The making of the three-part series SEA CHANGE: The Gulf of Maine, A NOVA Special Presentation is a story of serendipity. It involved a chance encounter and required the cooperation of the weather, the seas, and living creatures.

In 2018, John Bredar, GBH’s vice president of national programming, was standing in line at a food truck in GBH’s parking lot when he recognized a former National Geographic colleague, photojournalist and documentary film producer Brian Skerry, standing nearby. Skerry was onsite for a radio interview, and he mentioned that he was working on a story about the Gulf of Maine. Bredar had recently moved to Maine and was contemplating a similar idea. These two coincidences led to this new NOVA special presentation, directed by filmmakers Chun-Wei Yi and Stella Cha and produced by Skerry with Bredar and GBH’s Laurie Donnelly as executive producers.

“We structured the series around three important themes—the historic bounty of the Gulf; the peril facing all living creatures, including us, because of overexploitation of that bounty; and survival, or how people, scientists, and entrepreneurs are using remarkable innovations, discoveries, and new ways of thinking to adapt to these new circumstances,” says Bredar. The series is particularly well-suited to the NOVA portfolio as it blends science with the stories of those people who define the region and takes us on a journey to discover why something is the way it is.

The Gulf of Maine is a unique body of water stretching from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. “Throughout my 40+ year career…I’ve had the privilege of working in every ocean habitat from mangroves to coral reefs to polar zones,” says Skerry. “I’ve seen really beautiful productive areas…I would say at the top of that list is the Gulf of Maine.” The Gulf’s combination of sediment bottoms—sandy bottoms, muddy bottoms, gravel bottoms—create different types of habitats for marine life. The western edge of the Gulf is the continental U.S. and Canada with everything from rocky, craggy coastlines to sandy, shoaly areas, and the eastern edge is the continental shelf. The cold water Labrador Current comes down from the north and meets the warmer Gulf Stream from the south, both of which combine and swirl in a counterclockwise coastal current. The region’s temperate climate results in waters that are essentially different from season to season. All these things together create an extraordinary proliferation of life, which is why the waters form one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. More than 1.3 million people depend on Maine’s waters for their livelihood or live on the Gulf’s shores.

Worryingly, however, the Gulf is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. Its codfish population is at just 1% of its colonial levels, a time when the water was so thick with the fish that dories could not row through. A combination of climate change and overfishing due to innovations like the creation of convenience foods such as fish sticks and canned fish have all but destroyed the population. “I remember going to Eastport, Maine, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and it used to be like going into an aquarium,” says Skerry. “I did two trips over the past few years and it was like a ghost town.” SEA CHANGE explores the reasons behind these changes, how they impact the people who depend on these waters, and what can be done to reverse the damage.

 A Grey Seal poses in the ocean.
A Grey Seal poses in the waters off of Acadia National Park in the Gulf of Maine.
Brian Skerry

The team spent time with Indigenous clam farmers, whose people have lived on these shores for 14,000 years; scallop divers; lobster fishers, seaweed entrepreneurs; scientists; and other people who are learning to adapt their livelihoods and approaches to the changing environment.

“[The Gulf of Maine] is like a canary in a coal mine, a harbinger of things to come,” says GBH’s Executive Producer of Lifestyle Programming Laurie Donnelly. “The changing waters are dramatically impacting how people make a living. But entrepreneurs, fishermen, Indigenous scholars, and scientists, they’re all advocates in their own ways and they’re all solution-driven. And so, it’s the collective of everybody rowing in the same direction, all bringing a different expertise to it that gives me hope. Often change relies on a handful of people, but not here.”

The filmmakers confronted spectacular challenges in telling this tale, many directly related to climate change. Increasingly frequent rain events delayed filming and once the rains ended, runoff from local rivers into the Gulf compromised underwater visibility. Extreme winds and bitter cold added danger. A trip to Cashes Ledge, an underwater mountain range 80 miles off Maine’s coast, required divers to hold onto ropes as they descended so that the tides and currents didn’t pull them out to sea. And yet, the team was able to take viewers deep underwater to the largest kelp forest on the East Coast, a place that holds hope as a haven for rebuilding struggling fish populations. They filmed green crabs, an invasive predator of clams, one of which had 100,000 eggs ready to be released, and then learned how scientists and clammers are innovating to protect the clams and their industry. As Passamaquoddy clam farmer Brian Altvater told the team, “If we take care of the clams, the clams will take care of us.” The filmmakers also captured footage of terns trying unsuccessfully to feed their babies a species of fish that has proliferated in warming waters, crowding out their usual fare, and then explored the ways that researchers think they can be helped.

“The Gulf is right outside our doors, part of our daily breath, part of our history,” says Bredar. “The bounty built the colony, the Commonwealth, and arguably the nation…While the health of the Gulf is most immediately a local story, it has truly global implications. What happens here is likely going to happen worldwide.” And he has found reasons to be optimistic. “The most important theme [of the film] is hope. The spectacular beauty of this place and the astonishing ingenuity of the people and animals to adapt is deeply inspiring.”

SEA CHANGE: The Gulf of Maine
A NOVA Special Presentation
Wed (7/24, 7/31) at 10pm on GBH 2

Sun (7/28) at 8pm on GBH 44
Tue (7/30) at 8pm on GBH WORLD