Villains and heroes in the fish wars
The start and the end of the documentary The End of The Line, which has now been released on DVD at least in the UK, (and which I blogged about when it was first shown in the cinema), is dominated by traditional ‘National Geographic’ type images. You know the sort of thing; sunlight streams through the water showing the richness and diversity of the sea, illuminating the many different and brightly coloured species below. It’s filmed in one of the few Marine Protected Areas, which together comprise about 1% of the ocean area, where fishing is not allowed. For the rest of it the story was dismal.
One of the first stories is from Newfoundland, once the richest seas in the world, where fishing was banned in 1992 to try to save the North Atlantic cod (so far unsuccessfully since the cod had been fished to the point of extinction). It wasn’t mentioned in the film, but I was reminded of an anecdote (perhaps from Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod) that when European fishermen first reached Newfoundland in the Middle Ages, there were so many fish in the sea that you could catch them just by putting your hands in the water.
The End of the Line is a bit like a whodunnit with far too many murderers. When it comes to identifying why our large fish populations have declined by between 70% (optimistic) and 90% (pessimistic) over the last fifty years there are certainly a lot more villains than heroes. The film follows the fate of the bluefin tuna, now being fished to extinction by the world’s industrial trawler fleets.
The villains include the European Council of Ministers, which knowingly set fishing quotas far higher than the level which will enable fish stocks to be stabilised, let alone recover; the Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi, which apparently finances much of the buying, processing, and storage of the bluefin catch; trawlers which break quota limits (and know they won’t be prosecuted); and top-end restaurants, such as Nobu, which chooses to offer it on their menus.
In a sequence in the film, Charles Clover, the journalist who’s been tracking Nobu’s menu for a while, finally gets to speak to its owner on the phone. The owner announces he’s going to add an asterisk to the menu to tell diners that it is an endangered species. An exasperated Clover asks, “Why don’t you just take it off the menu?”.
Clover is probably one of the heroes of the story. He started caring about the decline of fish numbers earlier than other reporters, and has followed it assiduously. Another hero was the fisherman-turned-investigator who followed the path of illegal over-fishing of illegal bluefin tuna from ocean to dockside to warehouse. There were times when I worried for his personal safety, more shared of film noir than murder mystery.
Unlike many environmental stories, where an unhappy ending seems all but guaranteed, there can be a happy ending here. Fish stocks do recover, Newfoundland notwithstanding, if not fished to extinction. Consumers can ask if the fish they are buying comes from sustainable sources, and retailers are already showing signs of responding. (This can be a bit of a one sided conversation, though; try asking it in a pub or of most school caterers). They can boycott Mitsubishi – and Nobu, come to that.
But the heart of the solution is is in proper protection. Scientists reckon that the fish population will recover if 20-30% of the ocean is designated as marine protected areas. This would cost around $12-14 billion a year – a figure which is, handily, snmaller than the current $15-30 billion spent annually on subsidising fishing fleets. They don’t suggest it in the film, but they could spend any of the subsidy left over buying up fleet capacity and destroying it.
The picture at the top of the post is by Peter Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.