BOSTON, Massachusetts, US — Sefatia Romeo Theken, the mayor of nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts, warns the roughly 70 Seafood Expos North America (SENA) attendees who jam into an upstairs room for her group’s tasting reception that she is hard to say “no” to. Then she proves it by telling everyone to try the monkfish-stuffed rice balls known as arancini.
Despite the ghastly appearance of the fish, everybody puts it in their mouth. Turns out the monkfish is much better than expected and people grab seconds.
“Everybody wants haddock, which is fine, but there are other fish in the sea,” Theken says, as she demonstrates how a fresh-caught monkfish has no odor by having attendees smell her hands.
Theken is the star of “Gloucester Fresh”, a successful, four-year effort to renew interest in the many unique species landed in the New England port town, including monkfish, by taking a sea-to-table grassroots marketing approach. The group made headlines in early 2016 when it announced that the Boston-based chain 99 Restaurants, which really has 106 locations in seven northeastern states, agreed to take more than 5,100 orders a week of the fresh, not frozen, Gloucester-sourced seafood products.
At about the same time the White House Rural Council and six federal agencies announced that it had picked Gloucester as one of 27 communities to participate in its “Local Foods, Local Places” initiative.
The Gloucester Fresh campaign hasn’t had an announcement of such magnitude since and the 99 Restaurant chain was forced to find another processor after the Mazzetta Company-owned subsidiary Gloucester Seafood Processing experienced a large number of layoffs and closed down. But, the momentum has not been lost, assured Mark Ring, chairman of the City of Gloucester Fisheries Commission (CGFC), which dreamed up the idea of Gloucester Fresh along with the city’s office of economic development.
The marketing effort “came out of the gate when we first started it with such a big push that we didn’t really expect and all of a sudden you have all of those restaurants, it was awesome,” said Ring, also a long-time local lobsterman. “Some people might perceive that there has been a lull and question what’s going on, but from the point of getting to other restaurants, it takes time to do the outreach and get the word out.”
Though more recent deals haven’t made headlines, multiple health care systems, including the Boston Medical Center, have also agreed to purchase Gloucester-landed fish, said Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives Association (GFWA), a 135-member group, and another one of the dozen or so hard-working volunteers at the SENA event.
The locally caught fresh fish contains much less of the salt found in many frozen and imported groundfish products, said Ring, who noted that area universities are the next likely targets for promotional efforts.
The beautiful harbor
It doesn’t require a history degree to recognize the significant role Gloucester — pronounced GLOSS-TAH by the locals — has played in commercial fishing for the US.
Gloucester Harbor, called Le Beauport, or the Beautiful Harbor, when it was discovered as a good potential landing spot by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1605, is North America’s oldest active commercial fishing port. It’s the port which claims credit for the invention of fishing schooners, once prolific on the Grand Banks.
Today Gloucester is the US’ 15th largest commercial fishing port by volume of landings and the 18th most valuable, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Fisheries of the United States 2016,” a US commercial fishing yearbook of sorts. It landed 28,576 metric tons of fish worth $52 million in 2016.
Gloucester also is known as the final point of embarkation for the swordfishing boat The Andrea Gail, lost in 1991 along with its six crew members and immortalized later in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, a book made into a movie. The man at the wheel statue in Gloucester Harbor includes their names in its dedication to New England fishermen lost at sea and is perhaps the most iconic of images associated with commercial fishing in the region.
The statue is often confused with the hooded character in the logo used by Gorton’s of Gloucester, the massive seafood processing company that’s called the city home since 1849 though it hasn’t sourced seafood from the local docks since at least the 1960s, sources told Undercurrent.
But the sea gods have not always been kind to Gloucester. A decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2014 to significantly cut the cod quota in New England dealt a crippling blow to the local economy.
Five years ago, before the cut, the port boasted about 50 groundfishing vessels, estimates Al Cottone, a longtime harvester in the area and another CGFC officer. Today there are only about 25 still active, he said.
But Gloucester Fresh is breathing new life into the fishing community, giving the remaining harvesters a better chance to sell other kinds of fish, he said.
Haddock is the most valuable of the finfish landed in Gloucester today, though there are also plenty of herring, mackerel, red fish, tuna and flounder. It is Massachusetts’ best port for lobster, hosting 150 of the state’s 700 active lobster harvesters, according to Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
But when it comes to picking a species to showcase at the Boston SENA show, the Gloucester Fresh group this year has gone with the lesser-known monkfish, referred to by fishermen as “the mother-in-law fish”. In addition to the tasting reception, Theken later used the fish in a cooking demonstration at the group’s booth, making more arancini and also a stew.
“It’s an awesome fish,” Ring said. “All the fish eats is crab and lobster. It’s a very easy fish to use because it holds together for chowder, you can fry it, you can make monkfish picatta. You cut it into medallions. It could be veal. It could be chicken. But it’s fish.”
‘Gloucester is open for business’
Gloucester could be the ideal model for an ocean-to-table marketing effort. Other fishing communities have witnessed what the Gloucester Fresh campaign has done and expressed an interest in learning more, Ring told Undercurrent.
But the city has received a little help, too, including a $151,000 grant from the state’s Seaport Economic Council, which it is still using to pay for area billboards. Clear Channel Outdoor gave Gloucester a big discount on the signs, two of which are digital, asking for roughly half the $20,000 fee it normally would charge.
The group’s leaders also give presentations to chefs, often bringing in harvesters to describe the species and how they’re caught.
The day after the SENA event, the city was to give a tour of its waterfront to some prospective seafood buyers from Scotland and Canada, though a wicked nor’easter storm appears to have had other ideas this week.
So, has all of this effort really made Gloucester’s commercial fishing port more viable?
The volunteers and organizers involved with Gloucester Fresh also answer in the affirmative but none are willing to estimate how much.
“It’s going to take a few years to put a dollar value on it,” Ring told Undercurrent. “The thing is, Gloucester is getting the recognition it deserves. We’ve been a major seafood port for the last 400 years and we haven’t taken advantage of that as a city. But now we have people working for the city who understand the value of Gloucester fresh seafood and we are starting to take advantage of our proximity in the region.
“Gloucester is open for business!”