For centuries, cod was like gold, driving men to extremes. Wars were waged over it. Settlers sailed across oceans in search of it. And early America used 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 entire lives chasing the coveted fish. Cod played such an important role in the early history of New England that a carved replica of the fish, distinguished by the curved filament jutting from its mouth, has hung for centuries in the Massachusetts State House. It is called the Sacred Cod.
In recent decades, something began to change in the Gulf of Maine. As the region’s cod catch plummeted, government surveys of the iconic species reported increasingly dire results. Scientists and environmental activists raised alarms about overfishing and the warming ocean. They urged officials to act.
Then in the summer of 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the cod population had plummeted more steeply than anyone had believed. The species had dwindled to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population, according to the agency’s surveys.
After years of ignoring warnings, NOAA officials decided it was time for drastic action. On Nov. 10, 2014, they banned virtually all cod fishing throughout the region. Fishermen were infuriated. They challenged the findings and accused the government of trying to destroy their livelihood. Environmental activists feared the government’s action had come too late to save the cod.
A steadily declining catch over the years had already taken a toll. In 2015, New England fishermen caught a record low of 1,500 metric tons of cod – 90 percent less than they had three decades before.
As a result, many cod fishermen were forced to sell their boats and abandon a way of life that had supported their families for generations. In 2015, there were only 280 fishermen licensed to catch cod – a 75 percent drop from 1994.
In 2016, officials estimated there were fewer than 200 cod fishermen left in the fleet, and they’re now in the fight of their lives, struggling to hold fast to a tradition that has endured for centuries in New England.
SACRED COD is a feature-length documentary that captures the collapse of the historic cod population in New England, delving into the role of overfishing, the impact of climate change, the effect of government policies on fishermen and the fish, and the prospect of a region built on cod having no cod left to fish.
The film, which made its premiere at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine, was acquired by the Discovery Channel and will be broadcast around the world in the spring of 2017.
Steve Liss spent 25 years as an award-winning staff photographer for Time magazine. His work appeared on 43 covers of Time and earned the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the World Understanding Award from Pictures of the Year International. A licensed pilot who has flown himself to assignments around the country, Liss is an associate professor of media at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. He is the film's director of photography and producer.
Andy Laub, founder of As It Happens Creative, has walked more than 5,000 miles to capture stories about man, nature and the complex space in which they meet. Laub's work as a writer, cinematographer, editor, visual effects artist, soundtrack composer, and expedition coordinator has been featured on networks including Discovery Channel, National Geographic, BBC World, Discovery Life, and Ora.TV. Laub is the film's editor, writer, soundtrack artist, and producer.
David Abel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Boston Globe who has covered war, terrorism, and the environment. His work has also won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Ernie Pyle Award for human interest storytelling from the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for feature reporting. He began making films as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. He produced two films about the Boston Marathon bombings that were broadcast to national and international audiences. Abel is the film's story director, writer, reporter, and producer.