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Low Carbon: Act now or it's jellyfish burgers all round

By Sarah Griffiths on Jun 8, 09 11:57 AM in News

Unless we act now, there won't be any fish in the sea by 2050. Kate Hodal talks to journalist Charles Clover and director Rupert Murray about their new film, The End of the Line, which previews on June 8 across the UK and looks at the consequences of over-fishing.

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Never mind "Gone fishing", the sign will soon have to read "Gone: fish" if we continue to exploit our seas.

That is the stark message behind The End Of The Line, the world's first major movie documentary to look into the state of seas and oceans.

Our love affair with eating fish, coupled with major technological advances in the fishing industry over the past 50 years, has led to a severe decline of more than 80% of the world's fish stocks, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.

And that's just an average. Some of our favourite fish, including cod, salmon and bluefin tuna, have been overfished to near extinction.

What once seemed to be a never-ending resource has now proved to be the next victim of man's greed - so much so that we could run completely out of fish by 2048.

The result would be a complete shake-up of our world's ecosystem, including a redesign of how - and what - we eat. Fish fingers would be replaced by fried plankton, grilled salmon by jellyfish burgers. Sounds appetising, doesn't it?

Worse than we thought

Beautifully shot, The End Of The Line is based on the best-selling book of the same name by former Telegraph journalist Charles Clover. It has already been lauded by reviewers as "the inconvenient truth about the oceans" and "scarier than Jaws".

And its message is that overfishing is not an issue affecting just one region. The oceans all across the world - from Tokyo to the Straits of Gibraltar, from Alaska to Senegal - are running out of fish. And barely any of us know anything about it.

"This is one of the most important problems facing us today, and everyone has failed to grasp that," explains Clover, who spent 15 years researching his book. "Everyone is banging on about peak oil, but we haven't even got to that stage yet. We have, actually, reached peak fish."

As the world struggles to come to terms with global warming, we now have to face the fact that 1.2 billion people across the world depend on fish for both food and survival. And as the fish run out, livelihoods do too.

"This is the biggest environmental disaster you've never heard of," says the film's director, Rupert Murray, who was "wowed" by Clover's book when it was published four years ago.

"And the effect this one industry is having on the whole world is incredibly far-reaching."

Huge fishing fleets, with their trawlers and scallop dredgers, have wiped out both smaller fishing industries and nature's biological controls. Trawling is the equivalent of ploughing a field seven times in one year.

Each year, global trawling by the fishing industry covers an area of seabed as large as the Congo, Brazil and India combined. The world's largest trawling net could comfortably fit 13 Boeing 747 airliners within its mouth, which one scientist has described as proof that "we are fighting a war against fish, and we are winning".

Scientists across the globe agree that there are too many fleets chasing too few fish. The result is a massive grab at what can be had, resulting in seven million tonnes of catch - one tenth of the world's yearly catch - being thrown back into the sea.

And that doesn't just include fish - it also includes turtles, seals, whales, dolphins, sharks, corals and sea ferns.

"The signs of destruction brought up on deck from these trawls would make an angel weep," says Professor Callum Roberts of York University in the film.

But it's not just the trawlers causing the damage. In fact, it was Clover's first catch - a 23-pound salmon in a Welsh river - that got him thinking about the sustainability of his own seemingly innocuous hobby.

"I was triumphant about that catch but I've felt guilty about it ever since," he explains. "I thought, 'If I can do this trouble with a spinner, what about those guys with the giant nets in the sea?'"

Shamefully, some of the biggest offenders to emerge in the film are European governments, who regularly continue to set EU fishing quotas "two times the size the stocks can stand", says Clover, in what he calls a "pogrom of the seas".

He explains: "A healthy ocean is good for all things, including climate change, because the sea is a huge carbon sink.

"We used to think that it was the plankton dying that replenished the alkalinity of the sea, but now we know it's the faeces of dead fish that help regulate climate change."

So as we continue to overfish our seas, we increase the perils of climate change. But too few people are listening.

Chic restaurants across the globe, including London's Nobu Berkeley - frequented by Brad Pitt and Kate Moss and co-owned by Robert De Niro - defy scientific warnings and regularly feature endangered species such as bluefin tuna on their menu.

"The bluefin tuna is the blue whale for our generation," says Clover. "We used to have bluefin tuna off Scarborough, now we don't. Why can't we just protect this creature before it's wiped out?"

A hopeful future

As dismal as the science may seem, Clover is convinced that overfishing is a tide of destruction easily stemmed, if not reversed. But consumers will have to get involved.

"If you only buy sustainable fish, you reduce the market for unsustainable fish and eventually the suppliers of that fish will have to listen," he says.

"Huge multinationals like Asda and Walmart are already beginning to listen. Waitrose refuse to take threatened or endangered species.

"If you buy what you believe in, your purchasing power is an immensely enormous tool."

Fish-lovers will find it useful to know just what fish they can eat - sustainably, that is - and which they should avoid. Bluefin tuna, Arctic cod, Atlantic salmon, Southern hake, Atlantic redfish, American plaice are all overfished, while shellfish, tilapia (an African freshwater fish) and snapper are all OK.

The Marine Conservation Society's website, www.fishonline.org, is full of information on the subject, including a traffic-light grading system that rates fish.

But be aware that even farmed fish aren't necessarily the best alternative, as 40% of the world's anchovy catch is turned into fish meal for farmed fish.

A huge part of our indifference to the future of the seas, Rupert Murray says, is due to the fact that we see fish so differently to ourselves.

"Because they are biologically different to us, because they are essentially invisible to us and live in invisible homes, we only see fish as a resource to be exploited," he explains.

"I got trapped in a fishing net while filming anchovy (in Peru) and I thought I was going to die.

"Whether fish feel pain at death is debatable, but these anchovy were petrified: their eyes widened, their pupils dilated and they kept swimming against the net to get out.

"We talk about fish as 'stocks', not as living, breathing animals. And to be honest, it really shocked to me to see how red their blood is, that it's exactly the same colour as ours."

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