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Louise McCready

Louise McCready

Posted: September 2, 2009 05:51 PM

A Future Without Fish: End of the Line Casts Scary Forecast for the Sea

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Films such as Food Inc and Fresh do a wonderful job teaching audiences that food can be hazardous to our health depending on how it was raised, grown or processed. Medical experts, like Dr. Kessler, remind Americans that the quantity of what we put in our mouth is just as important as the quality of our food. But what are the effects of our appetite on the environment or the rest of the world?

For starters, we won't need to worry about eating too many fish sticks or McDonald's fish sandwiches because—quite simply—there will be no more fish to eat. End of the Line a documentary inspired by Charles Clover's book of the same name, takes a terrifyingly look at the rampant and illegal overfishing that is quickly depleting the world's oceans. Based upon recently unearthed data, scientists claim we will see the end of most seafood by 2048.

Bluefin tuna, valued as one of the world's top game fish and a delicious meal, is well on its way toward imminent extinction à la the dodo, thanks to restaurants like Nobu (which still serves it on its menu) and companies planning to profit by selling the fish frozen, long after the last bluefin tuna has been caught from the sea.

Even if you find it difficult to liken fish to the beautiful giant panda or other cuddly endangered species, consider the fact that many developing and third world populations depend upon fish for survival. Recently I asked Mr. Clover why this issue has received so little press and there's any hope that my grandchildren will have the chance to know what “fishy,” tastes like.

LM: In the film, you mention that as a fly fisherman, you became curious about overfishing after noticing a decline in the salmon population on the River Dee in Wales. Do you still fish?

CC: Yes, I was there last weekend.

LM: Do you still eat fish?

CC: I do.

LM: Which fish do you eat?

CC: The ones I mention at the end of my book that reproduce rapidly -- which are pretty much those on the “fish to eat” list. One has confidence that the populations are not harvested at a rate where they could be endangered. I brought some mackerel, which I caught myself, back from Scotland last weekend. I'll eat herring. There are loads of shellfish that you can eat. I get very worried about farmed fish.

LM: How would you compare End of the Line with other food-related documentaries that have come out recently such as Food Inc. or Fresh?

CC: I haven't seen Food Inc. yet, and I'm not sure it's been released over here, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage on that one. But I know Eric Schlosser's book, so I know what it must be about. From what is said of it and what I have seen of it online, Food Inc. is a story that we already know told very well whereas, I think for many people, The End of the Line tells a story they wouldn't know. There is also the feeling that we're more about a global environment than about the “Me, me, what do I put in the temple of my body?” [Schlosser]'s about.

I get a lot of questions, only in America, asking, “Why didn't you talk about pollution when you talk about the sea?” We don't talk about pollution because pollution is old hat. There is this problem of mercury, but the bigger problem is that the fish that contain the mercury are dying out, so it's going to be less of a problem for you in that you're not going to be able to eat them. We don't take this issue lightly, but this is the difference between American and European audiences. It's easy to say to a European audience that we are overfishing our fish, partly because we're doing it domestically so much more than you are, but American audiences are always hung up on the pollution aspect, which is actually a story that's been going since the 50s. It's not a new story. It's not a story about how we're going to survive the centuries as a human race, which the overfishing story is. This is a new story.

LM: One of End of the Line's most shocking claims was that if we continue fishing the way we do now, we would see the end of most seafood by 2048. How did conditions become so dire without prior media coverage?

CC: It's been in the scientific publications. It's been in Science and Nature. The reason is, it was told late. It was only told in 2001 that the world catches had peaked around 1989 and were going down because the Chinese had been overstating their data. The Chinese government overstated world fish catches, and there is a probability that they also overstated the farmed fish that they harvest. So the assumption that we should just progress seamlessly from wild fish to farmed fish is probably wrong. We probably need the oceans to produce our fish for the foreseeable future, and the reality of farmed fish in the west is that it's produced from wild carnivorous fish. You haven't closed the circles as far as a sustainable system is concerned if you're still unsustainably harvesting small fish to feed farmed fish, and that's what I find most disturbing. That “five pounds of wild fish to make one pound of farmed fish” conversion rate is a new figure and came out of one of the world's top aquaculture experts—and it's far worse than anybody thought. If it takes five pounds of Peruvian anchoveta to make one pound of farmed salmon it makes you wonder for a whole host of reasons, both developmental—are we taking away from poor people in the developing world—and also ecological and wasteful, of whether we should be eating these fish.

LM: One of the most disheartening aspects of the film was the repeated failure of governments to enforce sustainable catch limits or punish illegal fishermen or fishermen that are exceeding their limits.

CC: It's a failure of governance on national, regional and international scale. It really does lower your faith in government that they have screwed this up so definitively. There are places where it turned out rather better than others. There are regional fishing councils in the United States where you're doing it better than anywhere else in the world, other than Iceland, New Zealand and maybe bits of Australia. But by and large this is a desert of bad governance and a result of bad governance.

LM: Do you have any hope that governments will work together toward effective change, or does this need to be a grassroots movement?

CC: I've never seen governments sit up as a result of a film more than with this film. We have been invited to meetings on Downing Street and the Prime Minister's wife talked about it on Twitter—few documentary films have ever done that. We have been invited to debate with the European Union Commissioner of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Joe Borg. But unless there is a popular movement that tells governments that citizens want to retain the sea and have it managed as they want to manage it and not as the vested interests want to manage it, [overfishing][no need for square bracket] is going to get worse.

