July 15: Inconvenient Truth of fisheries
The film 'The End of the Line' based on Charles Clover's book has brought the ethics of fisheries in the Opinion and People's pages of English newspapers. We met with Clover in his favourite inn.
“Hey Charlie, seen the newspapers today?” the barkeeper greets Clover as he steps into the bar. Indeed, he has. He explains to us that as a result of his film, which now shows in several theatres all over the UK, celebreties frequenting chique restaurants have begun to ask the chefs the provenance of the tuna in sushi's and have protested against the shark fin soup on the menu.
Now that the ethics of fishery have moved to the Opinion and the People's pages, the impact is much larger than articles in the environmental or science pages. It is the consequence of the film 'The End of the Line', based on the book by the same title published by Clover in 2004. The book sold between 20 and 30 thousand copies. But it's only now that the discussion seems to ignite.

Clover, an evironmental editor for 26 years, has little regard of fishing science. “Look at Lowestoft”, he says. “After the second World War, the catches of flatfish landed there were enormous. Now it's as good as gone. Fishery science has led that happen. Within a lifetime they have allowed most fish stocks in the North Sea to a fraction of its original size. Fishery science has failed us.”
Of course, fishery scientists don't agree with him. Robin Cook from Marine Scotland for exampe calls Clover 'biased'.
In a sense he is. He does not, as fishery scientists do, look at the total allowable catch that can be retrieved without endangering the stock – a concept that has repeatedly failed in the past. Instead, Clover takes the pre-industrial size of fishing stocks as a reference. You could argue such data are hard to come by (Clover thinks it could be worked out if one really wanted), but you could take the post WWII levels as an alternative value. Lack of fishing in the war years allowed the stocks in the North Sea to reach unprecendented levels.
Clover thinks fishery scientists are already too closely involved with the industry, and the current involvement of the fishing industry in setting the catch limits, the so-called consensus paradigm, makes him even more suspicious of the science involved. “Fishery scientists work for the fishing industry – not for the people that are paying them.”
Why trust fishery scientists who have allowed whole stocks to go bust, he asks rhetorically. And why allow the fishing industry to range all over the open seas? Healthy fish stocks are a human right, he argues. We in Europe should have the right to drag the fishery industry to court when stocks decline. Or the fishing managers for that matter: “EU guidelines strive for sustainable fishery, but they fail to produce it. We should take them to court for that.”
In America you can do that, Clover says. When a certain fish stock has been reduced to 90 percent of its original level, citizens can make a case and demand the fishery of that stock to be stopped. Such cases have indeed led to extensive closures of large areas to fishing.

Clover does not deny that since the publication of his book in 2004 a number of North Sea stocks have improved. But to his taste, they have not recovered enough by far. Again, it's a question of baseline. What do you compare it to? To the wrecked state the stocks were in or to the pre-industrial original levels. That's the baseline we should strive for, Clover argues.
The only way to reach that would be a closure of about half of the seas to any form of fisheries. Calling it 'Marine Protected Areas' is already too close to the fisheries perpective to Clover's taste. Why call it protected? Why assume fishery is allowed everywhere, except for where it is explicitly forbidden.
Semantics aside, Clover argues half of the seas should be off-limit to fishery and then wait and see to what baseline fish stocks will recover. No doubt, his proposal is a drastic one and probably way beyond from what is acceptable for the industries, but it is a clear measure with a clear message: the environment has the same rights as the fishery industry.
The most concrete effect of the film so far has been the British backing of the ban of bluefin tuna fishing, as proposed by Cites (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species). The bluefin tuna is presented in the film as the starkest example of 21st century overfishing. France, with the biggest bluefin tuna fleet, also announced to back the ban. Meanwhile Clover keeps his cool. He is glad with the ban, but fears the tuna of breeding age has already been wiped out. “They probably caught them all in 2007, while we were filming it.”
Visit the 'End of the Line' website for film, newsroom, campaign and shop.