For 25 years, Sam Sanfilippo hauled nets full of cod from the waters off New England’s coast. Like generations before him, he fished the Gulf of Maine, which stretches south from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts’ scenic eastern tip, an inlet once teeming with so many fish that European settlers named it Cape Cod.
But since 2014, when federal regulators cut the cod quota by about 95 percent, fishing jobs have disappeared.
“Here I am today, a recycler, a bike seller, a furniture maker. I’m 50 years old and I don’t know what the hell I am,” Sanfilippo says in “Sacred Cod,” a new hour-long documentary slated to air Thursday on Discovery Channel.
“I’m tired of dealing with Coast Guards, fish dealers, state police, environmental police,” he adds. “Everywhere you turn, you’re dealing with some sort of law enforcement agency and I don’t want to deal with it. I just want to make a living, an honest living.”
The film chronicles the three-year fight between fishermen and federal officials determined to protect the cod population, which has declined by 80 percent over the past decade. Scientists say a combination of overfishing and global warming has prevented the cod from replenishing their schools. Fishermen, by contrast, have accused regulators of relying on bunk science for years.
“This way of life that was so integral to our culture and our community is now essentially fading into history,” David Abel, one of the three filmmakers behind “Sacred Cod,” told The Huffington Post last week. “We are losing a whole industry and culture in some respect.”
Abel produced the film and served as story director alongside award-winning Time photographer Steve Liss and Andy Laub, who edited, wrote and selected the soundtrack. Discovery Channel bought the documentary last September.
The story centers on a familiar clash of interests: blue-collar workers feeling victimized by the decisions of federal bureaucrats, and questioning the science that informs regulations; the collapse of an industry steeped in regional heritage; the struggle to adapt to an economy where fewer and fewer workers spend their whole careers at one job; climate change, and the unwillingness of those whose livelihoods it puts at stake to accept the scientific consensus.
For years now, fishermen have accused federal regulators of relying on faulty readings of fish populations. At one point in “Sacred Cod,” a fisherman grabs a cod the size of a small dog from one of his nets. “According to the government, these fish don’t exist,” he says. “We could do this all day long, all year long.”
Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) commissioned state scientists to perform their own survey. The state study included 10 times as many cod-detection stations as the earlier federal study, and it increased the time nets trawled the Gulf of Maine looking for cod by 50 percent. The scientists searched deeper waters and used actual fishing industry boats. They performed the survey once a month for a year, up from the federal researchers’ biannual schedule.
“The survey took into account all of the fishermen’s concerns,” Abel said.
The results, released this month, confirmed the federal finding that the cod population has shrunk by 80 percent over the past decade, reaching a historic low.
“The bottom line is that the outlook of Gulf of Maine cod is not good,” Micah Dean, a scientist who oversaw the survey for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told Abel, who covered the findings for The Boston Globe, where he works. “What we’ve seen is a warning sign about the future of the fishery, and it’s a stark change from what we saw a decade ago.”
Overfishing is just part of the problem. Over the past decade, temperatures in the Gulf of Maine warmed faster than in 99 percent of the rest of the world’s oceans, according to a study released last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Under certain climate models, the water body could warm by between 5.4 degrees and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. In 2014, one publication declared the Gulf of Maine “the poster child for global warming.”
Faced with findings that back up federal estimates, fishermen have started questioning the very nature of the surveys themselves. Some have begun attacking the concept of random sampling ― the cornerstone technique behind most surveys ― insisting that a survey they themselves helped design was too fundamentally flawed to produce valid results.
When people’s livelihoods are put at risk because the world is changing around them, they look for someone to blame. It’s rarely that simple. John Hocevar, Greenpeace
“They basically were saying it’s not legitimate because they weren’t sampling in the specific areas fishermen wanted them to sample,” Abel said. “An analogy that seems relevant to the basic idea is that if we lost 90 percent of the population of the U.S., but the remaining 10 percent was all in Boston. If you came to Boston looking for Americans, you’d say they’re all over the place.”
The fishermen in “Sacred Cod” aren’t the only ones applying tunnel vision to a grim economic picture. President Donald Trump, who has dismissed climate change as “a hoax” and moved to gut federal programs meant to cut greenhouse gas emissions, vowed to boost the U.S. economy by bringing fossil fuels roaring back. In particular, he vowed to revive coal, by far the dirtiest fossil fuel. The coal industry has suffered as cleaner-burning natural gas devoured the electricity market and Chinese demand for U.S. exports nosedived. Yet many, including Trump, blame as-yet-unimplemented regulations by the Obama administration to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants. This, coal executives and their political allies declared, amounted to a “war on coal.” To the extent there was any truth to that idea, industry defeated regulations last month when Trump signed an executive order rolling back a raft of Obama-era climate policies.
But even coal executives admit Trump’s policies won’t bring coal back. The advent of less-polluting energy sources, coupled with the depletion of coal seams in the places Trump claims his policies are meant to help, all but assure the fuel’s dimming prospects.
The “war on cod” might pan out differently.
“Fish populations replenish themselves if we don’t destroy their habitat or catch too many of them,” John Hocevar, who leads Greenpeace’s efforts on cod, told HuffPost. “Coal doesn’t grow back.”
Still, he noted that the plight of frustrated, out-of-work cod fishermen echoes that of the coal miners who became such a focus of the last presidential election.
“When people’s livelihoods are put at risk because the world is changing around them, they look for someone to blame,” Hocevar said. But “it’s rarely that simple.”
“Sacred Cod” airs Thursday, April 13, at 9 p.m. EST/PST on Discovery Channel.