Air Date: Week of July 30, 1999
Our ongoing series on the nation's oldest fishing port continues with a story of pollock and politics. Producer Sandy Tolan describes what happened when a Russian freighter came to port, and an anonymous tip to customs officials scuttled Gloucester's plans to make fish fillets for McDonald's.
CURWOOD: In Gloucester, Massachusetts, folks who still go to sea in their ships insist the fish are coming back. They point to increased investment on the waterfront, including a new fish auction that has spurred Gloucester's landings. But for others, maintaining a working port that isn't about gambling boats or whale watches remains a challenge. To keep the city in fish, even some of the more creative ideas face formidable obstacles. This is the story of one such endeavor, a Russian freighter that came to Gloucester, and how grand plans for the ship's cargo ran aground in America's oldest seaport. Sandy Tolan has the latest installment in our ongoing series, Gloucester at the Crossroads.
(Surf and gulls)
TOLAN: A few months ago, a great steel vessel steamed into Gloucester harbor. It dropped an anchor just inside the long stone finger called the Dogbar breakwater. No Gloucester captain stood at the wheel. There was no fresh cod in the hold. And the boat was not returning from the fishing grounds at nearby Georges Bank. It was the Granitny Barig, a 400-foot Russian freighter arriving from the Pacific via the Panama Canal. For two weeks it floated out there, a mile from the waterfront, cold, silent, lights ablaze. Its cargo: seven million pounds of fish. Frozen pollock from half a world away. To longshoreman Jack McKinnon, the sight of the Granitny Barig floating a mile offshore was like an old photograph of better days in Gloucester harbor.
(Humming, a man shouts)
McKINNON: It was all sorts of activity. A couple of 350-foot frozen fish vessels, 400-foot frozen fish vessels being loaded or unloaded, primarily discharged. And you may have anywhere from five to 30 or 40 fresh fish vessels being unloaded at this same day also. That was the real heyday.
TOLAN: Thirty years ago freighters called on Gloucester nearly every day, bringing frozen fish to the processing plants along the waterfront. But that was before fish stocks started to collapse along the New England coast, up in Newfoundland, down in South America. And suddenly, says local stevedore Frank Elliot, Gloucester had to reach much further.
ELLIOT: The factories located here located for one purpose, and that was to be close to the North Atlantic groundfish. We don't have any more of that now, and so they source their product in the North Pacific, where there's an abundance of pollock. Getting that raw product to these factories here in Gloucester in an efficient manner was the goal of bringing that Russian vessel into Gloucester.
TOLAN: Frank Elliot has been trying to hustle new activity on the waterfront. A few years ago he tried to bring in a giant factory trawler to catch herring, but people here rejected that scheme because almost all the profits would have gone to Dutch investors. Last year he let a gambling ship tie up on this pier, and got on the wrong side of the mayor. Then a few months ago, he got a call from a fish dealer in Seattle.
ELLIOT: Saying, can you offload a vessel in Gloucester with Russian pollock? I said sure I can.
TOLAN: It was a good idea, Mr. Elliot thought. Bringing the fish in by boat would reduce shipping costs, lower the price to processors, and inject life into Gloucester's struggling waterfront. But the fish dealer said the boat was a big one, a lot bigger than what Gloucester was used to handling.
ELLIOT: I said, well, it's too deep to get into the harbor. The harbor's 22 feet deep and you've got a 30-foot ship.
TOLAN: So Frank Elliot bought an old Boston fireworks barge, and converted it into a freezer container.
ELLIOT: To offload the ship out in the harbor, where the water was deeper, and then bring the barge ashore to the cold storage and offload the barge into the cold storage.
TOLAN: After the Granitky Barig dropped anchor in Gloucester Harbor, a crew of longshoremen ferried out on the barge to bring pallets of frozen fish back here, to a giant freezer on the waterfront.
TOLAN: This load was scheduled to go up the street to Gorton's, the frozen fish factory that would saw up the 16-pound blocks of fish, coat them in batter, and ship them as fillets to McDonald's restaurants across the eastern US. For two weeks the old fireworks barge ferried out to the Russian ship and towed the frozen blocks of pollock back to shore. Everything was proceeding on schedule.
TOBY: And then things start to go awry.
TOLAN: That's the Mayor of Gloucester, Bruce Tobey.
