The End of the Line. The ocean is our shared heritage.

Last night Matt and I went to an RSA screening of The End of the Line, an independently-financed documentary about over-fishing.

Fish wonks have had a recent shock. Although it’s long been observed that many fish species are in drastic decline, some reassurance had been derived from statistics about catches year on year: they appeared to be going up. But it turns out that Chinese bureaucrats had been massaging the data for reasons of self-preferment. The catch has been in decline since 1989. We reached ‘peak fish’ 20 years ago.

We are enormously ingenious at netting fish, so much so that we have beaten a number of species to the point of extinction. However, when a predator – tuna or cod, for example – dwindles in numbers its prey burgeons, humans turn their gastronomic attentions to the newly burgeoning species and nobody really notices the loss (I find this very weird, that you could eat something so enthusiastically that it becomes extinct but then miss it so little when it’s gone).

There were many scenes of gasping, struggling, violent deaths which were very upsetting. I wasn’t sure about the function of these scenes, given that the aim of the film was not to provoke outrage against fishermen, nor empathy with fish. I had the slight sense that the film makers were contrasting the cottage fishing against the technical/industrial fishing as if the form of death was important to the fish. But thankfully this wasn’t pushed – the contrast was developed in the direction of illustrating the difference in devastation between the different modes of fishing. And anyway, it’s good to feel disturbed about the death of an animal, if you accepted it before.

The US came out looking like the most responsible and responsive of the developed states, and the most constitutionally equipped to avert the crisis. However, fish move. They migrate from reserves and without a stringently policed international treaty, the US’s restraint is some other state’s economic gain. Without an international treaty, the fish lose either way. In case it needs re-stating, the fish are part of our ecosystem. If we kill them off, there’ll be negative repercussions of an unpredictable nature.

There’s a high degree of consensus that fish are in crisis. There’s some peripheral disagreement over the severity of the crisis, but no expert thinks that it’s OK to allow things to carry on as they are.

The campaign has its poster pin-up: the blue fin tuna. The blue fin tuna is analogous to the white rhino in terms of danger of extinction.

I thought it was a very good film. First rule of thumb with activism is, if you are going to confront somebody – in this case, a viewer – with news of an unfolding disaster, to avoid the onset of fatalistic paralysis you have to give them the information they need to make the change required. As somebody who feels like they are searching in vain for an effective middle ground between cold rage and cold pragmatism, I found this film, and the discussion afterwards with two of its creators offered substantial options to people who eat fish and people, like me, who don’t. Here are some, relating to consumers and governments:

  • Consider the oceans as everybody’s responsibility
  • Buy from Waitrose, because (at time of writing) they care more than other supermarkets about overfishing.
  • Failing that, buy Marine Stewardship Council certified fish. Check regularly because fish populations fluctuate – in fact, I’d say get a web phone so you can check at the point of placing your order or making your purchase.
  • Campaign for a network of policed ocean reserves
  • Campaign for NGOs to have status as litigants in the EU, as they do in the US (have I got that right? I need more info).
  • Contact your MP and MEP to ask them to campaign for lower quotas and an end to subsidised fishing by industrialised fleets in countries like Senegal, depriving the citizens there of livelihood because they can’t compete.
  • In restaurants, always ask about provenance and if you are not completely satisfied with the response (and basically the question to ask is whether it has some kind of certification of sustainability), avoid the fish

Afterwards there were some drinks. As usual, this vegan gulped the wine, but this time with a shifty feeling.  Usually I’m very protective of my booze. It’s the next step in being vegan, just like vegan was the step after becoming vegetarian. It’s on the horizon but I’m not there yet.  Did the wine contain isinglass, the clarifying agent made from the swimbladders of fish? They wouldn’t have served us wine with isinglass of dubious provenance after a film campaigning against fish of dubious provenance. Would they? And I drank it down, a living instantiation of the blind eye.

Matt and I were lucky enough to collar Jeffrey Hutchings, professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who had featured in the film (I thought I’d be too busy to blog or I would have mentioned it before I started talking with him). I had the impression that he had thought long and hard about the messages he wanted to communicate. The fish and the wider ocean ecosystem, were at the centre of his concern. He was no misanthrope; he wasn’t fire and brimstone; there was no bitterness. He simply cared deeply about cod. He also cared about the people whose livelihood in in fishing; his position is that it should not be left to them to shoulder the burden of reviving ocean life but that ocean life is our common heritage and that we have a collective responsibility. He told us that they choose their mates, that they are far more deliberate in the way they live their lives than we have assumed, that they are not commodities, that they have lives.

Reflecting on the evening on the way home I thought about how I’m naturally inclined towards more whole-system causes, and how I find the practice of single issue campaigning very interesting. Given that fish have lives, why would I – a human who values life – think it was in any way acceptable to kill and eat them? Why draw the line at unsustainable fishing? Why draw the line at fish, above all other animals?  I bristle when somebody talks about fish in commodifying terms of ‘stocks’ and ‘seafood’.  But I was very impressed with Jeffrey Hutching’s focus and restraint. As somebody else we spoke to from Greenpeace said while making a more general point, my kind of opinions are felt to be hostile, bring out the worst in people, make the problem too big to address, are disempowering, are counterproductive. Consumers need to be made aware, persuaded, appealed to, and perhaps the quietly denied the opportunity to buy, say, cod, or blue fin tuna.

I take my hat off to the people who made this film, and the people who are looking out for the fish populations. Also to Jamie Oliver, who seems to eat literally anything, for withdrawing references to blue fin from his programmes and books.

At the end of the film, we learn that Nobu, restaurant frequented by the rich and celebrated, famous for sushi, and for kobi beef from cows which have eaten better than many of the world’s less affluent humans, is still serving up blue fin with the nonsensical caveat: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species, please ask your server for an alternative.”

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