The End of the Line – PART ONE

06 Oct 2009

I was reading a restaurant review by a famous British journalist recently, and I was struck by how very different amounts of information are required when talking about food from the land and food from the sea. This food writer seldom recommends anything but local produce, rare breeds of livestock, free-range eggs and organic food. It’s fashionable to hint, at least, that your food comes from a sustainable source when it comes from the land. But when it comes from the sea, I noticed what she said, and she was struggling to find a comparable description of the provenance of the fish. She just needed a word, a word to insert there, in front of the word fish. Then, hey, she got it, and the word was ‘fresh’. The fish was ‘fresh’.

It’s hard to exaggerate the inadequacy of that statement, when the scientific management of fish stocks has failed almost everywhere in the world. In the Mediterranean, scientific management never really happened at all (I may be blundering into somebody else’s backyard here but, I don’t think it has, to any great extent.) In British and Spanish waters, fishermen only stay in business by cheating. When Europe’s rising demand for fish is exported to the oceans of the rest of the world, there are disastrous consequences for traditional fishermen who are deprived of a living. We have to look again at fishing.

We are only just beginning to understand the extraordinary devastation that fishing with modern technology has brought about in the oceans in the space of a single lifetime. For example, earlier this year, American Scientist published a paper in which they had worked out, for the first time, just how much the cod had declined on the Scotia bank, which is one of the banks off the American coast just south of Nova Scotia, since industrial fishing began in the 1850s. It had declined by 96%. Though it is hard to quantify, it appears that the decline in the North Sea, near to where I live, is even greater. We do not know if the North Sea cod will come back.

What we do know is that the cod in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland still have not, over a decade after fishing was banned. Part of the reason why it has taken us so long to catch up with what’s going on in the sea, compared to what is going on land, is just that what is in the sea is hidden from us by a vale of water. It is a problem of perception. We have failed to think of fish as wildlife, which is what they really are.

In my book, I begin by asking people to imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two vast, Star Wars-style vehicles and dragged it across the African savannah, netting everything in their way, including predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering herbivores such as rhinos and elephants and herds of impalas and wildebeests, and family groups of wild dog. The iron bar at the mouth of the net breaks off every outcrop and uproots every bush, stirring columns of birds into the air. These industrial hunter-gatherers then stop occasionally to examine the tangled mess of riding creatures that they have left behind them. They take what they want, and they dump those that are too small, too mangled or the wrong species, on the plain to be consumed by scavengers. This unselective method of killing animals is called trawling, and it is practiced every day all over the world, from the Barents Sea to the shores of Antarctica.

I believe we have reached a pivotal moment in our view of technological fishing, as we did with intensive farming in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet at the same time something else is happening. The medical establishment is telling us to eat more fish. The culinary establishment says we should eat more fish. Fish is fashionable. Fish is chic. Skinny models eat fish in preference to anything else. It is eaten with less conscience than meat.


Adapted from a speech made at the Slow Fish event in Genoa, 2005.

Charles Clover, UK, has been the Environment Editor of The Daily Telegraph, since 1987. He is a frequent contributor to BBC TV, Sky and BBC Radio news. His book, The End of the Line (2006), which argues that our passion for fish is unsustainable, has inspired an award-winning documentary film.

The End of the Line
How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat
by Charles Clover
Hardcover: Nov 2006,
384 pages.
Paperback: Mar 2008,
396 pages.

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