No Fish by 2048? The End of the Line–Interview with Journalist Charles Clover


Photo courtesy The End of the Line

“Imagine a world without fish.” That’s the tagline of The End of the Line, a documentary that landed on my desk last week. The press release goes on to say that if we continue to overfish the oceans at the current rate, there will essentially be no fish to eat by 2048. At first, this all seems hyperbolic. Most of us know that there are problems with overfishing, but we don’t think it will lead to a world without edible fish, or an ocean clogged with algae and jellyfish, or an ocean that will not be able to absorb carbon dioxide, worsening global warming. But that’s exactly what will happen if we don’t change our ways. The oceans are not inexhaustible, and we have nearly exhausted them.

About 75% of wild fish are either fully-exploited or overfished. That means that they need conservation in order to survive in their (much reduced) present numbers. Put another way, scientists say that the number of large fish in all the seas have been reduced by 70-90%. Those fish are just gone, because we ate them. And because fishing has become big, big business: According to CNN, 50% of the world’s catch is caught by 1% of the fishing fleet. These industrial boats have gigantic capacities, and incredibly sophisticated technology, including ultrasound. The largest trawl net in the world would hold three 747s. As an expert in the film says, “Our fishing power outweighs our ability to control ourselves.”

Take bluefin tuna for an example. The fish is in severe decline; the Atlantic population has been cut by nearly 90% since 1970. It’s in demand because it goes for such a high price–it’s the most expensive sushi you can buy. There are weight quotas (which are actually too high to sustain the species, say scientists) imposed by governments, but those quotas are not enforced. Japan has bought 6 billion dollars worth of illegal bluefin over the past 20 years.

Despite this apocalyptic scenario, restaurants all over town, including Nobu and Masa, still serve bluefin tuna. Sushi Samba, among many others, serves Chilean seabass. The only way that businesses will stop making money off of what are essentially endangered species is if we stop buying them.

The good news behind all this bad news is that we can easily do something about this problem, and it doesn’t mean you can’t eat fish. There are many fin fish and shellfish that are sustainably produced, it’s just a matter of putting a little bit of thought into what you buy. Yesterday, I found wild Alaskan salmon (one of the only sustainable kinds of salmon) at Whole Foods, and while the fish is usually upwards of $20 per pound, this 1-pound frozen package was only $8.50. Salmon freezes well, so there’s no reason not to take advantage of a great deal like that.

That salmon had the Marine Stewardship Council-certified sticker, which is something you can look for, or check out Seafood Watch to find out which species are good choices.

End of the Line premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Fest, and it will be playing on June 19th at Cinema Village. Go to the film’s website to watch the trailer and to find out about other screenings.

After the jump, journalist Charles Clover, the correspondent for The End of the Line, and author of the book of the same name, answers our questions, including why he still eats fish, and why we shouldn’t assume we live in a world of plenty.

The prediction that there will basically be no more fish by 2048 if things continue down this path is such a dire prediction that many people who haven’t seen the documentary might find it hard to believe. What do you say to people who think it sounds like science fiction?

Let’s be clear about what scientists are actually saying. They say the likelihood is that if things go on as they have in the past we shall run down all the major fisheries in the world to below a 10th of what they were in 1950 by some time around the middle of this century. That doesn’t mean no fish, just a fraction of the fish we have today when the human population will have increased by a third. The date 2048 appeared nowhere in that paper, it is controversial and disputed and appeared only on the press release, but by goodness it got the world’s attention. And no one can say that the trend isn’t down in most places.

Do you think that consumer awareness programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch are helpful? I am wondering if it just perpetuates the problem: if it tells us we should buy Pacific sole instead of Atlantic sole, might not that cause Pacific sole to become overfished before long?

I have that worry too. That is what will happen unless the recommended “green” choice actually comes from a fishery that is actively better managed than the amber or red choice and is independently verifiable as being so, as with those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. I think you’ll find that the “green” choices tend to come from fisheries like that, such as Alaskan pollock or salmon. These fisheries harvest far less of the spawning stock each year than those in, for instance, the US North East or the North Sea. So there is less risk they’ll collapse.My worry is that, even though they are the best yet, the MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] doesn’t yet make tough enough management recommendations.

Do you still eat fish?

Yes, but less than I did. I am mightily confused by whether any farmed fish is sustainable and I would just prefer to eat the little fish that they feed to carnivorous fish, rather than the salmon or bass itself. I like shellfish, which is mostly sustainable. I like mackerel, which is now MSC-certified, and have learned that it makes wonderful sushi straight out of the sea with English mustard, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall serves it. I would like to like tilapia and vegetarian fish but you can’t get them where I live.

Why do you think that overfishing and the problems with farmed fish have been so little covered in the media?

It takes a while, generally about 50 years, for any major idea to catch on. Take Rachel Carson’s revelations about what DDT did to robins and other wildlife. It was more than 20 years before organochlorine pesticides were banned in UK and people had to fight every step of the way to get them banned. We only figured out in 2002 that the world’s wild fish catches, which we thought had been rising inexorably, had actually been in decline since 1989. The official figures were wrong.

People still think unconsciously that they still live in a world of plenty. In fact we are entering a world of scarcity and the likelihood is that by depleting the fish in the oceans we are taking away food that people in developing nations need to survive, wiping out species that we will need to eat generations into the future, and accelerating global warming by affecting the oceans’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. These are massive issues but until recently fisheries reporting was exclusively about wrecks and whether fishermen could live with reduced quotas imposed upon them by politicians. People take a while to change their mindset.

What’s the single most important thing every seafood eater can do to help?

Buy only sustainable seafood. Don’t eat any fish that is endangered or threatened in the area in which it is caught. Eg: bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, shark, sturgeon products.

Do you feel hopeful, or do you feel that our awareness has come too late?

I am still hopeful. I think the timing is critical though. If we don’t start seeing strict scientific management of fisheries with controls aimed at increasing the biomass of fish, I think we will see food security problems and ecosystem problems which will reverberate on a global scale. If we don’t do the three “asks” in the film now – buy only sustainable seafood, tell politicians to adopt scientific quotas and cut the fleet and set up many, large marine reserves – then in a few years time I shall be saying don’t eat fish at all.

What has the reaction been to the documentary?

Not many people have seen the film yet, but of those few seemed to have any idea that overfishing was as global a problem as it is, or as bad as it is, or that it affected our food security in this new century or that it looks as if it accelerates global warming. Nobody knew. The reaction has been strongest among young people, who feel angry that our generation has dropped the baton and handed them a fatally damaged world.