"Sacred Cod" Tells of Fishery and Way of Life in Peril

Apr 3, 2017

New England’s iconic cod fishery has hit an all-time low. Scientists point the finger at a combination of fishing and climate change. Many fishermen reject that assessment and blame their woes on regulators. A new documentary film, Sacred Cod, tells the story of two populations in crisis – the cod, and the fishermen who’ve built a way of life around them.

Cod fishing is what brought the first Europeans to New England, and the commercial fishery is the oldest in the nation. Hundreds of years of fishing pressure has brought cod populations in southern New England and the Gulf of Maine to record low levels. Federal fishery biologists have estimated that the reproductively active population is just 3-4 percent of what would be needed for a healthy, sustainable fishery.

That hasn't improved in the past few years, despite fishing restrictions that amount to a virtual closure of the fishery. Scientists say climate change is a likely culprit. Rising water temperatures affect reproductive success, reducing the number of eggs a female produces and also reducing survival of young codfish. Scientists are also seeing changes in the base of the food chain that may be linked to climate change.

Many fishermen reject this assessment, though, and say fishing restrictions are unnecessary. They contend that there are plenty of cod to be caught, if you just know where to look.

Scientists fire back, saying that populations in crisis tend to aggregate, and that the cod have been gathering in the western Gulf of Maine - a traditional fishing hotspot. That's what fishermen are seeing. In contrast, scientists are charged with looking everywhere, and assembling the big picture. And it's not looking good.

In fact, a new study by Massachusetts state fishery biologists - a study specifically intended to address fishing industry concerns about federal assessments - confirms what federal scientists have been saying for the past few years: cod is in trouble. That survey found that the cod population has declined eighty percent over the past decade, but hasn't convinced many critics.

The pain fishing families, businesses, and communities are feeling is real. The number of groundfishing boats in New England has also declined by about eighty percent. That impacts support businesses, like fish processors and ice suppliers. It imperils working waterfronts, which are vulnerable to gentrification, and threatens a way of life that is deeply ingrained in the collective identity of New Englanders.

David Abel, a Boston Globe writer who is story director, writer, reporter, and producer of Sacred Cod, says the movie gives voice to the concerns of fishermen, environmentalists, and regulators, alike. And it carries a message that extends well beyond New England: if we're not careful, there may be no more fish to catch.

Sacred Cod premiers on Discovery Channel at 9pm on April 13, 2017. 

*This article has been edited; an earlier version misstated the Discovery Channel broadcast date.