Back to the 2048 claim, the film is a discussion of whether that is correct or not—it's not just a parroting of that figure. The difference between what we had done and what Al Gore did in “An Inconvenient Truth” is we include the arch critics of Boris Worm who say you can't infer what Worm does from the data within the argument. If you look at our website, Worm and Hilborn subsequently went on to publish a paper together three weeks ago answering the question that people ask in the film which is, everyone accepts it's pretty bad, it's just a question of how bad is it? We have much more of a consensus here than the global warming people have—everyone from one end of the spectrum to the other thinks that we're in the shit.

LM: Exactly. As you point out in the film, fishermen no longer expect to pass on their profession to their children or grandchildren. Even without the scientific data, it seems self-evident that the fish are declining.

CC: With that being true, I am a farmer's son, and I am not a farmer. Industries change, economies of scale change, and efficiencies change. There are too many sentimentalists in the world who think that fishermen should always be able to go on from one generation to another when it might not be sensible to do so. But in countries where it's all there is, like West Africa, I find it deeply disturbing that they can't continue when they are not using particularly ravaging methods; it's just they have a lot of people, and no one's managing the fishery properly.

The worst case scenario is the South Java sea where there is a load of people—Java is one of the most overpopulated islands in the world—and there are people who fish beyond the economically viable point simply because they are hungry and have nothing else to do. That's when the fish have no chance for recovery, and it's a terrible tragedy. Your only management is the cyclone.

LM: Your book, End of the Line, was published in 2006. With regards with the global over fishing problem, what are the greatest changes that have occurred over the past three years?

CC: With regard to policy or actually going wrong in the sea?

LM: Either.

CC: We decided to make the film focus upon bluefin tuna about two and a half years ago. At that time, people were still talking about the Mediterranean population as being bigger than the Western population that you've got off the United States. Quite clearly, what has happened in the two years in which we were developing the film, is that population has been wiped out by rampant illegal overfishing. That is a very, very big development because it's an example of governmental failure on international scale by some of the most developed countries in the world, the US and EU included. They worked together in this and they completely screwed up. They could not get Iccat [the U.N.'s International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas] to do the right thing; they didn't try hard enough; they allowed the vested interests to talk; they allowed the Japanese tuna traders to run the show through their influence money and their very dubious connections; and that is a total indictment of the way we run the sea.

We picked the bluefin tuna because it was the worse thing going on. We ended up finding that we were filming the last buffalo roundup, and we were slightly appalled. If you look at the figures in the report on our website that I filed on June the 7th from Roberto Mielgo, who is a star of the film, he's done an analysis of the tuna on the Japanese market. Thirty-three percent of them are below the illegal catch limits, so how the hell they ever got exported, let alone got imported, I do not know. If what's in the Japanese market is what's in the sea—and it's safe to assume it is—the population collapsed in 2007. There are no mature spawners left. It's absolutely horrifying what has happened over these last three years. It is what we're campaigning about and will go on campaigning about because it is a disgrace.

I co-wrote an open letter with Prince Albert of Monaco on June the 5th of this year, and we proposed that the bluefin tuna should be taken out of the hands of this obviously incompetent body Iccat and regulated by Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Since then, President Sarkozy of France has backed us. Ironically, France has the biggest fleet in catching bluefin tuna—they are the ones who have the expertise, but they are also rampantly illegal. In a lot of southern French ports, there are fishermen, French Algerians mostly, who don't seem to obey the law and who are very stroppy. Sarkozy has been at war with them for some time and can't control them—he's tried to get tax off them, they refuse; he's tried to get them to decommission their boats, they refuse; and now he just says, Right, well, let's get an international ban, and I'm going to be the first to back it. You have got to take your hat off to Sarkozy. He is quite a different man from the École Normal Supérieure-type smooth turnout of French presidents.

France, Britain, Germany and Holland are saying, it can no longer be business as usual with the bluefin, which means a total ban on international trade, but we still wait to hear what the US is going to do. It's a risk, because the US has a domestic catch, but the domestic catch gets exported in ice overnight to the Japanese market.

LM: Isn't blue fin tuna still on Nobu's menu?

CC: Yes, in New York and on four other continents. That is what is a disgrace. Our minister says it's a disgrace. What does yours say?

LM: I don't think they say anything.

CC: I think you should ask them.

LM : Last thing I wanted to touch on briefly was how you said the Japanese—Mitsubishi, in particular—is simply freezing the bluefin tuna so they will have a future supply for when all the supplies run out.

CC: I don't know what is right because the Japanese figures are misleading and not comprehensive enough. The government figures do not aggregate individual companies so somebody is doing a lot of freezing. Mitsubishi don't volunteer information about what they are doing. But it does look as though somebody very cynical thinks the population of bluefin is going to collapse and they are going to clean up because they froze a lot and will be able to go on selling it after the price has been allowed to rise. Obviously there is massive illegality involved in the export and import of this type of tuna, and the people involved have pretty grubby hands. When Mitsubishi goes on telling everyone they have very sustainable business practices, and yet they're wiping out the world's most prominent commercial fish species, I don't see how that's sustainable, and I don't see how they can expect their group to go on selling cars or motorbikes without people boycotting them. But maybe they're just slow on the uptake.

 

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