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Television Review

Troubled waters, heartfelt stories in ‘Sacred Cod’

Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando, photographed at dawn aboard his boat the Santo Pio in “Sacred Cod.”Discovery Channel

Of the two sacred emblems of Massachusetts — the bean and the cod — the cod gets all the glory but the bean is certainly more environmentally secure.

For centuries fishermen from Gloucester have relied on cod — and the world has relied on them to provide it — but recently scientists have determined that the fish stocks are being depleted at an unsustainable rate and soon there will be no more cod to fish. The fishermen protest that because of the regulations imposed on them, soon there will be no fishermen left to do the fishing.

Andy Laub, Endicott College’s Steve Liss, and Boston Globe reporter David Abel’s thoroughly researched, reasoned and surprisingly moving documentary “Sacred Cod,” premiering Thursday at 9 p.m. on Discovery, gives time to both sides. They offer warm, robust, and sympathetic portraits of these Gloucestermen with their powerful work ethic, fierce love of family, and faith in the American Dream. And they also thoughtfully and thoroughly present the point of view of the bureaucrats and scientists who are trying to do what’s best with the information they have. Emerging as heroes are those willing to consider both sides and seek new solutions.

On one level, the debate comes down to point of view. Based on their extensive research and analysis, the scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency studying the problem and issuing regulations, say that the cod stock has declined to a fraction of what it must be to remain sustainable. The fishermen take a more empirical and anecdotal approach; they say that the figures are wrong, that from their experience plenty of cod are still out there. One fisherman takes John Bullard, NOAA’s regional administrator, on a fishing trip. The trawling net disgorges a mountain of fish. “There it is, the elusive cod!” the fisherman scoffs. He tells Bullard that he has just caught his entire annual quota in 45 minutes.


Other scientists explain the discrepancy. The cod populations are higher near the coast. Farther out is where the stock has vanished. Many of the fish caught are underage and will not spawn and ensure future generations of the species. The figures, the findings, the hard science do not lie.


But equally valid is the suffering of those losing their livelihoods. One man who turned his hard-luck life around years earlier by becoming a fisherman gets the bad news that the owner of the boat he works on is giving up the business. The fisherman is in his 50s and knows no other trade; the scene is heartbreaking.

On the lighter side, the owner of an ice business points out that some days he sells more hats and T-shirts celebrating the old industry than he does actual ice. A poster for “The Perfect Storm,” the Hollywood film shot in Gloucester in 2000, hangs on the wall. Maybe Gloucester can capitalize on being a Hollywood location. Or maybe, as one interviewee suggests, the future of Gloucester is harborside hotels and condos, making it a “playground for tourists and the wealthy.”

But others think it’s not time yet for the fisherman to fold up their nets. Unlike cod, dogfish are plentiful off the New England coast and can be fished without restriction. At a food show, vendors sample tacos and other dishes made from the species. The chief obstacle seems to be the fish’s unfortunate name. “Let’s go down the same road as the Patagonian toothfish turned great sea bass,” says one advocate. “The former dogfish, now Cape shark, is the way to the future.”


Sacred Cod

Directed and produced by David Abel, Andy Laub, and Steve Liss

On Discovery, Thursday at 9 p.m.

Peter Keough can be reached at