Documentary Review: Fish and New England fishermen stare down extinction — “Fish & Men”

The perilous state of our fisheries and endangered status of American commercial fisherman are explored, in depth, in “Fish & Men,” a new documentary centered on the dying commercial fishing industry of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Filmmakers Darby Duffin and Adam J. Jones dip their toes in decades of fishing practices, destructive innovations, global economics and often day late and sand-dollar short government regulation to give us another dire warning about the state of the oceans and our ability to consume their bounty.

Overfishing, vast “factory trawlers” from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, are devouring seafood stocks outside the reach of U.S. government regulation, which has restrained smaller operators and sought to protect fish populations through “the most heavily regulated fishery in the world,” our own.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been caught flatfooted, time and again, regulating here, closing fishing windows there, to no avail.

U.S. fish consumers don’t know where their fish is from. It’s sometimes caught here by a factory trawler, shipped to China, processed and dosed with chemicals, then shipped back and served “fresh” in markets and restaurants where unsuspecting consumers don’t know tuna isn’t supposed to look that pink, that it’s “tailpipe tuna.” It’s been gassed to give it that color.

And climate change to raising sea temperatures and stressing and moving cod and other fish to the few cooler waters left for them to thrive in.

One fisherman from Gloucester, whose fishery is “the oldest independent industry in the United States (400 years old),” pulls out his required logbook, noting prime catch and “bycatch” (fish caught inadvertently, but still sellable), ticking off the cod, haddock, etc.

“Gross revenue for the day?” he says, tallying it up. “$350.”

It’s no wonder American commercial fishermen are going under, faced with those sorts of takes and the economics of fuel, ice, crew payments and boat maintenance and payments.

We’re shown Canada’s contentious efforts to bring back fisheries by closing them altogether (it didn’t work) and the Norwegian model, where quotas, controls and all-important price supports ensure a decent living and grant fishing boat skippers and crews both a decent living and a modicum of respect.

Try to forget they also hunt whales and dolphins.

The filmmakers’ fresh angle to all this is talking to not just fishermen, fisheries managers and scientists, but to food writers, chefs, fishermen’s wives and activists, and ending their film with optimistic looks at things like shellfish aquaculture, where mussels, oysters et al are farmed in shallow salt water, improving the water quality of whatever lagoon or bay this takes place and providing seafood jobs. We hear how chefs and the seafood version of “farm to table,” “same day sourced” fish, where you know where the fish came from and who caught it, could be a boon to “buy local/eat local” movements to save fisheries.

But as we hear from food writers who dismiss American tastes and mass produced/processed seafood as “a dough delivery system,” catch the disdain for our narrow idea of what’s edible and our craving of cheap Filet o’Fish sandwiches, Long John Silver’s and Gorton’s fish sticks, the giant hole at the heart of “Fish & Men” comes to light.

This doc, finished in 2019, snobbishly leaves the consumer out of the picture altogether. We’re just proles who need to be “taught” that dogfish and monkfish are delish, that “fishing artisanal” for our “storied seafood” is something we’ll get behind once we know about it.

Price doesn’t figure into the conversation at all. Missing the notion that this was a big deal before the huge pandemic-spike in food prices, ridiculing “tasteless” tilapia and other farmed fish from the unregulated far east without giving a second’s thought to how tight money drove that “trash fish” onto the marketplace, was tone deaf in 2019, and stone cold deaf now.

Americans eat far less fish than most other industrialized countries, and it’s not just because we’ve been “scared away from fish” by news that many species seem fished-out, that “our oceans are empty.” The far more subsidized beef, pork and poultry industries give consumers a cheaper, albeit even more problematic, choice for meat protein.

The dire state of the fisheries isn’t being corrected, climate change isn’t being addressed and small business owner fisherman are aging, retiring and disappearing, with or without another documentary detailing this calamity. But “Fish & Men” still has messages in it we all need to hear, about the need for more shellfish farming, tighter controls and inspections of imported fish and a rethinking of the supply chain that allows fish caught here to be shipped to Asia for cheaper processing, then shipped back and marketed as “fresh” when it’s anything but.

Boat to table “storied seafood” may not save many fishermen. But it could save enough of these “watchdogs of the ocean” to make a difference.

Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: John Tierney, John Bullard, Sefatia Romeo Theken, Jeffrey Bolster, Jackie O’Dell, Josh Wiersma, Eric Ripert, many others

Credits: Directed by Darby Duffin and Adam R. Jones. A Virgil Films release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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