The Discovery Impact Special Premieres Thursday, April 13 at 9PM ET/PT
Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel
For centuries, cod was like gold. Wars were waged over it. Settlers sailed across oceans in search of it. And early America relied on it to finance a revolution. Cod were so abundant in the waters off New England that fishermen used to say they could walk across the Atlantic on the backs of them, and generations of men from places like Gloucester and Cape Cod spent their lives chasing the coveted fish.
In recent decades, as the Gulf of Maine has warmed at an alarming rate and environmental advocates warned about overfishing, government surveys reported increasingly dire results: Cod had dwindled to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population of the iconic species. As a result, in the fall of 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration banned virtually all cod fishing throughout the region.
SACRED COD, premiering Thursday, April 13, at 9PM ET/PT on Discovery, chronicles the collapse of America’s oldest fishery. Scientists and environmental advocates have attributed the decline to overfishing, climate change, and government mismanagement. Many of the fishermen — who are losing their livelihoods and way of life as the species has declined — have argued that the science is wrong and have protested the government’s ban. The film features interviews with fishermen and their families, along with scientists, advocates, and federal officials who warn that the plight of cod could be a harbinger for fish around the world as the planet warms and overfishing persists. The illuminating documentary tells a complex story that shows how one of the greatest fisheries on the planet has been driven to the edge of commercial extinction, while providing suggestions about how consumers can help support sustainable fisheries. It also shows how climate change is no longer a distant threat and is now having a very real impact on everything from fish to fishermen.
SACRED COD is directed and produced by Steve Liss, an award-winning photographer who spent 25 years at Time Magazine and now teaches at Endicott College; David Abel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Boston Globe; Andy Laub, an accomplished editor and founder of As It Happens Creative. It premieres under the Discovery Impact banner, a series of trailblazing documentaries focusing on humankind’s impact on the environment, and what individuals and communities can do to solve global problems.
The film highlights how the region’s waters are warming at an accelerating rate that’s causing profound changes to its fragile ecosystem. “The Gulf of Maine has … warmed at about four times the rate of the global ocean, so we really are one of the fastest warming places on the planet right now,” Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, explains in the film. “When waters are really warm, each individual female cod produces fewer new offspring … and it leads to the situation we’re in now, where we have this population that’s in crisis.”
NOAA officials explain how they were forced to take drastic action to protect cod. “Scientists say that cod now is at 3 to 4 percent of its historical abundance. When something’s at 3 to 4 percent, it’s time to worry,” John Bullard, NOAA’s regional administrator, says in the film.
The severe quotas have forced hundreds of fishermen to sell their boats, caused businesses such as ice houses to close, and left a community reeling. “It’s the death of a way of life,” one life-long fisherman says in the film. Joe Orlando, a cod fisherman from Gloucester, describes the impact on his family after he had to sell one of his boats. “I had to lay my son off after 14 years of being with me, and now he’s got to start over,” he says.
The government scientists who conduct surveys of the fishery explain how they remain hopeful that cod could still rebound. “It might take five years, 10 years, 20 years, but it’s something that with good management and good science, we can get there,” said Mike Palmer, a research biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the federal government’s oldest marine research facility. “But we fundamentally have to lower the degree of fishing mortality in order to see some growth in the population.”
Scientists and fishermen in New England are looking to the north for hope. In the 1990s, after years of overfishing and changes in local water temperatures, cod also vanished from the rich waters off Newfoundland. When Canadian officials instituted a similar ban on fishing cod, tens of thousands of fishermen lost their jobs, and the region suffered for years. Now, after more than 25 years of a moratorium on fishing cod, the species is finally replenishing in large numbers and Newfoundland is preparing for the return of a way of life, though a more sustainable one.
SACRED COD is directed and produced by Steve Liss, David Abel and Andy Laub. The film is presented by Discovery Channel in association with Endicott College, The Boston Globe, In Our Own Backyard, and As It Happens Creative. For Discovery, Ryan Harrington is Supervising Producer and John Hoffman is Executive Producer.