanted to make more voyages to New England. On the second voyage he planned to establish a settlement but failed to reach New England; in his third attempt in 1615 he was captured by French pirates, escaped, returned to England where he settled down and wrote books, and never crossed the Atlantic again.

And so it was an important step for the English when, in 1620, a group of religious fanatics—Smith’s map in hand—set sail, not for Virginia as is often said but for “Northern Virginia,” for John Smith’s New England, and specifically for a place called Cape Cod, where they would build their religious colony and support it with fishing. Because Smith had overlooked Gloucester Harbor, or maybe just because one peninsula was called Cape Cod and the other Tragabigzanda, settlement began in Plymouth, on Cape Cod and not in Gloucester. It was becoming clear that to promote the new lands, having the right name was critical.

As they crossed the Atlantic, there were several things the Pilgrims did not know. One was how to fish. Another was that a monopoly on New England fishing had been decreed that, if enforced, would stop them from fishing. Had the long-argued measure been passed a few months earlier, the Pilgrims might have gone somewhere else, denying the English their first real foothold in New England.

Earlier attempts by the English to settle New England had failed. In 1607, English settlers in Maine had built New England’s first transatlantic vessel, which they used to flee their settlement for England, declaring New England uninhabitable. In the first decade there was a great deal of discussion about whether “over-cold” New England was habitable at all.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town by Mark Kurlansky
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Rewards Program

Reviews for Last Fish Tale : The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town (9780345487285)