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.