In the early 17th century, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold gave Cape Cod its name due to the abundant cod fish he saw in its waters.
Throughout history, the cod has played a crucial role in feeding various peoples, from explorers on ships such as the Vikings, to Basques, to Europeans, to early settlers of the Cape. They all lived on cod, whether it was fresh, salted or frozen. Author Mark Kurlansky, in his 1998 book “Cod,” dubs the cod “the fish that changed the world.”
Yet now this essential fish is endangered, as detailed in the film “Sacred Cod: The Fight for the Future of America’s Oldest Fishery.” The culprits? Climate change, government policies and overfishing.
“Overfishing was just part of the problem with cod,” David Abel, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for the Boston Globe, said in an email interview. Abel reported, wrote, directed and co-produced the film, which will be screened at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Saturday, June 1 at 10 a.m. as part of its Sustainability Series. “Climate change also has played a significant role in making it much harder for a species that had been overfished for generations to bounce back. Cod can only thrive in a narrow band of temperatures.”
As well as Abel, the 2016 independent film is the work of Steve Liss, for 25 years a photographer for Time magazine, and Andy Laub, founder of As It Happens Creative. The 65-minute film has won five awards and was broadcast around the world in 2017.
In a nutshell, the story is this. The cod fishery has collapsed in New England, specifically in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming at an alarming rate due to climate change. In November 2014, when the government learned that the population of cod was only 3 or 4 percent of what is needed to sustain a healthy population, cod fishing was banned in the region. This led to an outcry from fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened.
Abel says he hopes viewers of “Sacred Cod” realize that “climate change is not some distant, abstract threat, but one that is affecting people’s lives in a very tangible way today. We also hope folks understand how the fishing industry is a vital part of our culture and economy in New England, and how regulators need to find a way to protect the species while maintaining our fishing traditions as much as possible.”
The film follows a Gloucester fisherman named Sam Sanfilippo who is now selling used bicycles for a living. Sanfilippo, who is 50 and began fishing at age 7, says not just fishermen but ice companies, wharves, truckers, even churches are hurting due to the government restrictions on cod fishing.
“I just want to make a living. An honest living,” Sanfilippo says in the film. “We’ve been regulated out of existence.” Knowledge, culture and heritage have been tossed aside “like it was nothing. Nothing.” One source of contention is that many fishermen challenge the government’s figures on how few cod remain.
The film features a scene about a fisherman from Chatham, and also has interviews with multiple Cape Codders, including people at the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance in Chatham such as Nancy Civetta. Civetta is shown at an event at UMass Boston where participants taste sustainable monkfish and dogfish. Preparing the fish is chef Jonathan Haffmans of Harwich, owner of Vers, now on Cove Road in Orleans and formerly in the Chatham Orpheum.
As Haffmans puts it, “there’s no more cod on Cape Cod.”
It is now five years since the federal government imposed an effective moratorium on commercial cod fishing but “unfortunately, the cod population, according to the latest surveys I’ve seen, remains too low for a significant commercial catch,” Abel says.
While the film’s message may be a grim one, it does offer some tips. Buy local fish, especially abundant species such as redfish and dogfish. Look for a blue MSC label on packaging—this means the fish are part of a certified sustainable industry. And finally, write to government officials asking them to fight for sustainable fisheries.
“Sacred Cod” will play at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday, June 1 at 10 a.m. Visit www.chathamorpheum.org to buy tickets. In addition, the filmmakers’ newest film, “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds,” will be shown on Saturday, June 15 at 10 a.m. That film looks at how climate change is affecting one of our iconic species.