Gloucester Harbor is quiet these days — a far cry from the thriving port that used to bustle from dawn to dusk. Most boats sit idle, confined by federal rules that limit when they can fish and what they can catch. And as Gloucester’s best-known industry struggles, the mood in the city is bleak.  

“Today, things are different,” says Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association. “Because we don’t know what our future holds.”

Regulated to the brink

Sanfilippo has been advocating for fishermen for decades. She says the rules they need to follow today are draconian, including a program that forces many fishermen to request anon-board federal observer every time they leave the dock.

“Forty-eight hours before you go fishing, you have to go call in to the Department of Commerce to make sure you can get an observer to go out with you,” Sanfilippo says. “If they don’t have one, they can say, ‘Okay, you can still go out’ — or, ‘You have to wait, because we have to put somebody on your boat.’”  

Throw in ever-shrinking limits on how many fish can be caught, and it’s no wonder Gloucester Harbor is eerily calm. That’s bad for fishermen — but Sanfilippo says it hurts the whole city.

“We just bring the fish to the dock, right? Then there’s the buyers, there’s the distribution, that is the processing — the value added. We hire trucks and ice and everything from the gas station where we get gas for our trucks. Our boats also use food, mechanics, all those things. There’s so many people involved that benefit.”

As a rule, Gloucester tends to vote Democratic. Mitt Romney won here in 2002, however. And 2 years ago, Brown lost to Martha Coakley by only a few votes.

This time around, Brown may fare even better. As a senator, Brown has championed the fishing industry. And in a campaign ad titled “Fishermen” — set in Gloucester — Brown vows he’ll continue to fight the feds.

“The fishing industry has been hit with with overregulation, unfair enforcement and crushing fines,” Brown says. “Our fishermen deserve better.” 

“A lot of guts”

Politically, Brown’s efforts seem to be paying off. At the St. Peter’s Club downtown, former fisherman Sam Interrante praises Brown for opposing Jane Lubchenco, the federal bureaucrat who sets fishing rules.

“He’s the only one that told Obama, whatever, to fire Jane Lubchenco, who’s been screwing the fishermen for years,” Interrante says of Brown. “He has a lot of guts. That’s why I’m voting for him.”

But while Brown gets high marks for his advocacy, the long-term outlook for Gloucester’s fishing industry remains grim. And some voters think that Warren would do just as a good a job if she wins in November.

“She strikes me as someone who’s very intelligent, very passionate,” Paul Cohan, a fisherman who also runs a seafood smokehouse, says of Warren. “Once she sinks her teeth into an issue, I don’t think too many people can best her.”

Cohan seems concerned about Republicans taking control of the Senate. But he also has high praise for Brown — saying that on fishing issues, the senator has been superb.  

“He’s bulldog, man,” Cohan says, referring to Brown’s criticism of federal fishing regulations. “He’s got his teeth into this thing and he’s shaking it, and he’s not going to let go until things start to change.”

Another 'Liberal Lion'?

While Cohan still doesn’t know how he’ll vote, Tony Gross is firmly in the Warren camp. Gross fishes for cod and lobster, and he’s no fan of federal rules. But he thinks that if Warren gets to Washington,  her liberal bona fides will actually make her a more effective opponent of overregulation than Brown.

“Elizabeth has some really good background with her consumer-advocacy work,” Gross says. “Where the fishermen really need some of that, she can be a standard-bearer. Because she has the street cred to go after some of the groups that are really attacking us, and say Look, you’ve got to start relying on science.”

Ultimately, though, Gross’ support for Warren is more about what he thinks she’ll do for women than it is about what she might achieve for the fishing industry.

“My wife was in the workforce,” he says. “I was a stay-at-home dad for quite a while. And equal pay is very dear to us as a family.”

For her part, Angela Sanfilippo isn’t endorsing either candidate. She says her organization is strictly nonpartisan. But Sanfilippo also says that if Ted Kennedy were still alive, Gloucester would be better off.

“Sen. Kennedy was on the side of commercial fishermen,” she says wistfully. “He worked very hard for us. We always went to him with what was going on — and somehow things got resolved.”

For now, that’s not something that Brown or Warren can promise.

See the on-air discussion from Greater Boston with State Sen. Bruce Tarr, State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group.

Web Extra: See Paul Cohan sing about the fishing life.