The fishy message of The End of the Line

Instead of guilt-tripping Western consumers about overfishing, we should invest our energy in developing aquaculture.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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You know the script by now: it’s a documentary, with a campaign attached, about an environmental problem, ideally with a Hollywood voiceover and the simple (or simplistic) message that humans are screwing up the planet. If we don’t Do Something very soon, it will be too late and we’ll simply have to repent at our leisure while disaster befalls us.

We’ve had An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s tendentious Powerpoint presentation about global warming (ex-vice president Gore is as good as Hollywood for these purposes); we’ve had The Eleventh Hour, co-written and fronted by Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio; then there was A Crude Awakening, which lacked the Hollywood razzmatazz, but spiced things up by adding the threat of resource war to the prospect of civilisation slamming into a brick wall called ‘Peak Oil’ (see A fit of peak, by Rob Lyons).

Now, we have The End of the Line, a film version of Daily Telegraph journalist Charles Clover’s book about the threat to the world’s oceans and future food supplies from overfishing. It opens with shots of a colourful ocean scene, while Ted Danson delivers a portentous voiceover about how these fish are lucky to be ‘protected from the most efficient predator the oceans have every known’. No prizes for guessing that he ain’t talking about Jaws; he’s talking about us.

Then we’re introduced to Clover, who is a keen, if not very good, fisherman. He describes his incompetent failure to catch anything on the River Wye in England, where he used to fish when he was younger. He returned later in life to find that the salmon population had collapsed, simply under the pressure of fishermen. If such a collapse could occur simply by people fishing for sport with a rod and line, what effect must modern industrial fishing be having on fish stocks worldwide?

The answer, we soon learn, is ‘pretty devastating’. The ultimate cautionary tale here is that of the Grand Banks, an area of sea that stretches out 200 miles from the coast of Newfoundland. Once an incredibly rich source of cod, the stocks in the area collapsed in the early 1990s. Despite a complete moratorium on fishing, with the loss of 40,000 jobs, the cod have never returned in anything like the quantities required for commercial fishing.

This kind of disaster could recur in other areas of the world, the film tells us, if research undertaken by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published in 2002, is to be believed. According to the lead author, it was widely agreed before 2002 that while many local food stocks were in decline, this wasn’t a great problem because the global catch seemed to be rising. It turned out that this rise was exclusive to China, where officials had been exaggerating catches for political purposes. When this was taken into account, it became clear that many sources of fish were either being fully exploited or were even overexploited. As a result, stocks of many fish have declined dramatically around the world.

The FAO report suggested the state of the world’s fisheries was as follows:

Underexploited – 3%
Moderately exploited – 20%
Fully exploited – 52%
Overexploited – 17%
Depleted – 7%
Recovering from depletion – 1%

The major concern is with large carnivorous fish, particularly certain kinds of shark and tuna. Bluefin tuna, much beloved of sushi chefs around the world, features heavily in The End of the Line. The filmmakers show how European politicians have been unable or unwilling to cut quotas to allow the fish to survive and to slowly restore stocks in the Mediterranean. In fact, not only do the agreed quotas mean continued overexploitation; the film also suggests that such quotas are routinely breached. As a result, actual fishing is far greater than that which is sustainable. If this continues, it can only be a matter of time before Mediterranean bluefin is a thing of the past.

The film also looks at the plight of African fishermen who fish from canoes and who are now being ruined by the incursion of much bigger and more sophisticated boats coming from Europe to hoover up the fish once caught by locals. African countries are paid by Europeans for the right to fish these waters, but these payments are not reaching the fishermen or making any difference to their lives. If something is not done, the film suggests, we can expect many of these men to make the hazardous trip to Europe in search of the livelihood snatched away by European boats. For Clover, this is the cutting edge of the overfishing problem: around the world, many relatively poor communities are absolutely reliant on fish to survive, which is why he regards the overexploitation of fish as a more serious and pressing problem than climate change.

spiked has long argued that people should have the right to move freely, particularly to find work. Immigration controls are a fundamental attack on our freedom, and a frequently racist one at that. But such issues of liberty, and the broader political and economic problems of the weak development of African economies, are beyond the narrow outlook of The End of the Line. Overfishing by developed nations to feed our apparently selfish desire for fish is simply left hanging as another example of man’s inhumanity to man.

