The End of the Line

I just got back from watching “The End of the Line”, a new documentary about overfishing which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this winter and is currently in limited release. If you have the chance to see it, I recommend it highly. Watch the trailer below:

Based on a book by British science and environmental journalist Charles Clover, and featuring interviews with leading marine ecologists (including a couple I have had the honor of meeting, Boris Worm and Steve Palumbi, and one from my soon-to-be alma mater, Ray Hilborn), it deals with the global crisis that is overfishing. The film covers a lot of ground, from Alaska to Gibraltar to Senegal to Tokyo to Peru, and captures many of the salient issues and problems: ineffective management and enforcement, illegal landings, growing worldwide demand, and an increasingly effective and over-capitalized worldwide fleet. It also goes into the problems that go along with the collapse of fish stocks: ecological phase shifts, lost income, lost protein for a hungry world, and rending of cultures who have been tied socially and ecologically to the sea for generations. Near the beginning, Jeff Hutchings of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia describes the effect of the cod crash and fishing ban in Newfoundland. Aside from the obvious economic consequences—40,000 jobs lost overnight— the end of cod, he says, caused a certain death of the province’s collective soul.

There are plenty of shocking facts in “End of the Line” to make your soul die a little while watching it, too. Scientists recommend a quota of 15,000 lbs to just to avoid immediate collapse of Mediterranean bluefin tuna populations (10,000 to have a hope of rebuilding them), but the managers bow to fishing interests and set the limit at 30,000 lbs. Then pirate fishers go ahead and catch twice that amount, without fear of any enforcement action. Mitsubishi (yes, the Mitsubishi) currently buys 40-60% of all bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and is stockpiling frozen tuna to sell at even more astronomical prices once wild stocks are gone. Nobu, a swanky sushi restaurant group, adds a footnote to their menu to inform their diners that toro is a threatened species, but still leaves it on the menu.

The film is not perfect—my scientific side wanted more numbers, though there were probably plenty to effectively convey the information to a lay audience. It also is a bit one-sided, with lots of (very good) scientist face time, but much less with fishermen, and none at all with the real bad guys—the pirate fishers, rapacious corporate executives, irresponsible chefs, and spineless politicians. Don’t get me wrong: I believe this last group is profoundly in the wrong here. I don’t think they deserve a voice just for the sake of being “fair and balanced.” My ire as a professional cook and a marine scientist was particularly raised by Nobu Restaurant—to leave an endangered species on your menu is an insult, displaying a near-total lack of respect for your ingredients and culinary tradition. But at the same time, it is important to understand there are reasons why things occur the way they do, and they are very real.

All in all, though, “The End of the Line” is an outstanding documentary, which very effectively summarizes a huge problem, its ramifications, and solutions. The scientists are treated well, and acknowledge their uncertainties while retaining clarity on the big clear facts. The footage of the ocean and fish is beautiful and dramatic. And the film ends on a positive note, pointing out that we already know how to solve the problem of overfishing, how we as consumers and citizens can effect change, and that restoring fish to their former levels of abundance will create jobs and be a terrific and inspiring project. If you have the chance to see it, do.

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