Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition, a documentary that premiered last month on the Discovery Channel, “chronicled the collapse of the historic cod fishery in the waters off New England in the United States.”
The crux of the film was the disagreement between scientists, policy makers, and the few remaining Cod fishermen of Gloucester, MA, as to the status of Atlantic Cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine.
Scientists at the Gulf of Maine research institute cited climate change as the trigger for the struggling Cod populations, originally reported in this 2015 study. John Bullard, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries echoed similar studies for his policy decisions. “Scientists say Cod now is at 3 to 4 percent of its historical abundance. When something is at 3 to 4 percent, it’s time to worry,” explained Bullard.
Bullard said that, “when you get very low levels of Cod, those few Cod tend to aggregate, and fishermen are smart and they know where those aggregations are. They say, ‘I see lots of fish’. Scientists survey whole areas, and they see those aggregations but they see also vast areas where there are no Cod. That’s why we’re taking emergency actions.”
Squarely on the opposite side of this argument was the cod fishermen. They did indeed see these aggregations that Bullard described, but they did not agree that there were not enough Cod out there to fish, and furthermore they believed the government was lying to them.
“There’s a lot of things to be learned in this business,” Cod fisherman Joe Orlando told the reporter. “What is one of the most important ones? Don’t trust the government,” replied Orlando.
In a particularly contentious congressional field hearing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, fishing vessel owner Lester Eastman, implored, “you haven’t been out there, you can’t get away from the Cod,” after hearing about the latest stock assessment. “The science is flawed, you know it’s flawed, and nothing is being done about it!”
“NOAA Fisheries lies for a living, they don’t care they’d be happy if the fishery closed,” claimed David Goethel, another fisherman.
CFoodUW notes that telling the story of New England cod and the conflict in estimates of abundance of fishermen and scientists does make for exciting film footage, but it does not reflect either the status of fish stocks in general in the U.S. or the normal state of relations between government science and industry. Many Cod populations around the north Atlantic are doing very well and the total abundance of Atlantic cod is quite high and growing.
The film concluded with a brief look at the burgeoning dogfish fishery, which is where a growing portion of the lost Cod fishing effort has gone in recent years. Dogfish fishermen that were interviewed appreciated the cheaper permit and the absence of an expensive on board observer and tracking device, which are necessary to legally fish for Cod in the same waters.