Nonetheless, for its many faults, the main point of The End of the Line is a valid one. Given our increasing ability to catch fish and the demands of a growing and increasingly wealthy population (global recession excepted), there is a finite limit on what we can expect to harvest, for ‘free’, from the oceans. We should no more expect to find food in the seas this way ad infinitum than we would expect there to be enough wild berries and huntable game to feed the 60million people in the UK. The limitations of wild food are why we developed agriculture, and the limitations of fishing are one reason why we have developed aquaculture – fish farming.

Yet the film is dismissive of fish farming, despite the fact that it already provides 42 per cent of the world’s seafood supply. This is because fish such as salmon and tuna are normally fed, at present, on smaller fish, usually as fishmeal. According to the film, one kilo of farmed salmon requires five kilos of other fish to produce (1). This is clearly not a particularly efficient method and might exacerbate the problem of diminishing stocks. Rather than farm big fish like salmon by feeding them smaller fish, Clover asks why not just eat the tiddlers ourselves? Apparently, they’re tasty and nutritious.

Fine; I would happily eat more anchovies. But just because feeding fish to other fish is the way things are currently done in fish farming does not mean that it will always be this way. Just as agricultural methods and crops have changed over time, so will those of aquaculture. Already, for no other reason than rising fishmeal prices, successful tests have been done on producing farmed fish using much smaller quantities of fishmeal. In any event, there is no particular reason why we must always continue to eat tuna, salmon or cod; these are simply tasty species that had advantages in the past and may well be replaced by other varieties in time.

Already, The End of the Line has generated a buzz and seems to be having the desired effect amongst so-called ethical businesses. In the past few days, the British sandwich chain Pret A Manger has pulled tuna sandwiches and salads from its shelves after boss Julian Metcalfe saw the film. The showing I saw was supported by the supermarket chain Waitrose, which has decided to source its fish sustainably in future. Earlier this year, as part of their attempts to encourage us to change our eating habits, another big supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, took the step of rebranding a plentiful species of white fish, pollock, as ‘colin’. It’s just the French name (and so should really be pronounced ‘co-lan’), but clearly Sainsbury’s thought a fish that sounded like a bloke’s name would be more attractive than one that sounds like a slang term for a testicle.

Despite its adherence to the aforementioned script, The End of the Line is, for the most part, a better film than the other eco-gloom flicks. Firstly, the problem it discusses is simply more immediate and clear cut. No one seems to be arguing that global fish stocks are in a healthy state, even if some commentators have accused the researchers cited in the film of exaggeration. (One of the film’s virtues is that it acknowledges that there are critics of the worst-case scenarios.) Secondly, the solutions to the problem seem clear cut, too. We need to switch our eating habits towards fish that is either plentiful or produced in some sustainable fashion, whether caught wild or farmed. With the right changes, there is no need for us to eat less fish or beat ourselves up about our wicked ways.

While the film’s sniffiness towards a fast-developing aquaculture industry is in keeping with a general disdain towards any kind of industrial food production, the film manages (mostly) to avoid moralising – with the irritating exception of the sequence designed to embarrass posh London eaterie Nobu about its decision to keep serving bluefin tuna. (We are also treated to a snippet of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver extolling the virtues of bluefin on one of his shows. Apparently, St Jamie has since changed his ways.)

Personally, I won’t be following the film’s advice and asking if my fish is sustainable or not. I would prefer to think that suppliers and politicians might be able to work out the best course of action between them. Nor do I think there is anything ethical about picking and choosing what goes into my shopping trolley. Obsessing about what we consume is all too often a poor substitute for more constructive political debate and activity.

But I will consider using the problem of fishing as an example of an environmental problem that can be understood and solved without environmentalism – that ideology which suggests that humanity is a plague on the planet, with the solution being fewer people living poorer lives. Our existence on Earth is a work in progress, and mistakes will be made along the way. Despite the fashionable view to the contrary, we should retain the ambition to keep fishing for solutions to these problems so that we can continue to live ever more comfortable lives.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

The film and campaign website is here.

Watch the trailer for The End of the Line:

(1) The fish industry has been critical of this particular figure: International org refutes fish feed claim in film, FIS

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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