TOBEY: Someone, God knows who, drops a dime that lo and behold, this fish ain't what it's been made out to be.
TOLAN: It was an anonymous call to US customs officials, informing them that the fish was not loaded onto the Granitky Barig at a port in Russia, as US law requires, but instead transferred illegally onto the ship on the high seas.
TOBEY: And then, without ever hitting landfall, came to Gloucester. That may seem a distinction that doesn't make a difference. Well, it does.
TOLAN: Turns out the high seas transfer was a violation of the Nicholson Act, a relatively obscure law that is seldom invoked. Customs officials went out to the Russian boat to investigate the tip. A few hours later they gave Frank Elliot and Gloucester the bad news: the fish was illegal. It could not be delivered to the processing plant.
ELLIOT: He said you have a choice: export it out of the country or dump it. They literally said take almost eight million pounds of fish to the dump and dump it. Now, this is ridiculous.
TOLAN: Furious, Frank Elliot called his congressman. He called his senators. A frustrated Mayor Toby got on the phone to the White House and laid out the problem.
TOBEY: So we're looking at however many millions of pounds of pollack that Gorton's is one of these days going to need to produce the product it needs, is sitting in a freezer impounded by the United States Customs Service. What the devil are they going to do with the fish?
TOLAN: A few days after the informer called Customs, the Granitny Barig pulled up anchor and left Gloucester, leaving seven million pounds of fish sitting in cold storage, destination unknown.
TOBEY: The fish is in limbo.
TOLAN: Meantime, Jack McKinnon, the old Gloucester longshoreman, was watching the fiasco unfold, shaking his head.
McKINNON: If the vessel was cleared to handle cargo, why is it two weeks later that suddenly we've got a problem? I don't understand that.
TOLAN: Neither did Massachusetts Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. And they demanded an explanation from US Customs. Customs spokesperson Bill Anthony says when his higher-ups learned of the violation, they had no choice.
ANTHONY: We were forced to enforce the law, which is what a law enforcement agency does. And that's why we stopped the shipment.
TOLAN: The blocks of frozen pollock sat in cold storage for weeks, while Frank Elliot and Mayor Tobey considered the options. One choice was to find another buyer overseas, reload the seven million pounds of pollock onto another boat, and send it away. A second option, to take the fish to the dump, was rejected. Mayor Tobey said that idea was the result of some twisted federal bureaucratic mind. But he didn't like the third option much better.
TOBEY: You know, there's been talk about maybe you take the fish and you put it back on a freighter, bring it to Canada, and then you truck it back down here. Now, that is so fundamentally stupid, that I don't know where to begin.
TOLAN: But that ultimately is what happened. Seven million pounds of fish, pulled out of a freezer, put on trucks and shipped to Canada, imported into the United States again, and sent back to the same freezer in Gloucester. It awaits transportation to the fish factory, where it will finally be cut up into McDonald's Filet O' Fish. Frank Elliot says he's learned his lesson.
ELLIOT: I would never, ever, bring a freighter into Gloucester again, not with this kind of stuff. I think all of us are just absolutely fit to be tied. We did exactly what Customs said, and they screwed everybody.
TOLAN: For some, the whole debacle amounted to kicking Gloucester when it's down, a symbol of how hard it is to get things going on the waterfront. Longshoreman Jack McKinnon.
McKINNON: It just was a glimmer of hope. Once again, the hopes were dashed, just like the fishermen are dealing with. All these closures and all these regulations and these trip limits. It's just such a struggle, and it's a way of life that we just don't want to give up. And it's just hard to let it go.
TOLAN: To keep this in perspective, this little tale of pollock and politics does not spell the end for Gloucester. There is hope that the North Atlantic fish stocks will rebound, and that a working waterfront will be here when they do. This wasn't a crushing blow to Gloucester's economy, either. It might have meant 35 jobs. But Gloucester's modest gain would have come at someone else's expense. Canadian truckers would have stood to lose, and speculation on the anonymous tip to customs centers there. But it could have been any number of people. Customs officials won't reveal the identity of the caller. Like reporters, they're protecting their source.
(Surf and foghorn)
TOLAN: And so, the little story about the frozen blocks of fish from halfway around the world ends, the same way many mornings on Gloucester Harbor begin: cloaked in fog.
(Surf and foghorn)
TOLAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Sandy Tolan in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
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