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Are We Nearing the End of the Line for Edible Ocean Fish?

(Photo: Michael Malz)

On July 16, The New York Times editorialized that the world's oceans are potentially on the verge of irreversible catastrophic collapse. Due to global warming and other factors, the marine ecosystems are being severely compromised.

One of the factors contributing to the degradation of our oceans is massive, industrial, commercial overfishing. The Times cites a report that many species of fish are “either vulnerable to extinction, endangered or critically endangered.”

As reported in Truthout, the White House Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is formulating a plan for a collaborative ocean policy. But it is a long way from a task force to implementation of enforceable international policies.

Journalist Charles Clover wrote the definitive book on overfishing, “The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat.” Truthout recently interviewed him.

Clover is the environmental columnist for the Sunday Times and has written on the subject for more than two decades. He edits a web site that encourages consumers to play a role in sustainable fishing,

The Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week, “The End of the Line” (DVD) is a documentary based on Clover's book in which he also appears.

Mark Karlin: What would be the worldwide impact if edible fish no longer existed in sufficient numbers in the ocean due to overfishing?

Charles Clover: The picture is that about a third of the world's wild fish stocks have collapsed – defined as being fished to below 10 per cent of their abundance in 1950 – and for the rest the trend is down with only one or two places in the world managing their fish sustainability. This has huge implications for food security in a world with more human beings in it and for the functioning of whole ecosystems.

MK: What is happening to smaller, less developed nations that depend on fish they catch as a major part of their diet?

CC: Bad things. This is one of the world's most pressing problems. The availability of fish is a food security issue. We need to stop our first world fleets taking fish from the mouths of the poor. The EU fleet goes all up and down the coast of Africa. The same thing goes on in the Pacific.

MK: In the overfishing, what percentage of fish and other creatures such as dolphins, get caught up in the nets and hooks and are thrown back dead into the sea?

CC: You mean bycatch. Depends on the fishery. In Pacific tuna purse-seine fisheries it's a lot. I wrote a whole chapter on it. In long-line fisheries it's a lot too, turtles as well as sharks. Prawn fisheries in the tropics can have 80 per cent bycatch.

MK: What is the impact on the ocean ecosystem when one kind of fish is no longer abundant?

CC: There's absolute extinction, which is vastly hard to prove and then there is commercial extinction, which means you can't find it to catch any more. The sea's a big place and you should remember the coelacanth, the missing link fish that everyone thought had been extinct for millions of years and then turned up off South Africa. On the other hand, the bluefin tuna off Brazil is commercially extinct because it doesn't now turn up in numbers worth catching if any turn up at all. Populations are subject to something called the Allee effect [density dependence] which, as I understand it, means that when they drop too low, they have no way of renewing themselves genetically. The gene pool isn't big enough. There may still be individuals out there, but not in significant quantities and the trend is down. That's not somewhere we want to get to with any fish.

MK: In the documentary, the kill-off date for ocean seafood is 2050. How was that date arrived at?

CC: I'd be far happier with saying “some time around the middle of this century, if present trends continue – which we hope they don't – we could have run down the world's major stocks of wild fish, just as we have three billion more people on this earth who might want to eat them.”

MK: What do you say to those who argue that fish stocks will return after a few years?

CC: They might, they might not. Depends how much we've fished them. Look at the northern cod off Newfoundland. They said that would come back. It hasn't yet. Every now and again someone says it's coming back and it's gone up by one percent. Many people think that there has been an ecosystem flip and other species now live in the niche cod once lived in.

MK: What role does the consumer play in the depletion of certain types of fish, such as the bluefin tuna?

CC: Greedy and unethical ones continue to eat them and they shouldn't. They should realize that in a world of scarce resources, it is unethical to eat declining species.

MK: There is an amazing shot in the documentary of an enormous seabed trawler that smashes coral reefs and lower ocean level sea life to bits as it speeds along. So, the threat is not just to fish, but to the actual seabed, is that right?

CC: That is actually the first image in my book and shook me when I discovered about it: the image of a beam trawler smashing its way across the seabed. I transposed it to the plains of Africa and it became a shocking image. Towed gear does alter the habitat and kills animals on the bottom as well as catching fish and that image explains that. It was worked out that a beam trawler killed 16 pounds of marine creatures to produce one pound of marketable sole.

View the trailer for the documentary.

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