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The History of Gloucester Fishing

 

Published April 7, 1923

Short Essays of Gloucester History

The Fisheries of Gloucester

The beginning of the fisheries in Gloucester, which are noted the world over, was coincident with the first settlement of the place, in 1623, when part of the crew of an English fishing craft were left here after the vessel had completed her fishing season and sailed for Spain to market her salted fish fare. We know that the same draft, with another, came the next year and that they made unsuccessful voyages, but this time leaving 32 instead of 14 men. In this year, the Plymouth Colony also sent over a fishing craft and built Gloucester’s first fishing wharf, or "stage", as it was then called.

The fisheries, with Gloucester as a base, were continued by a few vessels from England in 1625 and then abandoned; but tradition tells us that the few settlers who remained continued to fish and that, in 1630 or 1631, settlers from Salem landed at what is now Annisquam, erected a "stage", and began fishing operations. Later we learn that fishing in a small way was carried on at what is now the Harbor; but it seems almost certain that not until between 1680 and 1700 did Gloucester’s fisheries begin to reach a volume which might allow them to be called an industry.

We do know that the entire fleet in 1693 comprised six sloops, one boat, and one shallop; that fishing was continued to favorable spots close to shore. It has always seemed to me that the advent of the schooner type of craft, in 1713, marked the beginning of the pursuit of the fisheries and the town’s leading business. Of course, you know that sloops, ketches, and shallops were small craft open or only partly decked over. These fishing sloops were gradually built larger and ventured farther from home for fish fares. Before 1729 we find some of this class engaged in the "distant" fisheries, and as early as 1711 our fishermen were found as far as Cape Sable, Nova Scotia.

The first fishing schooner was built in 1713 by Capt. Andrew Robinson. As she left the launching ways, a spectator cried, "See how she scoons!" At which Capt. Robinson shouted, "A schooner let her be!" These schooners were unwieldy, lumbering looking craft as compared with the trim, speedy vessels of today. In reality, the difference between the first schooner and the lug sloops was more in the rig and sails than in hull design. Many more schooners were quickly built, so that by 1741 about 70 of these craft, of about 50 tons burden, were fishing each summer on the far-off Grand Bank of Newfoundland. In those day, and indeed, for many years to come, the crews fished with hook and line. Each man kept account of the number of fish he caught and profited accordingly. The shore fishery at this period was still continued by sloops and other small craft.

In the period around 1750 and 1760, the fisheries were being prosecuted with vigor and success, and from that time to the beginning of the Revolutionary War, we find Gloucester fishermen in the winter months freighting these summer catches of codfish (salted) to the ports of Lisbon, Bilboa, Cadiz, and also the West Indies islands. Sandy Bay, now Rockport, was the headquarters of the shore fishery, with the Harbor sending out the big bankers, while ‘Squam had both bankers and shore boats. Just before the Revolution, these bankers, the largest craft of the fleet, were valued at $1,000 each, and the town boasted a fleet of 80 of them, beside 70 shore boats. Today a new fishing vessel costs about $30,000, if not more, without the engine. Some difference! It should be noted that as a class the fishermen were poor; though then, as in the following years, down to recent times, some who began on the vessel’s deck rose to command, and later to own fleets and take places among our leading citizens and business men.

The Revolution put a stop to fishing, except by a few boats close in shore, whose catches went for needed home consumption. In this fishery were engaged the "Chebacco" boats, so-called because they were built at Essex. Several of the larger bankers fitted out as privateers. Some rotted at the wharves, and some others, well cared for, were preserved until peace again made it safe to engage in the Grand Bank fishery. After the war, the fisheries struck another snag. The town’s merchants found there was more money in foreign commerce. In consequence the Grand Bank branch of the industry declined so rapidly that in 1804 the total number of vessels over 30 toms, owned in the town and engaged in the fisheries was only eight. In 1820 this great fishery was considered totally extinct and for 30 years thereafter was of little account in the business of the town. However, about 1860 increased demand for fish and higher prices induced many of the merchants again to engage in it. Trawls succeeded handlines in this fishery, which up to a few years ago was the main codfish source of supply to this port.

From 1800 to 1830, while the Grand Banks fishery was practically abandoned, the shore fishery was vigorously prosecuted. Then about 200 Chebacco boats, manned by 600 men, were engaged. These boats resorted tot he shoal grounds and ledges near the coast, where at different seasons they found cod, hake, and pollock. This fishery was chiefly carried on at Sandy Bay, Annisquam, and other coves on the back side of the Cape, but the advantages of a good harbor for their large boats drew some of the fishermen away from these localities to settle at the Harbor soon after 1800. An increase in the size of the boats soon took place. By 1810 several pink-stern schooners, or "jiggers", as they were sometimes called, were employed in the business. This type, with its high, sharp, pinched-in stern, easier bilge, and somewhat sharper bow, was a distinct improvement over the early banker modes, proving not only more speedy but more seaworthy. This shore fishery was at its height about 1832, the tonnage engaged reaching the large figure of 6,463 tons, and the men employed 800. From then on it declined, being pursued only in the winter time, until today the fleet engaged form this port is small indeed.

About 1820 fishing for mackerel began to increase. These fish were found in great plenty in waters close at had, and soon mackerel fishing became the principal fishery of the port. For several seasons it was followed with marked success. Some idea of its proportions may be gleaned form the fact that in 1831 the catch of this town alone, 69,759 salted barrels, was greater than the whole New England catch in any one year since 1917, and perhaps even further back than that date.

 

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