Book Review: The End of the Line, by Charles Clover

Today’s book review is The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.  I’ve known, fairly well, for years, that we are overfishing the seas. Reading Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was the first book that brought it home to me, as it covered the complete collapse of the Cod fishery of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, Canada. But this book was a much more concentrated taste of much that is wrong with the way in which we fish the seas. Depressingly, because it is written by a European (Charles Clover is the environment editor of the Telegraph in the UK), it doesn’t cover all of the issues that I’m aware of with the fisheries in our part of the world (most notably the dynamite fishing of South East Asia).

The book starts with a series chapters of set around the world – outlining the different ways in which fish stocks are being overfished in all parts of the world, and taking us to the world famous fishing markets in many traditional fishing areas. One of the first fish described is the bluefin tuna, once one of the most important fish in the Mediterranean, and still a key fish for sushi. In October last year was listed as an endangered species under CITES, five years after this book was written, and seventeen years after Sweden first tried to list it in 1992.

The markets he goes to are also fascinating. Lowestoft, where he starts, which was once a key fishing port for the east of England, is now just a market. Hardly any fish are landed there in boats any more. The fish traded there come from all over the world – Sri Lanka, Oman, New Zealand and Australia. But the key merchants, who built up their trade buying from the boat, have diversified into supplying their British customers from the whole world.

Many of the European fleets, which have run out of fish at home, have moved on to Africa, where the poorer countries are willing to sell fishing rights to huge factory ships in return for cash. Clover spends some time describing the negotations between the Senegalese and the EU – fishing rights gave the Senegalese £42m in 2002, which doesn’t seem much for what was a hugely productive fishery.

There was much to be indignant about, after reading this polemic, extraordinarily well researched book. The way in which fishing quotas completely ignore the “by catch” – fish which are caught and killed and don’t even make to port, even as fish oil. The subject is rarely researched, but when it has been, most fishing methods end up with at least 50% “bycatch” which often includes quite endangered species (loggerhead turtles, for example) and also kill many other animals as a byproduct (long baited lines, for example, kill manta rays and even whales, at times).  And the way in which food companies have made a credit out of selling “dolphin friendly” tuna, and ignoring all of the other ways in which fishing for tuna harms the ocean environment, most notably by killing species of tuna (such as the bluefin) which are seriously endangered.

In the end, in Clover’s view there are three dimensions to a fishery – the ecological, the economic, and the social (the life of the fishermen). He outlines three options in managing a fishery:

A. You can have a fishery that is healthy ecologically and economically, but you have to forget about supporting fishing as a cultural activity (i.e. subsidised activity all the way round the Scottish, Iberian or Newfoundland coast).

B. You can have a fishery that works economically and socially but not ecologically (but presumably not for very long because the resource will be gone in a few years once you have mined it).

C. You can have a fishery that works ecologically and socially but not economically (conceivably by making its money out of something else, such as tourism or nature conservation grants, like paid graziers on a nature reserve).

The world has been taking option B for the last 50 years, and is getting to the end of the line. But moving to either option A or option C creates enormous political pain in any society where fisherman have a serious voice, which is most societies with a long fishing tradition. Newfoundland, where the cod fishery has already collapsed, has moved to a combination of option C and B – they’ve moved on down the foodchain to lobster and prawns, and paid unemployment benefits to many fisherman who can’t fish any more, so that the villages and towns still have people in case the fish ever come back.

So the political will is not there, until the collapse of Option B takes A and C off the table. Option C could conceivably still be implemented at that point, but will make fish an occasional treat for the rich, rather than a key food of many different cultures.

Clover has a plan.  His key steps (for all major fishing countries) are:

  • Cut the fleet – preferably by setting up a system of individual transferable quotas for fishing off-shore, allocated to existing fishermen, vessel owners and processors. Contravening the rules would mean losing the quota forever, with the vessel seized and scrapped.
  • Set up a serious proportion of the key fisheries (he suggests 25% of the North Sea, for example) as marine reserves with no fishing vessels even allowed to pass through them
  • Provide transparent information on fishing vessels movements to the public, so that anyone can see what they are doing, and ordinary citizens can help in the policing of the rules

But he freely acknowledges the political difficulty of implementation:

The chances of all this happening, of course, are zero…. Until then, I’m afraid, Europe will go on backing towards a cliff in a fog.

He suggests way in which that might change – if public opinion changes in a serious way, or there is a cod crash in the North Sea, or if (for British fish at least) Britain leaves the EU (although given his evidence of how much cheating there is on the current rules in the Scottish fishery, I’m sceptical of this last one).

Clover gives quite a good review of the Australian and (particularly) New Zealand fisheries management. I fear that is because he hasn’t spent as much time digging for problems as he has in the UK, rather than because our fisheries are superbly well managed. But we don’t have quite the same cultural expectations of our fisheries management, at least in Australia, which helps. Fishing has  never had quite the same mystique here, as the Trawlermen in Scotland, which makes Option A an easier management option. We still have orange roughy in the fish shops, though – a slow growing fish which has collapsed to 10% of its initial biomass after 20 years of fishing.

I myself love eating fish, particularly (I’m afraid) sushi’d tuna, but tonight when we went out for fish and chips for dinner, I did make sure I had hoki, which has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (an organisation that gets a fairly good review in the book) as a sustainable fish.

  1 comment for “Book Review: The End of the Line, by Charles Clover

  1. January 26, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Hoki is okay? Good!

    I always learn something from your posts.

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