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Reworking the port

Gloucester isn’t about to abandon its maritime focus - just update it

Gloucester’s marine economy includes (above) Rose’s Marine Service, said to be one of the busiest such facilities in the Northeast. Gloucester’s marine economy includes (above) Rose’s Marine Service, said to be one of the busiest such facilities in the Northeast. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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The business of fishing is holy in Gloucester, and the heart of the industry sits at the mouth of the Atlantic in Cape Ann. Here, where nearly everyone has either lost a relative at sea or known someone who perished there, officials took steps about 25 years ago to keep Gloucester Harbor as a working port, designating the area for maritime use while excluding the construction of condos and marinas.

So over the last decade, even as the fishing industry nearly collapsed after tough regulations were implemented to rebuild stocks like cod, flounder, and haddock, the harbor has retained its gritty look. But with nearly half of the harborfront underutilized and numerous piers rotted or falling into the ocean, the city is looking not to abandon its working harbor approach, but to update it for the 21st century.

Its plan: to bring a new generation of Atlantic-oriented business into town - an ocean technology cluster, if you will - to bring in a new flow of revenue.

The city could certainly use the money, more than $200 million of it to rebuild schools and roads and repair its water and sewer system. As things now stand, less than 1 percent of the city’s tax base - around $750,000 - comes from harborfront property taxes. And while federal and city officials say fishing stocks will return in a few years, Gloucester lost 21 fishing boats last year and its once-proud fleet of hundreds of vessels is now down to 75.

Hoping to stimulate interest in the empty waterfront properties, the city will hold a two-day maritime industry gathering next month. The conference will be organized by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and is being funded by a federal grant of $45,000. Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said the conference goal will be to reach a consensus regarding the best types of new maritime businesses to attract to the harbor.

“We need jobs and investment on the working waterfront. That is the bottom line for the city,’’ said Kirk, who added that diversifying the harbor’s economy would be compatible with the fishing industry, which she said would always be the port’s focal point. Still, she is hoping that a new “niche’’ maritime industry puts down roots and invests in the city. Kirk wants to usher in a burst of economic activity that would include universities, biotech companies that create drugs from ocean research, ocean scientists, aquaculture, “green’’ boatbuilders, and other companies that support the local fishing industry.

“Reinventing Gloucester as a prestigious maritime center is much harder to do than to attract tourists and open up shops and have condos. And, in true Gloucester fashion, we’re taking the hard route,’’ she said. “The working waterfront is what resonates with the community and what makes Gloucester authentic.’’

Jack Wiggin, director of the Urban Harbors Institute at UMass-Boston, believes the city has to properly market its greatest natural resource, a centuries-old, natural deepwater harbor that he says is ripe for academic institutes that generate research used to spin off new businesses. He said one model for marketing the city is to list available waterfront properties, provide demographic information about the city’s residents and workforce, and also detail infrastructure support, such as tax breaks, that Gloucester could offer new businesses.

Research institutes are not new in the city. The former Bureau of National Fisheries was located in Gloucester and conducted some of the first exploratory cruises into the Atlantic from research vessels that left the harbor. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a scientific agency focused on the condition of the air and the oceans, has offices in the city. And colleges such as University of Massachusetts Amherst have had research facilities in the city for decades.

“The potential is phenomenal,’’ said Molly Lutcavage, who directs UMass-Amherst’s Large Pelagics Research Center. The Gloucester facility works with local fishermen to conduct research on bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, swordfish, and leatherback sea turtles. “I think the new focus for the Gloucester waterfront cannot just be fishery science, but ocean exploration and new approaches to ocean energy.’’

In 2008, the whale research institute Ocean Alliance bought a cluster of old brick factory buildings known as the Paint Factory for $2 million. The nonprofit, which focuses on the effect contaminants have on whales, is spending $8 million more to renovate and outfit the site with state-of-the-art machinery.

“I think we’re the first wave of ocean innovators that will be coming to the area,’’ said Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance’s chief executive officer. “I think as we look to the future, as we look to new drugs and alternate sources of energy - whether it be wave power, wind power, or ocean currents - the ocean is an emerging new frontier.’’

Ann Molloy, who co-owns Neptune’s Harvest, a wholesale fish and seafood firm, believes existing fishing businesses on the water need to diversify. The harbor business has been in her family for more than a century.

Until the early 1980s, just 30 percent of the fish the firm was filleting was edible, and the gurry - the head, bones and skin - was dumped at sea. That’s when her family stumbled upon a way to expand their business.

Turning to UMass-Amherst researchers in the city, they established a way to grind the remains of the fish into organic liquid fertilizer. Each day, the company grinds at least five tons of fish and bottles the liquid, which is then packed in 4,500-gallon tanker trucks and shipped to farms throughout the country.

“The North Atlantic is the perfect source for nutrients, and if we had the right researchers here a number of products could be developed,’’ said Molloy.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.