For a related Boston Globe article from May 2000, click here.
For a related Boston Globe editorial column from August 2001, click here.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Pier pressure
Fishermen, Massport at odds over prime waterfront leases
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 2/13/2002

It's the classic New England coastal scene: Weathered fishermen hauling their catches onto the stone Boston Fish Pier to be auctioned, processed, and shipped around the world.

The nearly century-old tradition has survived the collapse of ocean fish stocks and talk of a Disney theme park, but the smelly fish pier may be facing its greatest threat yet as a redeveloped and more expensive Boston waterfront springs up around it.

The pier's tenants, a group of small fishing boat and processing plant owners, say they are quietly being forced out by their Massachusetts Port Authority landlord to make room for higher-paying tenants. They say the agency is dragging its feet on renewing leases, making it difficult for fishermen and their suppliers to plan for the future.

''I need a million-dollar upgrade, but the banks laugh at me with no lease to say I'll still be here,'' said Gerard Tirrell, who supplies ice to all the boats and processing plants on the pier, next to the World Trade Center. With all fish pier leases expiring within the next two years, the tenants have joined with the Conservation Law Foundation advocacy group to fight for the right to stay. They want affordable leases for at least 20 or 25 years so they can get financing to upgrade their plants.

''They never say `no lease,' but where is it? We've been asking them for years,'' said Tirrell. ''I needed my plant upgrade yesterday. I'm barely hanging on.''

Massport officials deny they are trying to drive the fishing industry off the fish pier, promising to let the fishermen continue to use it indefinitely. They acknowledge that they have encouraged the companies that process the fish to move to a new South Boston location, but they say the companies don't have to go. The firms will be given leases for more than 10 years as long as they can pay market rate rent - significantly more than they are paying now.

''We see [fishing boats] as part of our maritime operations,'' said Lowell Richards, Massport's chief development officer. Massport board members will meet on the issue next week. Richards says that parts of the fish pier's economic importance is declining: Most of the fish processed at the pier doesn't land there on boats anymore - it's trucked in from other New England communities and Logan Airport.

''It's hardly a secret as we talk about extending the terms of the [fish processors'] leases, we believe they should be at market rate,'' he explained.

Most everyone agrees that the fish pier is one of the prime pieces of Boston real estate. With a breathtaking view of the Boston skyline, it opened around 1915 to fishing boats forced out of other Boston docks by shipping and commercial vessels. By 1926, the two identical three-story buildings still standing now formed the country's largest fish market, the East Coast's oldest fish exchange, and one of New England's most beloved industries.

But the industry has changed dramatically. Boston companies process $650 million worth of fish each year, but the majority of it is trucked or flown in. The collapse of New England stocks has meant only one or two boats land at the fish pier most days, instead of the many that did 30 years ago. There is no other dock in Boston for fishing boats to land.

The 6:30 a.m. fish auction, which used to attract a roomful of men arguing over the best price of haddock, draws less than a dozen people most mornings. On Monday, there were nine men bidding on several thousand pounds of fish from two boats. Massport evicted the fish auction from the pier's administration building in 1995 to make room for a major conference and event center.

''And now everyone else feels they are going to be kicked out, too,'' said Marie ''Gerry'' Frattollilo, president and manager of the New England Fish Exchange, which runs the fish pier auction. She says a price rent hike would have the same affect as denying leases: forcing processors off the pier. Tenants say the one-stop unloading, auctioning, and processing is an attractive lure for boats.

Moreover, New England fishing stocks are beginning to rebound, and Conservation Law Foundation attorneys argue that the historic pier needs to remain to ensure there is infrastructure for commercial fishing's comeback. They say Massport, which is allowing the construction of a hotel across the street, is obligated under a state law to preserve the pier's marine use. Massport officials disagree that the law would apply. A state hearing on the issue will probably take place in March.

''There is no other place like the fish pier in Boston,'' said Seth Kaplan, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. He says Massport has given ''every conceivable story'' to the tenants over the last several years about its failure to extend leases. Many US working waterfronts, he says, operate in the red and ''one of Massport's mission is to run a waterfront. Any other revenue they generate is to support that use.''

Massport officials, meanwhile, say they also have an obligation not to lose money. The fish could land at the pier but be trucked to a state-of-the art seafood processing facility they opened two years ago on South Boston's North Jetty, less than a half-mile away. Two processing companies from the fish pier have moved there. With less than 15 percent of Boston's seafood processing industry based at the pier, officials say it's unfair to give some a rent below market value while all others are forced to pay higher rates.

Fish pier tenants say it makes no sense to have fish land in one spot and then truck it someplace else to be processed. Boats can't land fish on the North Jetty, because the dock is too high and there is less protection against severe weather.

''Here, everything is a few feet away. It's expensive and time-consuming to truck the fish, even if it's just a little bit away. It doesn't make sense to put it someplace else,'' said Sal Patania, who owns two trawlers and a small fish processing and shipping company on the Boston Fish Pier.

Over the years, Patania said, businesses supporting the fish pier companies have disappeared, and now the fishing industry could also. ''Little by little we are being forced out,'' he said. ''We have so much history on this pier.''

Beth Daley can be reached by e-mail at bdaley@globe.com
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/13/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Your comments as a visitor to the SAND website would be appreciated and forwarded for discussion.