`The one that got away' can't

A powerful book on what modern technology is doing to the world's fish

Review Environment

December 31, 2006|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun Reporter

The End of the Line

Charles Clover

The New Press / 384 pages / $26.95

As Atlantic cod were being fished nearly to extinction on the Grand Banks during the 1980s, Canadian fishery scientists convinced their government not to stop the industry.

Fishermen shouldn't face strict catch limits, the biologists argued, because a smaller population of adult cod would reproduce more fruitfully than a large one. The researchers claimed that fishing had little impact on fish populations and that water temperatures and other factors were far more important.

The biologists were dead wrong, and by the 1990s the fishing industry's decimation of the once-plentiful Atlantic cod was an international embarrassment to the Canadian government. It also put Newfoundland's fishermen out of business.

This total failure of management is a textbook example of how bad science and a lack of political will are allowing the decimation of the world's fish populations, journalist Charles Clover writes in his new book, The End of the Line.

Clover, an award-winning environmental reporter for the London Daily Telegraph, convincingly documents how modern technology has made commercial fishing far more destructive to the world's oceans than pollution.

Star Wars-like onboard computers, mapping software that reveals every detail of the sea bottom and sonar systems that can find fish almost anywhere have made fishing fleets many times more efficient at killing - even as the oceans have become emptier.

Worse yet, Clover writes, the few government regulations that restrict fishing are rarely enforced. Cheating is widespread, especially by the Spanish and Russian fishing fleets. And high-end seafood restaurants are irresponsibly earning a premium by serving endangered species such as bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass and Atlantic haddock.

Among other black-market fish, 60 percent of the hake sold in Spain is illegal, as is half the cod in England, Clover reports. The governments of these countries, among others, turn a blind eye to illegal catches while 90 percent of the world's populations of large, spawning fish have been eliminated.

"Every other cod, every other hake, that hits your plate is stolen from the general public and their grandchildren, the rightful owners of the sea, all because no one has the political courage to enforce the rules," Clover writes.

This is a book - gracefully written and packed with damning details obtained through meticulous reporting - that will change the way you look at a menu. And the way you see the fishing industry, which holds a mysterious sway over politicians far out of proportion to the tiny number of people it employs.

The author is occasionally too wonkish for the average reader - for example, when he discusses the debate between "rights-based" and "commons-based" fisheries management schemes in Iceland. But overall, it's a powerful and timely work.

It's in bookstores at about the same time as a highly publicized study in the journal Science that predicts that the world's fishing stocks will collapse by the year 2048, if the current rate of overharvesting continues.

As part of a solution to the crisis, Clover suggests setting aside up to half of the world's oceans as marine reserves. The expansive no-fishing zones should be enforced by satellite tracking of boats and the revocation of fishing licenses or imprisonment of captains who break the rules.

"The idea of leaving parts of the sea alone is very simple," Clover writes. "Scientific fisheries management has failed almost everywhere, sometimes because of some factors that scientists failed to predict, sometimes because politicians wouldn't listen to them. The beauty of large reserves for biodiversity and fish management is that they are an insurance policy against this kind of failure."

At the end of his expose, Clover prints a helpful guide to which fish you should avoid because of overfishing. Don't eat Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, Chilean sea bass (also known as Patagonian toothfish), grouper, orange roughy, snapper or swordfish. He says it's safe to order blue whiting, mussels, oysters, lobster, Pacific salmon, striped bass (also known as rockfish), tilapia, pollock and Pacific halibut.

Always ask where the fish on a restaurant's menu is from, Clover advises. And if the waiter can't explain, you should eat something else - and let the management know your displeasure.

Tom Pelton reports on environmental issues for The Sun.


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