The Price of Fish
Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between
two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of
Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would
scoop up everything in its way: predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering
endangered herbivores such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and
wildebeest, family groups of warthogs and wild dogs. Pregnant females would be swept up
and carried along, with only the smallest juveniles able to wriggle
through the mesh. Picture how the net is constructed, with a
huge metal roller attached to the leading edge. This rolling
beam smashes and flattens obstructions, flushing creatures into
the approaching filaments. The effect of dragging a huge iron
bar across the savannah is to break off every outcrop and uproot
every tree, bush, and flowering plant, stirring columns of
birds into the air. Left behind is a strangely bedraggled landscape
resembling a harrowed field. The industrial hunter gatherers
now stop to examine the tangled mess of writhing or
dead creatures behind them. There are no markets for about a
third of the animals they have caught because they dont taste
good, or because they are simply too small or too squashed.
This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by
This efficient but highly unselective way of killing animals is known as trawling. It is practiced the world over every day, from the Barents Sea in the Arctic to the shores of Antarctica and from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the central Pacific to the temperate waters off Cape Cod. Fishing with nets has been going on for at least ten thousand yearssince a time when hunters pursued other humans for food and killed woolly mammoths by driving them off cliffs. Yet because what fishermen do is obscured by distance and the veil of water that covers the Earth, and because fish are cold-blooded rather than cuddly, most people still view what happens at sea differently from what happens on land. We have an outdated image of fishermen as rugged, principled adventurers, not as overseers in a slaughterhouse for wild animals.
Eating fish is fashionable, and seafood is consumed with far less conscience than meat. Even many vegetarians see no irony in eating fish. It has become a kind of dietary talisman for Western consumers. Nutritionists tell us that fish is good for usthe best source of low-fat protein and vitaminsand that the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish aid in optimal brain function, reduce the danger of heart attacks and strokes, and delay the onset of arthritis and osteoporosis. Studies even indicate that consuming fish slows down the aging process and can help us lose weight because a fishy diet switches off our hunger hormone, making us feel satisfied on smaller amounts of more nutritious food. Models, Hollywood actresses, and socialites dont even need to smoke to stay skinny; they can be satisfied on birdlike portions. All they have to do is eat fish.
Unfortunately, our love affair with fish is unsustainable. The evidence for this is before our eyes. We have seen what industrial technology did to the great whales, the hunting of which is now subject to a worldwide, but not total, ban. I believe we are crossing another watershed in public thinkingnamely, what industrial techniques, unchecked market forces, and lack of conscience are doing to inhabitants of the sea. On land a watershed was reached in farming when sprays, fertilizers, food additives, and factory-farming techniques used in the raising of crops and animals led to the collapse of farmers reputations as custodians of the countryside and guardians of the quality of food we eat. The farmers image is only slowly being rebuilt, amid much suspicion. Fish were once seen as a renewable resource, creatures that would replenish their stocks forever for our benefit. But around the world there is evidence that numerous populations of fish, such as the northern cod, the North Sea skate, the marbled rock cod of Antarctica, and to a great extent the bluefin tuna, have been fished out, like the great whales before them, and are not recovering. Reassurance from official sources on both sides of the Atlantic that the seas are being managed scientifically is increasingly muted and, where it is given at all, hard to believe. Enforcement of the rules that are meant to prevail in the oceans has proved wanting almost everywhere. Even in some of the best-governed democracies, experts admit that overfishing is out of control.
© 2006 by Charles Clover. This piece originally appears in Charles Clovers The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (The New Press, November 13, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.
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