Anthropology: The Fishing Industry’s Impact on Culture in Massachusetts

When people think about the state of Massachusetts, there are several images that are bound to come to mind. Just hearing the name of the state can call up vivid mental pictures of the picturesque landscapes on the shores of Cape Cod, the hustle and bustle of the capital Boston, or even just a steaming hot bowl of creamy New England style clam chowder. While the most popular (and marketed) towns for tourists in the state (besides Boston) are wealthier coastal towns like Provincetown, Chatham, and Salem, as well as the villages of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, less considered are some of the smaller, less traveled, blue-collar seaside towns. While much of Massachusetts has profited from the tourism, tech, and healthcare industries, there is still a large portion that relies on smaller business ventures. One of the main industries fueling Massachusetts historically was fishing. However, as fishing practices have fluctuated, so have the cultures and demographics in the state.

Fishing history in the Bay State: A brief background

The perfect breeding ground for cod

The main source of Massachusetts’ fishing industry for the past few centuries has been cod. Cod is a versatile and heavy bodied white fish that was historically abundant off of the coast of the state. Though one can find cod in many parts of the Atlantic Ocean, the Massachusetts coast happens to provide the exact geographic circumstances and conditions in which cod breeding grounds can thrive. One reason for this is that as the coast of the state meets the deep ocean, the waters meet a piece of a continental shelf. The shelf forms an underwater bank that influences the temperature and currents to be the perfect conditions for cod. Because the fish was so abundant and hearty, and kept well in salt, it became the target of many fishing companies.

A New England Fisherman holds up a freshly caught cod. (photo by Robert F. Bukaty via AP)

The 1800s

Starting in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, the fishing industry in Massachusetts began a boom. Massachusetts was supplying cod and cod products (like salt cod and cod liver oil) to the rest of the country. While many other parts of the world, and even the country, were facing economic issues, Massachusetts and its economy were thriving. As such, people began to flock to the small state. Immigrants seeking opportunities to work in any part of the fishing industry began to arrive on the shores. While a decent portion of these immigrants were of West Indian, Canadian, and Italian descent, the majority were Portuguese. These fishermen settled in towns like New Bedford, on the south shore, and Gloucester, on the north shore. The Massachusetts fishing industry hit its peak around 1840 when over 12,000 sailors alone were running 1,300 ships off of the coastline.

b&w photo of fishermen
A group of Massachusetts fishermen return home in the early morning in 1940. (photographer unknown, photo via Yale Photogrammer)

Cod fishing restrictions

In the latter half of the twentieth century the fishing industry in Massachusetts was faced with its biggest dilemma yet: the cod populations off the coast were rapidly depleting. The fish, which once had been so plentiful, were being overfished. While fishermen understood that their livelihood was waning, the demand for cod remained high. In the 1970s, the state began passing laws that limited who could fish for cod and how much they could bring in. They began by banning foreign fishing companies in 1976 with the Magnuson Act, and then continued to place restrictions on what kinds of nets and other equipment could be used to bring in the fish. As well as these, the state set size restrictions on the fish brought in, and began to heavily fine fishing crews found violating these rules.

The great loss of fish (both in general population and by restriction), coupled with multiple national financial crises had a huge impact on culture in Massachusetts. While cod (and other fish) populations began to return, the industry as a whole began to shut down. Not being able to fish enough to sustain large crews and their families meant that private boats and larger fishing companies alike were being forced out of business. Towns like Gloucester and New Bedford started to shut down financially, causing an exodus of workers and an increase in levels of poverty and unemployment. It was not until 2010 when these laws began to change to reflect the replenished fish population. Now, commercial fishing for cod, haddock, pollock, cusk, and other fish has increased, but not nearly to the levels that they once were.

fishing restrictions chart
An infographic by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries setting size and number restrictions on certain saltwater fish. The limit in 2013 for cod was 9 fish over 19 inches per boat.

Shipwreck capital?

An unfortunate side effect of the enormous amount of fishing happening off of the coast was the sheer amount of shipwrecks in Massachusetts’ waters. While Massachusetts is geographically perfect for the breeding of cod, it also happens to be geographically perfect for being slammed with violent weather. Nor’easters, sudden gales, hurricane force winds, and frigid and intense currents create the perfect storm for dangerous waters. Massachusetts fishermen have always been in a tremendous amount of danger navigating the New England waters for their companies. Shipwrecks became an unfortunate part of life for fishermen, and a great fear for their family members. Between the 1860s and the 1890s, at the peak of the fishing industry, more than 380 ships carrying almost 2,500 sailors were lost, the vast majority of them being from the port hub of Gloucester, a small city on Cape Ann.

The prevalence of shipwrecks has left an indelible mark on the state’s fishing industry. Statues, organizations, and memorials for fishermen lost at sea are common sights along the coast of Massachusetts. However, while shipwrecks may have been more common back in the eighteen hundreds, they still unfortunately occur to this day. It seems like there has never been one year in which no boats have been lost to the sea. One more modern example of this occurred in 1991, when a fishing boat called the Andrea Gail was swept up in a severe storm 575 miles out into the Atlantic. All six crew members were never found, and only small amounts of wreckage have ever been located. This wreck garnered national attention when its story was published in the critically acclaimed book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, which was later turned into a feature film of the same name.

