Those who are born and raised near the coastline anywhere in the world cannot help but view the ocean as an almost supremely bountiful source of life and energy. Come to think of it, the ocean is just about as supreme a source of life and energy on this Earth as one can imagine.
However, the harmful impact of mankind's technological advances and the associated pollutants and almost unimaginably efficient approaches to large-scale commercial fishing that have come about as a result of those advances are increasingly putting undue stress and strain on our ocean's resources and bounty. In many corners of the globe, that stress and strain is resulting in dire circumstances which threaten the very existence of said resources.
Take, for example, the small, family fishing businesses that have existed on the Gulf Coast for generations. There is something of an open secret among those tight-knit communities that should bring a tear to the eye of anyone who enjoys a good South Georgia fish fry or Lowcountry boil: after decades in which our local coast has routinely provided a more than ample supply of shellfish and other saltwater delights, increasing demand and unsustainable practices have resulted in steadily decreasing yields.
It's a trend that shows little chance of slowing down or stopping without a drastic change in attitude among both consumers and those in the fishing industry. We are in grave danger of simply depleting our area's ocean habitats beyond the point of no return. In other words, no more local seafood.
This sobering thought lies at the heart of the new investigative feature documentary "Shifting Baselines," which will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Trustees Theater. It's a focal point of the 15th annual Gray's Reef Film Festival, a steadily growing showcase of entertaining and educational documentary shorts and features focused on celebrating and preserving our oceans. It is sponsored by - and serves as a fundraiser for - Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a 22-mile government protected underwater habitat considered one of the finest examples of "live-bottom" natural reefs (meaning millions of diverse sea plants and animals thrive on the bottom of the ocean in this region) on the East Coast.
The three-day festival is at Trustees Theater, SCAD Museum of Art and Tybee Post Theater. Screenings are free, though attendees are encouraged to donate to the sanctuary at the door, ideally about the price of a standard movie ticket.
"Shifting Baselines" profiles a number of area fishermen whose families' lives have been adversely affected by the dwindling amount of seafood attainable on our coast. It also looks to research scientists, government regulators and restaurateurs for expert advice on how to mitigate this downward trend.
In anticipation of the premiere of "Shifting Baselines," I spoke to the film's co-directors, Cathy Sakas and Mehmet Caglayan.
Tell us about yourselves.
Cathy: I am a naturalist. I have an undergraduate degree in biology and a master's in science education. So, what I bring to the mix is a background in science, but also in communication.
My job for 15 years as the education coordinator at Gray's Reef was to literally translate ocean science. What I realized while working there was that there was a treasure trove - an archival bank of audio interviews with fishermen from every state on the Gulf Coast except for Georgia. I wrote and won a grant to record those very rich voices from our coastal fishing families. I had worked with Mehmet before on another project, so I called him.
Mehmet: I was born in Istanbul, but came here and got a degree in broadcasting from Georgia Southern. I worked on the Olympic Games for NBC, then worked for a local TV station here for many years. So, my background was journalism.
In 2007, I went to SCAD for my master's in film and television and during that time shot a documentary in Mexico on sea turtles, as well as helped Cathy shoot some of the projects she had going with Gray's Reef. My master's thesis at SCAD was a documentary called "Sustaining the Snapper," which kind of connected with what Cathy had in mind.
Tell me about the genesis of "Shifting Baselines."
Mehmet: Cathy asked me for help shooting those oral histories, and we noticed that these different generations of fishermen were not telling the same stories. The older fishermen were describing a very different ocean than the younger ones.
Cathy: Specifically, what we heard was that it took one net and a couple of hours in the morning to catch 1,000 pounds of shrimp. Then the fellow's son said it took two or three nets to catch that same amount. And then the grandson would come along and say that it takes longer than a week. There were three different families that all said the same things independently.
Mehmet: At that point, we both had a "lightbulb moment." We weren't born yesterday, and here was something we had long suspected that was being reflected in the oral histories of the people who actually spent their lives out on the water. This information was coming from nonbiased, nonscientific families who were just trying to make a living. â€¦ So we decided to match this to the science and we went and found scientists who completely agreed with the fisherman, from their own research.
Where did those conversations lead?
Cathy: Well, folks from the South Carolina Aquarium led us to a fishing family in South Carolina where the husband was like the fourth generation of fishermen, but he wound up marrying a fisheries biologist! The two of them saw a real need for a shift in the way they were doing business, and they have literally made the way forward for a new paradigm in how the fishing industry should be run. It goes straight from fisherman to table, with no middle person. The consumer buys directly from the fisherman, as do chefs at restaurants. â€¦. The chefs are the key. Because once they insist on only buying locally caught, sustainably sourced fish, the entire game changes.
Mehmet: See, if you are living near the coast, you are so close to the sea that it's easy to get fresh fish. But, if you live in the mountains, how can you do that? We found a celebrity chef in Asheville, N.C., whose insistence on only buying sustainably sourced fish (that came with documentation which proved that fact), convinced one of the biggest fish purveyors to change the way they did business. I hope people watch the film, because it's a great story. It's really amazing to see how some of these main characters are changing the industry and showing a path forward.
Was it difficult to get people to speak candidly on camera about such things?
Cathy: No. They were eager to do so. We have hours and hours of footage, and we may have only used 10 minutes of each person in the final film.
How dire are the circumstances locally?
Mehmet: We desperately need to sustain the fisheries we have now, as well as this unique lifestyle. A lot of things are happening these days, and it is easy to miss the fact that some of these longtime fishing families are simply no longer there. If we stay on this course, we will lose a very important cultural piece of this area's history.
Cathy: For instance, one of our shrimpers just decided he couldn't make a go of it anymore, so he sold all his boats and his fleet and now he deals in fireworks! He was actually one of the successful ones.
Why should people see this film?
Cathy: This is where we all live, and you need to know about the cultural fabric of where you are. Our multi-generational fishermen are a wonderful cross-section of that coastal fabric. Even if that doesn't interest you, just come for the visual artistry. Mehmet did all the camerawork and he is really a genius at that. Even if you didn't listen to what was said in the movie and just watched the screen, you would be very happy.
Mehmet: Well, how can you not shoot a beautiful sunset in Georgia? (Laughs) It's almost impossible! But this is our culture, our history. In a couple more generations, there simply may not be anything like this left. So, we may have wound up capturing something historic.
These may be the last people that may be fishing and shrimping in this area, and when you see the film you will come to understand what they are going through in their lives. It's an adventure and a journey in American culture right here on our coast, and it's gonna affect all of us - especially anyone who eats fish and seafood.
IF YOU GO
What: Gray's Reef Film Festival
When: Feb. 9-11, times/locations vary
7-9 p.m. at Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
3-4:30 p.m. at SCAD Museum of Art, 601 Turner Blvd.
7-9 p.m. at Trustees Theater
2-3:30 p.m. at Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.