In Their Own Words: 'Dead In The Water' Lets Fishermen Tell Their Story

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

Poster for "Dead in the Water."

What convinced Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, that filmmaker David Wittkower could tell the story of the decline of the New England commercial fishing industry was that he wanted to interview fishermen and let them speak in their own voice.

“That never happened,” she said. In most stories in the media about the industry, fishermen's words “are always twisted,” she said. But she sensed that wouldn't happen with Wittkower, that he'd let fishermen tell their own stories.

“This documentary tells the story of what people have endured through the years, and what we're still enduring,” said Sanfilippo, whose organization helped finance “Dead in the Water,” Wittkower's documentary on the industry, which screens at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Saturday, Sept. 8 at 10 a.m.

Wittkower, who lives in Los Angeles but spent his middle and high school years in Rockport, where his parents still live, said he became interested in the plight of the commercial fishing industry about four years ago when he noticed fewer and fewer fishing boats docked in Gloucester. He began talking to folks and eventually made his way to Sanfilippo, who gave him the lowdown about how catch limits, days at sea restrictions and other regulations were killing the industry and making it impossible for young people to take up fishing.

“I thought this was the film for me,” Wittkower said in a telephone interview last week. In his previous films, about rodeos and wildland firefighting, he'd concentrated on the people in the story, and that's what he saw as lacking in other documentaries about the decline in the commercial fishing industry.

“Most of my films are done on the human aspect of it, the human costs,” he said.

But breaking into the world of notoriously reticent and private commercial fishermen wasn't easy. “A lot of them are gun shy” after being burned by the media in the past, he said. Fortunately he had Sanfilippo as a go-between.

“Angela sort of helped me along, said you should talk to this guy,” Wittkower said. Once word spread among the local fishermen that he could be trusted, “then the barriers went down and I was able to make my own path and talk to the right people.” When he had doubts about whether he'd gotten in over his head, the fishermen had his back. “They said you can't quit, you're our only voice right now.”

Unraveling the tangle of government regulations and politics that have created the current crisis in the commercial fishing industry was daunting. “Of all the films I've done, this one was probably the most complicated I've tried to tackle,” Wittkower said. “A lot of it was overwhelming.”

In the film, fishermen tell stories of fighting both government bureaucracy and what they see as the scientific community's narrow vision regarding significant issues such as stock assessment. Fishermen also talk about the dangers they face at sea, including having to cut crew members because of the economic impact of regulations. In an earlier version of the film, Wittkower did not include interviews he did with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration because they would not sign his release allowing use of the material, but insisted on a department of commerce release that imposed conditions he thought unacceptable. However, after consulting with an attorney, he decided to include the interviews, along with interviews with an official from the Conservation Law Foundation, to give the regulators an opportunity to speak.

“I think it's more well rounded now,” Wittkower said.

Those regulators do not fare well in scenes shot at a North Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council meeting, at which fishermen lambaste the agency for its decision to close areas of the Gulf of Maine to fishing.

The film took four years to make; initially Wittkower worked on his own with no financing. The Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association held fundraisers and eventually found a philanthropist who provided matching funds, enabling him to hire a cameraman and editor. He also got permission from singer-songwriter Paula Cole, who is originally from Rockport, to use a song of hers about Gloucester in the film.

The film has been entered into numerous festivals and won awards in Delaware and Alaska, but Wittkower said he was unable to get it into festivals here on the Cape. “I think there's still a stigma that people think the ocean was overfished by fishermen,” he said. The political aspects of the story, and the fact that fishermen in the film contradict the way conventional line that there are no fish left in the ocean, may be keeping it out of some festivals.

So Wittkower and Sanfilippo are screening the film themselves in venues around New England; it was shown in Nantucket two weeks ago and will be screened in Plymouth the same day as the Orpheum show.

Each time the film is shown awareness is raised, Sanfilippo said. While most people know there are problems in the commercial fishing industry, they don't necessarily know or understand the details. “It's so hard to understand if you haven't been exposed to it,” she said. Most screenings of the film also includes a panel of local fishermen; in Chatham, she is working with local residents Shannon and Morgan Eldredge – who work at Fishing Partnership Support Services with Sanfilippo – to enlist Chatham watermen to discuss the film and the issues it raises.

“More than anything we want to tell people this is your resource, it's still a public resource,” Sanfilippo said. The film, she added, is an appeal to the public to “wake up.”