It is the first officially-designated World Oceans Day on Monday, and to mark the occasion there are – for one day only – screenings across the UK of the documentary The End of  the Line, based on Charles Clover’s book. Book and film both tell the story of how over-fishing is reducing, inexorably, the ocean’s fish stocks – the news release for the film says that if we don’t change our consumption patterns we won’t be eating ocean-caught fish by 2048.

Working through  the argument, it is a familiar tale. Larger trawlers using advanced technology are devastatingly efficient at catching fish, while regulations designed to limit catches are disregarded (and not enforced).The nets of the biggest boats have mouths which are big enough for thirteen 747s [update 08/06/09]. Fishing capacity is four times  sustainable fishing levels. As a result, according to  the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 75% of the world’s ocean fish species are now fully-exploited or over-fished. (The figure is even higher – almost 90% – in EU waters). 50% of the world’s catch is caught by 1% of the fishing fleet. Without conservation and management stocks will decline further.

There’s a forensic account at the Earth Policy Institute [EPI], which has fish as one of its Eco-Economy Indicators.

Over the past 50 years, the number of large predatory fish in the oceans has dropped by a startling 90 percent. Catches of many popular food fish such as cod, tuna, flounder, and hake have been cut in half despite a tripling in fishing effort… The tendency to catch larger and older fish first, leaving those small enough to escape from nets to breed, has over time reduced the average size of those caught. The effect on large predators is striking: for example, in the 1950s an average blue shark weighed 52 kilograms; in the 1990s, the average was 22 kilograms.

The ‘2048’ figure comes from the documentary’s acadmic experts, and is based on an extrapolation of ‘crashed’ fish species.  [Deletion following viewing of film: it turns out, is an invention of the documentary’s publicists.] Charles Clover admits in an interview with Village Voice adding that “it is controversial and disputed and appeared only on the press release, but by goodness it got the world’s attention.” But it is, nonetheless, a plausible figure. As the Earth Policy Institute says:

From 1950 to 1988, the world fish catch climbed from 19 million to 89 million tons. This fivefold expansion dwarfed the growth in global beef production during that period (from 19 million to 54 million tons). In per capita terms, the annual fish catch per person peaked at 17 kilograms in 1988, up from 8 kilograms in 1950.

On current trends, the world’s major fisheries will have one-tenth of the stocks they had on 1950. The number of large fish in all the seas have been reduced by 70-90%. Some species, such as the bluefin tuna, have declined in numbers by 90% since 1970. And a recent review of the relevant science reports suggests that between 20-40% of the world’s need to be closed to fishing if fish stocks are to recover.

But it is not uniformly bad news. Because of the dynamics of fish breeding patterns, populations can recover quite rapidly if they are given proper protection. The EPI identifies ways to align the interests of fisheries with the maintenance of stocks. Consumers can also make a difference, by choosing to eat only sustainable seafood. [Update 7 June: Doors of Perception points me towards the excellent Eye Over Fishing website, which has graphic diagrams of how the fishing industry works now, and how it needs to change if our fish populations are to be allowed to become sustainable again.]

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to read all of this  material without seeing a familiar pattern, one which is made more visible by the banking crisis. Indeed, much of the pattern is the same. In short, consumer demand for more consumption is serviced by increasingly efficient, even destructive, technologies whose owners are focused on short-term returns. The turnover needed to sustain profitability also exceeds that which the market can bear if it is to continue into the future. Despite the obvious risks, regulation is not adequate and  enforcement against illegal behaviour not pursued effectively. In the case of fishing (as with banking), the market is subsidised by governments. The results, in terms of the sustainability of the system, are toxic. For bad debts in the banking sector, read fewer smaller fish).

What’s interesting about the way that toxicity has been defined in the banking crisis is that it means that the debt is damaging to the producing (or holding) organisation, not to society as a whole (as if, somehow, the rest of us didn’t matter). But toxicity should be understood as a problem for the whole system, and more precisely as an outcome which privileges current generations and poisons the interests of future generations – a set of voices who are all but obliterated from political and economic discourse, especially in economics, where models of rational economic ‘man‘ and ‘net present value‘ (which are largely discredited outside of economics, and even to some extent within it) conspire to ensure that the future is, at best heavily discounted, and at worst is utterly disregarded.

The trailer for End of the Line can be found here.