BookBrowse Reviews The End of the Line by Charles Clover

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The End of the Line

How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat

by Charles Clover

The End of the Line by Charles Clover X
The End of the Line by Charles Clover
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2006, 384 pages
    Mar 2008, 396 pages

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Persuasive and desperately disturbing, this book is the maritime equivalent of Silent Spring

The End of the Line, first published in the UK to wide acclaim, is now available in the USA, having been extensively rewritten for an American audience. Clover, who is the environmental editor for The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain's leading newspapers, clearly lays out the simple, and pretty much indisputable facts: On the one hand, fish are a wonderful source of health-conscious protein. On the other, man's appetite for fish has grown with his ability to catch the fish, at a rate that has already more than outstripped the sea's ability to provide.

Fishing is still a dangerous business (over the past 10 years a British fishing vessel has been lost at sea every 12.5 days) but the odds of survival for the hunters has increased massively, while the survival rates for the hunted have been substantially reduced due to the use of all sorts of gadgets including GPS, acoustic net monitors, 3D mapping of sea beds, and fishing at ever increasing depths. The result is that some fish, such as North Sea skate, bluefin tuna and northern cod, are on the point of extinction, and we're within a few decades of permanently destroying entire marine ecosystems.

Clover neither sensationalizes nor heckles, he simply lays out the facts, and is merciless at pointing the finger at the guilty parties - from the trawlers with vast nets that destroy everything in their paths, to incompetent and/or dishonest scientists; to celebrity chefs who proudly display the "marine equivalent of panda, rhino and great apes" on their menus; to sports fisherman (23% of endangered species caught in North American waters are caught by sports fisherman) and to the general public for whom eating fish has become "a kind of dietary talisman". However, it is the governments that take the greatest tongue lashing, and with good reason. From self-interested governments who deny there's a problem and hamper ocean conservation; to the governments who allow their fishermen to glibly ignore international rules; to European Union countries (such as Spain) who buy morally questionable fishing rights from poor countries for pathetically small amounts of money.

The extraordinary thing is that the public just don't seem to care. Endless international agencies monitor, complain and suggest but little if anything changes. Victims of even the "friendly" trawling practices are huge - at least 50% of most catches is "trash", including whales, turtles, sharks, rays, and all types of fish that don't meet the grade, plus the trawlers wreck havoc on the seabed, destroying entire ecosystems; but other than buying the odd tin of "dolphin friendly" tuna, the public seem to be oblivious.

Take for example, McDonald's "Filet-o-Fish". Ironically, it transpires that the fillets used at McDonald's are likely to be more eco-friendly than those you eat in an expensive restaurants. 90% of the fish in McDonald's 275 million fish sandwiches (sold in the USA each year) is Alaskan pollock which come from sources certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Apparently McDonald's does not make marketing capital out of this fact as it doesn't want to pay royalties for use of the MSC label. From this one can only conclude that the public's awareness of fishing issues is so low that McDonald's don't feel the trade off in displaying this label would be worth the tiny fraction of their marketing budget it would take to pay for royalties!

Is there a solution? Of course there is, but will the governments and people of the world buy into it? As a world we need to establish rules for managing our common resources; large areas need to be designated as marine reserves, and quotas in other areas need to be set and kept to - the same advanced techniques that the fisherman use to find the fish can be used to monitor the fishermen. Marine farming offers a partial solution but comes with its own barrel of worms: Farmed fish tend to be more prone to diseases which spread to wild stocks; virtually all farmed fish are carnivores and therefore need to be fed on other fish; and farming of some animals, such as shrimp, can lead to massive changes in nitrogen levels, damaging the surrounding ecology.

Overall, this is a fascinating, eminently wise book but one that does not easily reduce to sound bites. Regrettably, this means that it may not reach the wide audience of policy makers and consumers that need to understand in order for change to happen.

Must Visit Link: The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program with printable pocket size guides that give you the latest information on sustainable seafood choices available in different regions of the U.S. Even if you live outside the USA, it is still worth printing out a guide as most of the good and bad choices will still be relevant.

This review was originally published in January 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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