Monday, June 18, 2012

The End of the Line

Charles Clover’s book, The End of the Line, is a heartbreaking story about the seafood industry’s War on Fish.  The poor fish don’t have much of a chance anymore, because there’s nowhere to hide from the latest technology.  The eventual outcome of this systematic massacre is already obvious — both sides are going to lose.  When the nets finally come up empty, the unemployed fishers will shape-shift into burger flippers, security guards, and homeless panhandlers.  But until that final day, they’ll keep expanding the fleet, and fishing like there’s no tomorrow.
Back in the good old days of the Stone Age, there were vast numbers of fish, and a few scattered clans of low-tech subsistence fishers.  Most people in prehistoric Europe lived near the water, because that’s where the food was.  In the days before trawlers, the oyster population was astonishing.  Many were the size of dinner plates, and some oyster reefs were so big that they hindered navigation.  The Thames and Rhine rivers had huge salmon runs.  There were massive sturgeons in the Rhine delta.  It was an era of glorious abundance.
With the passage of centuries, tribal subsistence fishing eventually mutated into a business, and sustainability drifted away into the mists of the past.  Commercial fishers had an entirely different mindset, one with vivid fantasies of wealth and power.  Some refer to it as get-rich-quick fever, a painful incurable spiritual disease.  Using the technology of the day, they caught as many fish as possible, and converted them into money.  No matter how much they made, their burning hunger for treasure could never be satisfied. 
Over time, new technology enabled fishers to increase their landings.  By 1848, the “inexhaustible” halibut fishery on Georges Bank crashed, after a mere decade of overfishing.  It was once common to catch halibut as big as a man, but these fish are rarely seen at markets today.  The advent of steam-powered trawlers radically increased overfishing.  Today there are $89 million floating fish factories, 480 feet long, that can catch and freeze 440 tons of fish per day, and store 7,700 tons in the hold.  The Technology Fairy is a demon.
In 1500, there were 4,400,000 tons of cod off Newfoundland.  By 2003, there were just 55,000 tons.  Cod fishing was shut down in 1992, and 44,000 people lost their jobs.  The cod have yet to show signs of recovery.  The same is true for the North Sea mackerel, which collapsed in the 1970’s.  Tuna, sharks, and swordfish are swimming briskly down the Dinosaur Trail.
Experts calculate that global fish production peaked in 1988, and may now be declining at a rate of 770,000 tons per year.  Production statistics don’t include bycatch — the fish, sea mammals, birds, and turtles that are caught but tossed back, because they can’t be sold.  Nobody keeps records on bycatch, but some believe that one-third of the global catch is dumped overboard, almost all of it dead or dying, usually because of ruptured swim bladders or drowning.
Clover complains that we can put a man on the moon, but no nation does a competent job of managing fisheries, with the possible exception of Iceland.  Everybody can see that the industry is heading for disaster.  There are already plenty of intelligent rules on the books, but effective enforcement is almost non-existent.  Overfishing generates good income, fuels the economy, and hurts no one except for our children, the aquatic ecosystem, and poor people in foreign countries — none of whom can vote.  The bottom line is that nobody will voluntarily back off, because the fish that you don’t catch will be caught by someone else. 
Monthly payments on modern boats are huge, and for many fishers, the only way to pay the bills is to catch and sell illegal fish.  There are many ways of getting illegal fish to market.  Port inspectors often look the other way, especially in Spain and Portugal.  Extremely inaccurate paperwork is submitted and accepted.  Illegal fish are delivered in mismarked boxes.  If an inspector appears at port A, the boat will unload at port B, and truck the catch to the processor.  Few violators get busted and punished.  The huge economic benefits of pirate fishing far exceed the trivial risks.
Four times every day, all fish stop what they’re doing, bow their heads, and fervently pray for World War III on the dry land above, because world wars put a halt to most fishing activities.  War provides a much-appreciated break from the underwater mass extermination.  They also pray for skyrocketing energy prices, catastrophic stock market crashes, and major bankruptcies in the seafood sector.  They’re sick and tired of being the target of genocidal maniacs.  Who can blame them?
During the research process, Clover was surprised to discover that McDonalds got a top score for their fish, all of which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  At the opposite end of the spectrum are most chi-chi restaurants.  World-famous celebrities, who would never dream of wearing a fur coat, are often photographed with famous chefs who serve the seafood equivalent of rhinoceros steaks or condor barbeque — species on the brink of extinction, like the extremely endangered tuna served at gold-plated sushi places.  MSC-certified fish is also sold at Wal-Mart.
Clover has no kind words for aquaculture, which many perceive to be the amazing high-tech “solution” to all of our seafood problems.  Industry is vacuuming up the smaller fish in the ocean to make feed for high value fish raised in horrid concentration camps.  This game cannot last long.  Be aware that “organic” farmed salmon is given feed made from overfished species.
Thankfully, Clover provides us with a brilliant alternative to aquaculture.  Rather than feeding low-value fish to concentration camp salmon, why don’t we simply eat the perfectly edible blue whiting, herring, horse mackerel, and sand eels?  They could provide us with excellent high quality protein and oils that totally bypass the mega-harmful worlds of agriculture and aquaculture.  Eating small wild fish is healthier for us, much less cruel, causes less harm to the seas, and makes us feel like an intelligent species.
Did you know that recreational fishers catch 30 percent of the cod taken off the coast of Maine?  Did you know that about 25 percent of “catch and release” fish die soon after being returned to the water?  Sport fishers now have sonar, fish finders, GPS systems, and small fast boats.  Their impact is not insignificant.  Anglers often break the rules, and their chances of getting caught are close to nil.
Clover provides us with intelligent, effective, commonsense solutions that are politically impossible, unfortunately.  We should set aside 50 percent of the ocean as reserves where fishing is prohibited.  We should also cut back industrial fishing by 50 percent.  We should create an aggressive full-scale oceanic police force that would have absolute authority to promptly end illegal fishing, and provide extra-generous punishment to offenders.  We should consume less fish, and shop more mindfully.  And so on.  “We have on offer two futures.  One requires difficult, active choices starting now.  If we don’t take those choices, the other future will happen anyway.”
Clover, Charles, The End of the Line, The New Press, New York, 2006.

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