Andrea Gail
The Andrea Gail after an ice storm in 1990– a year before the boat and her crew would be lost at sea. (photographer unknown, photo via The Perfect Storm website)

Cultural influence of the fishing industry

Little Portugal

While the initial boom of the fishing industry on the Massachusetts coastline drew many European immigrants (even more than other parts of the country at a similarly industrious time), the Bay State was unique in the particular background of the people it drew on. Though it provided opportunities for immigrants of all backgrounds and origins, there was none so prevalent as the Portuguese. The Portuguese, at that point mostly of Madeiran and Azorean descent, found it relatively easy to fit into Massachusetts coastal towns and the fishing industry due to their experience with sailing and fishing, as well as the fact that their strong Catholic faith matched well with the already established and wide-reaching Irish and Italian Catholic influence on the state. Portuguese culture fueled by the fishing industry soon became enmeshed in the overall culture of the state.

In the 1920s, rates of Portuguese immigrants began to slow due to tightening restrictions on immigration and the slowing of the fishing industry. However, their influence on culture in Massachusetts remains. Though only 0.4% of the entire population of the United States is made up of Portuguese immigrants, Massachusetts has the second highest concentration of them at 6.2%. In fact, the state holds the second highest population of people of Portuguese ancestry in the entire country, only just coming after California, a state twenty times its size. According to the 2010 census, almost 320,000 people of Portuguese descent call Massachusetts home (only around 20,000 less than California). Towns that have larger populations of Portuguese people are closely linked to a history of fishing or milling (another common profession for Portuguese immigrants in the 1800s); Gloucester, New Bedford, Somerset, and Fall River all house significant populations.

Portuguese cultural events and festivals are common occurrences in these towns. Many of these festivals have to do with Portuguese saints and other religious activities. Some examples of these are the Feast of St. Anthony, Festa do Divino Espirito Santo, the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Provincetown Portuguese Festival and Blessing of the Fleet. Besides festivals, Portuguese food is a staple in many Massachusetts towns and cities. Portuguese restaurants and grocery stores are extremely easy to come by, and are enjoyed by residents who are and who are not of Portuguese descent. Many of the remaining fishermen in Massachusetts are still of Portuguese descent, and much of the wealth that can be found in seaside towns in the state is owed in part to the extremely hard work of Portuguese fishermen in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

portuguese immigrant fishermen
A group of Portuguese immigrant fishermen on a break in Provincetown, 1942. (photographer unknown, photo via the New England Historical Society and the Library of Congress)

Poverty and drug prevalence in former fishing villages

One dilemma that arose from the crash in the fishing industry when “cod bans” were put into place was the plummeting of some fishing-dependent towns’ economic statuses. While these towns had been strongly blue collar, there were growing rates of unemployment and lowering economic opportunities. People became stuck in cycles of poverty, especially in towns like Fall River and New Bedford, which from 2011 to 2015 also fell into the top five towns with opioid overdose related deaths in the state. Though there are obviously many other factors that contribute to the opioid crisis in Massachusetts, especially its status as a shipping port and its period of economic depression after the 2008 recession, the decline of the fishing industry’s income on the coastal region’s economy was not insignificant.

As of 2017, Massachusetts had a rate of opioid related deaths that was twice as high as the national average, with around thirty overdose deaths per hundred thousand people. Though the rates have seemingly reduced in the past few years, the opioid crisis in the state has had a profound effect, especially on small towns and cities that had been the epicenters of the fishing industry.

opioid crisis graph
A graph comparing the opioid-related death rate to that of the rest of the country, 2000-2016. (CDC Wonders via Boston Indicators)

A matter of pride

Despite some of the issues that have surfaced as the fishing industry in Massachusetts has declined, there is one thing that still remains, and likely always will: the Bay Staters’ pride in their history. In almost every town that is involved in the industry, even if there are only limited fishing activities left, one can find homages to the fishing past and the men (and women) who were involved. If you look for them, you will find plaques, memorials, statues, records, and even entire museums dedicated to fishing. Some more famous examples of these include the 8 foot tall fisherman statue, “Man at the Wheel”, which is the centerpiece of the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, and the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, which is a physical (and now digital!) museum that is solely dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Massachusetts fishing industry, and aims to educate visitors and local youth about it.

fisherman memorial statue
The Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial statue, honoring fishermen lost at sea. (photo by Bobak Ha’Eri)

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

One of the most studied (and important) threads in anthropology circles is how a single industry can affect a certain population for generations. Some of these case studies could, and have, included how steel milling effected the populations of the steel belt, how coal mining has affected the populations of places like West Virginia and Wales, and even how slavery in the United States has affected certain demographics in vastly different ways for hundreds of years. This same principle can be applied to Massachusetts and the fishing industry: this one single business was able to so deeply change the local economy and culture in a relatively short period of time that it has become an immensely important part of the history of the state and its people.

The fishing industry has impacted almost every part of peoplehood in Massachusetts in one way or another. Though it is less prevalent now than it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is still important to the state’s history and culture. As such, it has made a deep and interesting anthropological impact on the state of Massachusetts.

man scooping fish
A Massachusetts fisherman sloughing through his catches. (photographer unknown, photo via Yale Photogrammer)

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