Conversations with Gnarly Bay: Economic impact of COVID-19 on a small fishing town.

The scientific and public health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen everywhere you look. Cable news. Social media. A walk to the park. Some of the social impacts are evident. The vast majority are still waiting to be discovered.

To The Surface is a short documentary film by gnarly bay studios that documents the way the pandemic has affected a small New England fishing town. We spoke with them about their film.

Can you tell us a bit about Gnarly Bay? What kind of films do you make?

Gnarly Bay was formed 20+ years ago by two best friends who were making movies together — Dan Riordan and Dana Saint. We tell our story best by our company reel/narrative.

We make videos for companies in three disciplines Experiential, Commercial, and Branded Content. We also work to create what we call “Passion Projects” these are the stories that drive us as creatives. This is how we came upon “To The Surface”.

To the Surface is a unique COVID-19 story without actually being about the disease. Where did the idea for the short doc come from?

Director/DP Tyler Murgo’s family is a fishing family and because of this we had insight into the story before we began our research process. We wanted to tell a story of the impact of COVID on Rhode Island, and being the Ocean State we thought what better story to tell than how feeding ourselves from the ocean has been impacted.

We consulted with Tyler’s family as well as local fishing advocates Jason Jarvis (appearing in the film) and Fred Mattera in order to figure out what narrative to tell.

We were surprised by how complicated and complex the situation was and we captured a great deal of interview that we chose not to include in an effort to streamline the message and make sure there was clear take away from our film. The outline was simple, people come to RI or live in RI thinking they’re eating directly from the sea, that’s not entirely true, to get there, fishing regulations and consumer mindset need to change.

Can you describe what the local fishing industry was like prior to the pandemic?

None of it felt local. People in RI hardly eat seafood that was actually caught in RI. The only available market for the seafood caught in our waters was the export market. The first issue being the public’s lack of interest in local catch. People instead reach for the trendy fish like salmon, tuna, shrimp, and tilapia – none of which are local nor wild for many of them. Second issue being there are no processing plants locally, nor is there any funding to even build them.. which forces our seafood overseas to be processed with cheap labor. And lastly, the laws preventing fishermen from selling off boats.. Which we covered in To The Surface.

Obviously, the issues addressed in the film predated COVID-19. Why wasn’t anything done about it before?

In regards to the processing, there’s big money being made on it with cheap overseas labor. I think those few core corporations that run the show will continue to make it challenging for processing to happen.

With local interest, there are advocates raising awareness for supporting local industries – one notable one being Eating with the Ecosystem. As mentioned in the film, there has been a huge surge of interest in eating locally since the pandemic, which is really promising and a good first step to bigger change.

What happened when the pandemic hit New England?

When the Pandemic hit New England restaurant jobs were immediately impacted as a result of strict safety regulations. When this happened the fishing industry was hurt badly. We spoke to a local squid processor who said orders went from the 10s of thousands of pounds to zero overnight. Luckily they are prepared to freeze the stock they have and could not sell but they cannot continue to buy from fishermen and this buying freeze crippled the fishing industry. This is about the time we came upon this story and we were the to see first hand how the industry pivoted and began doing dock sales and eventually direct from boat sales were allowed via an emergency action.

Where do things stand now with the situation? Does it look like permanent change might be possible?

A band-aid has been placed on the situation and certainly our film has brought light to the situation and people are asking for a permanent solution. Time will tell if it’s possible or the big players will lobby for their interests as they’ve always done and the family fishermen will be left with the scraps. (opinion)

Can we talk a little shop? What equipment was used while shooting To the Surface? What are some of the differences shooting at sea compared to on land? (Besides the water, of course) Being on a boat must make setting up lights next to impossible.

We used Blackmagic Design cameras for the entirety of the shoot. The Ursa Mini G2 and the 6k pocket camera. Aputure lights for the interviews. Shooting on a boat comes with a fair amount of challenges – we omitted artificial light and just worked with the sun. The most difficult obstacle was landing the drone. With the tide screaming, it makes the boat a moving landing pad. I had to sync up my landing with the captain reversing the boat against the tide to land safely. Beyond all that, the gear smelled like bait for a week or so after so I guess you could call that a challenge haha.

Is the pre-production process more complicated?

We conducted extensive pre-interviews and created a few versions of story outlines prior to filming. However, once we did our interviews and began to craft the narrative is when the story truly took shape.

Finally, what is next for Gnarly Bay?

2020 has been a hard year because of the pandemic. We’re fortunate to be able to create passion projects when times are slow in order to keep the creative juices flowing. Through these projects we hope to find new clients who share a similar passion and purpose.

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