Fishing - the depths of our plundering
12 Aug 2004 by JR

The End of the Line – How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat Charles Clover, Ebury Press, 314pp £14.99

 

This book made me feel sick.

 

It also, equally effectively, made me feel ashamed, despondent, concerned and anxious, increasingly disenchanted with our politicians and EU bureaucrats and, above all, guilty.

 

Charles Clover has been able to achieve all this because he has chosen over the past fifteen years as Environmental Editor of The Daily Telegraph in the UK to focus on a worldwide trend that is seemingly irreversible: mankind’s enthusiasm for pillaging the seas and oceans of edible fish, a process that began out of hunger and necessity, but has now escalated into a huge international industry whose work has been made more financially viable by massive government subsidies (estimated at between US$20-50 billion a year). Fishing has also been made considerably more precise by advances in technology and, now that it is acknowledged that eating fish a couple of times a week is positively good for us, it also seems respectable, even glamorous.

 

Clover has travelled the world to research this invaluable book. To the west coast of Scotland where the angling for sea trout he remembers as a boy no longer exists because there are no longer any fish. To Lowestoft where the fishing industry has virtually disappeared because so too have the fish in the North Sea. To Vigo, in northern Spain, which claims to be the port which lands more fish for human consumption than any in the world, to witness the effectiveness of the modern fishing vessel directed to its prey by sonar readings but with nets so vast that their by catch of dead and unwanted fish is devastating. And to Tsukiji market in Tokyo, home to the most discriminating fish buyers who will pay the highest prices for tuna air-freighted from around the world – on the morning I was there I counted boxes of tuna from fifteen different countries.

 

And, perhaps most depressingly, to the coast of Senegal, West Africa to which increasingly European, Japanese and Taiwanese fishing vessels are heading in numbers now that their local seas have been denuded with two immediate consequences. Firstly, that the fish stocks there are being massively over-exploited and that there is nothing in place to prevent the African grouper and sea bream from sharing the same vanishing fate as the Newfoundland and North Sea cod. And secondly these new raiders are robbing already undernourished Africans of not just their next meal but also of their natural birthright.

 

En route Clover garners unpalatable facts. From Ranson Myers, a fisheries biologist, in Canada that ‘there is no blue frontier left. Since 1950, with the onset of industrialised fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base of large fish species to less than 10 per cent from the tropics to the poles,’ and that it only takes 10-15 years for the industrial fisheries to reduce any fish community they encounter to one tenth of what it was before.

 

Modern marketing has helped too. Not many diners would have felt cool about ordering Patagonian toothfish sautéed with beurre blanc in a restaurant, but once it was renamed Chilean sea bass it became so popular that it went from a an unknown fish to an endangered species in a decade. It is also estimated that there are more than 30 large vessels fishing illegally in the southern Indian Ocean, wiping out the albatross with their long lines of hooks and generating a profit of US$500,000 per trip.

 

Happily, almost miraculously in view of the mass of distressing data, Clover finds possible salvation in three disparate locations. In Leigh, New Zealand where the Goat Island Marine Reserve was created at the instigation of Dr Bill Ballantine in 1975 and has subsequently vastly exceeded its founder’s expectations, not just as an example of how quickly a natural ecosystem can be regenerated without fishing pressure but also become a popular tourist destination in its own right. In Newfoundland, Canada where, much to the surprise of those who opposed the ban on cod fishing, fishermen have enjoyed a windfall because in the absence of predator cod, much higher-value shellfish, snow crab and shrimp, now thrive. And in Iceland, where fishing is so vital to the economy, that all fishermen are licensed, allocated a transferable quota, strictly monitored and equally strictly punished for any over-fishing.

 

Clover maintains that the only solution to a world without fish is to transfer the ownership of the seas from those who have taken control of it by default and now exploit it mercilessly to the rightful ownership of us all, that the seas should become an aquatic commons with properly monitored no-fishing reserves.

 

Politicians may find this too difficult but this book puts on to the world stage a proposition that Ballantine set in motion in New Zealand by establishing the world’s first marine reserve.  As Clover describes it, ‘Ballantine has circumvented one of the most intractable problems of the oceans, which is that fish don’t vote and fishermen do, so politicians go on giving in to the fishermen. He has done this by talking to the public over the fishermen’s heads, telling them that they own the sea. It is powerful stuff.’