Boston's fish pier facing the crosscurrents of change: Boston's 86-year-old fish pier isn't what it was. In 1936, 339 million pounds of seafood were unloaded there; last year's figure was less than nine million. Elegant new buildings are edging in, but CLF sees a glorious future for the venerable pier; New England's fishing stocks are coming back.

Author:Russell, Rusty

Does Grimsby, England ring a bell? In Tom Stoppard's 1978 drama Night & Day, a modern morality play that thrusts a small-town journalist onto a treacherous international stage, Grimsby and its newspaper represent all that is local, backwater, and becalmed.

But in 1915 Grimsby was a thriving port city on the North Sea, and home to the largest fish market on earth. The proud runner-up was none other than Boston. At more than a half-million square feet, Boston's just-opened Fish Pier -- "made entirely of cement, brick and glazed tile, thoroughly hygienic ... and fireproof" -- could berth 40 vessels, while simultaneously unloading them and 40 more besides. Promotional materials disseminated by its owner, the Boston Fish Market Corporation, touted it as "the best appointed ... of any fish market in the world" -- Grimsby's notwithstanding.

Although Fish Pier and its massive twin buildings look much the same today, nearly a century later, much else has changed. The pier and its 25-or-so small processors, wholesalers, and distributors find themselves up against an economic juggernaut, most of which is beyond the horizon yet is still able to buffet the future prospects of these mom-and-pop operations.

The days of landing hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh groundfish like cod, haddock, sole, and halibut are long gone. Yet Fish Pier, located on the northwest side of the South Boston Seaport about a mile and a quarter, as the seagull flies, from the sacred cod hanging in the State House, is a resource that many marine experts, environmentalists, economists, and urban architects fear may soon be left behind. The pier is valued as a living symbol of Boston's rich, maritime past, and -- more importantly -- as one of its more promising opportunities for the 21st Century.

Salvatore Patania is the patriarch of Ideal Seafood, based on the pier. Ideal owns two of the largest stern trawlers that still fish out of Boston. The Linda and the Maria/Jo-Anne, both nearly 100 feet long, haul in groundfish caught all the way out to the Hague line, the international boundary between U.S. and Canadian waters. Patania's company, which he runs with the help of his wife Evelyn and brother Frank, also slices fish into fillets, and distributes them to area buyers. It even supplies the No Name Restaurant, a local (unmarked) landmark right next door.

Patania's grandfathers lived in neighboring villages in Sicily. His father came to Boston around 1949. "We've always had boats in the family," he says. To Patania, a storm is coming from two directions, the sea and the shore.

* Fishing Has Become a Complex Business

First, there are the regulations. Today, Patania observes, "you're fishing less, and it's harder. You have to be more particular about where you fish, how you fish, the type of gear you use, and when you can go out. It's like a chess game now. You have to think about your next move." Fishing restrictions set by federal authorities are aimed at allowing overfished stocks to recover. Not all restrictions are bad, Patania says. It's just harder to make a living. "The fishermen who survive are probably the most skilled," he says.

But the other source of worry does not win acceptance, begrudging or otherwise. It is the Massachusetts Port Authority, the massive, independent public agency that operates Logan International Airport and the entire Port of Boston. Massport is the largest landowner on the 1,000-acre South Boston Seaport, and it has controlled Fish Pier since 1972.

The immediate concern to Patania is that the agency serves as his landlord. That's also the case for the two dozen other small processors and distributors in the parallel pair of three-story buildings that extend 735 feet down either side of the nearly quarter-mile-long pier. Their leases expire in 2004, and so far Massport has been coy about whether it will renew them. According to tenants, this has thrown a wrench into the businesses. Facing a mere three-year time horizon, they argue, it's well-nigh impossible to secure financing to modernize aging facilities, and, some say, to continue complying with toughened federal seafood inspections.

For its part, Massport isn't saying much. Executive Director Virginia Buckingham, in her third year on the job, recently stated that the agency "is currently performing a comprehensive analysis of Fish Pier and other Massport properties to determine how it can best be positioned to serve the greater Boston fishing industry's needs -- well beyond 2004." The study is supposed to be finished by the end of...

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