The End of the Line

By Rupert Murray

There is a race to catch the last fish! That is the stark warning that the documentary The End of the Line issued in 2009 based on Daily Telegraph journalist Charles Clover’s book of the same name. In many ways this was a seminal documentary. Reporting on new science and data analysis in the wake of the catastrophic collapse, and subsequent closing, of the Newfoundland Cod Fishery in the early nineties, the film provides an overview of several severely depleted fisheries across the globe. From the North Sea to the coast of West Africa, and South East Asia’s Coral Triangle to the Mediterranean blue fin tuna fishery - the picture is depressingly dire. This is a march towards global collapse that has intensified since the 1950s when the current form of technologically driven fishing began.

The eminent cast of professors including Callum Roberts, Daniel Pauly, Boris Worm, Rashid Sumaila, Yvonne Sandovy and Jeffrey Hutchings, each lining up to present their understanding of the probable imminent ecological catastrophe is hard to ignore. The doomsday scenario, that without any change to the current industry global fish stocks could essentially be fished out by the middle of this century, no longer seems fanciful. The trophic cascades and ecological impact that such a scenario would produce will result in an ocean where biodiversity is limited and reduced to an over abundance of simple basic organisms. We are already seeing these large ecosystem effects. The political and social upheaval, in a world where 1.2 billion people still rely on fish as a key part of their protein intake, will be immense. And the much vaunted fish farming industry can not be the panacea considering it is far from sustainable when it takes five kilos of anchovy fish meal to produce one kilo of farmed salmon.

But peeking out from behind the documentary’s darkness is also a message of hope. We have the science and we understand what needs to be done. Consumers and politicians each have a role to play. What we choose to put on our plates, particularly in regions where we have economic choice in what we eat, matters. The End of the Line tells us that through consumer choice and political pressure we have to reduce the size of our fishing fleets and need to support “sustainable” fisheries, similar to the highly regulated Alaskan salmon industry. It also champions the creation of a global network of marine protected areas.

The reach of the film has been extensive. Campaigns to protect the oceans and reduce bycatch have taken place off the back of it. Celebrity chefs started talking about “sustainability”, some even started campaigning to protect the oceans and fish stocks. Perhaps there hasn’t been enough emphasis on actually reducing the biomass that is removed from the sea and those who continue to consume fish have leant towards looking for alternative sources rather than facing up to the reality that we simply can’t continue to consume in vast quantities. Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s campaign to move the public from eating endangered cod and haddock with their fish and chips to the humble mackerel hit a stumbling block when mackerel itself started to become overfished. That was not solely down to his campaign but it does emphasise the problems that such an approach engenders. When the narrative says we can continue to eat “sustainably” surely we have to question what that looks like and whether, in holistic ecological terms, sustainable fishing is currently even possible.

The original 2009 version of The End of the Line is now eleven years old. In 2017 it was updated and having purchased it once I now had to do so again in order to access the update. If you have already seen the original documentary then I wouldn’t recommend forking out for the updated version. The update disappointingly consists of a few slides of text at the end of the film listing some of the conservation victories and also the lack of progress that has been made. Certainly we have seen a minor recover of some Atlantic blue fin tuna stocks but it still remains an endangered species.

One of the most significant changes that has taken place is the creation of marine reserves. The Blue Marine Foundation, created in the wake of the film, along with other NGOs, large public support and celebrity campaigning has contributed to pressuring governments worldwide and has seen an increase from 0.6% of the worlds oceans under protection to the current 6% currently protected or in the process of being protected. We are still a long way from the 30% that The End of the Line claims is needed but it is a significant start. It does seem as if the overfishing story has gone a little off the boil in the public and media consciousness, being somewhat overtaken by the recent alarm over ocean plastics and of course climate catastrophe. But healthy, as opposed to overfished, oceans can play a major role in the resilience of the blue world in adapting to changing climes. Sadly it feels as if the 2017 update of the documentary was just a bit of an afterthought and an opportunity to revitalise the campaign in the public consciousness may have been missed. Perhaps a sequel could do a better job.