Overfishing has, until now, tended to be a peripheral issue on the contemporary environmental agenda, which has focused on damage to the ozone layer, the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the accumulation of toxic and persistent organic substances, and the erosion of terrestrial biodiversity. Perhaps understandably, the public and the news media in America tend to rank concern about pollution and contamination that affect human health above concern about conserving wild fish stocks. In one sense they are right. We need to be well informed about mercury and PCB contamination in predatory fish such as tuna, swordfish, and shark. Pregnant women and parents should indeed follow freely available U.S. Food and Drug Administration advice on eating fish to reduce exposure to these contaminants and prevent harm to developing nervous systems in fetuses and learning impairment in young children. Yet it is easy to forget that the overfishing of wild fish has a human health dimension. As catches of wild fish decline we are forced in the direction of the intensive farming of fish, with all the attendant problems that this has caused on landresidues of pesticides and veterinary chemicals, the buildup of contaminants (PCBs and heavy metals from concentrating the flesh of smaller wild-caught fish in fish meal), pollution of the seabed, genetic modification, and the potential for creating diseases that can cross species barriers, infecting wild populations and even ourselves. Beneath the near hysteria about mercury and PCBs in large, long-lived, wild, and predatory fish there is a highly questionable propositionthat it should be possible to eat orgiastic amounts of seafood without guilt, whenever one likes, and without taking any responsibility for the health of the biological systems from which that seafood comes. It is time to recognize the selfishness and tunnel vision behind the concern about mercury and to look more broadly at the problems of the oceans.
As we do it becomes clear, as I have suggested, that a perception-changing moment has arrived. It comes with the realization that in a single human lifetime we have inflicted a crisis on the oceans greater than any yet caused by pollution. That crisis compares with the destruction of mammoths, bison, and whales, the rape of rain forests, and the pursuit of bush meat. As a method of mass destruction, fishing with modern technology is the most destructive activity on Earth. It is no exaggeration to say that overfishing is changing the world. Just as the deep sea has become the last frontier, its inhabitants a subject of fascination to filmmakers, so some vulnerable creatures of the shallower seas, such as sharks, rays, and seahorses, are already on a slide to extinction. Overfishing, as a direct result of the demand by consumers in the worlds wealthier countries, threatens to deprive developing countries of food in order to provide delicacies for the tables of rich countries, and looks set to rob tomorrows generations of healthy food supplies so that companies can maintain profitability today.
As fish stocks used in traditional diets crash and others are found as substitutes, overfishing is altering our diet. It is even altering evolution: the Atlantic cod has begun to spawn at an earlier age in response to the pressure of fishing. Overfishing has been, and no doubt will be again, a cause of war and international disputes. It is a force in world trade and international relations, and a corrosive agent in domestic politics.
This book argues that, as a result of overfishing, we are nearing the end of the line for fish stocks and whole ecosystems in the worlds oceans, and that it is time we arranged things differently. It takes the form of a journey around the world made in several stages and records many conversations about the problems and potential solutionsa number of which are as controversial as the problems. It reveals the extent of what is happening in the oceans in our name while satisfying our appetite for fish, and shows that the true price of fish isnt written on the menu.
© 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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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