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The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing The World and What We Eat by Charles Clover. The New Press, 2006.

Here, in the middle of the continent, more or less, if we think of the ocean at all it is as a place one might go for a vacation, to admire the beautiful blue water that spreads endlessly off to the horizon. Huge, virtually untouched by we landlubber humans, and certainly, full of fish. There’s even an expression: Plenty of fish in the sea.

As it turns out, these superficial perceptions are untrue. The world’s ocean has been deeply impacted by humans and there are no longer lots of fish in the sea. A free-for-all fishing bonanza has emptied the ocean of its fish at a rate far greater than what reproduction can replace. A crisis looms on the horizon. The populations of all the big predator fish in the ocean have plummeted by 90% in the five decades or so since modern industrial fishing began. By 2003, the last year for which data on global commercial fish catches are available, 29 percent of all fished species had collapsed, meaning they are now at least 90 percent below their historic maximum catch levels.

There are a number of excellent books available on the state of the world’s fisheries. I enjoyed Carl Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean, among others, but for a thorough, eminently-readable account, I found Charles Clover’s The End of the Line to be the best and highly recommend it. He grabs the reader’s attention from the opening page of his introduction, entitled The Price of Fish. Consider this excerpt:

Imagine what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: predators such as lions and cheetahs, lumbering endangered herbivores such as rhinos and elephants, herds of impala and wildebeest, family groups of warthogs and wild dogs. Pregnant females would be swept up and carried along, with only the smallest juveniles able to wriggle through the mesh. Picture how the net is constructed, with a huge metal roller attached to the leading edge. This rolling beam smashes and flattens obstructions, flushing creatures into the approaching filaments. The effect of dragging a huge iron bar across the savannah is to break off every outcrop and uproot every tree, bush and flowering plant, stirring columns of birds into the air. Left behind is a strangely bedraggled landscape resembling a harrowed field. The industrial hunter-gatherers now stop to examine the tangled mess of writhing or dead creatures behind them. There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don’t taste good, or because they are simply too small or too squashed. This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by scavengers.

This efficient but highly unselective way of killing animals is known as trawling. It is practiced the world over every day, from the Barents Sea in the Arctic to the shores of Antarctica, and from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the central Pacific to the temperate waters off Cape Cod.

Dr. David Suzuki’s TV program, The Nature of Things, is currently featuring a four-part series about the plight of the world’s ocean. It is packed with good information and great visuals. The trouble with TV, though, is the images fly by so quickly, it is hard to take everything in and it is hard to present all the facets of a complex topic in a relatively short time slot. Reading a book has the advantage of letting you take in the information and digest it at your own pace. There is a lot to know.

One topic I found particularly interesting is the manner in which government subsidies worldwide contribute to overfishing. Subsidies can take many forms, from money to support a ship-building industry where supply has long since outstripped need, or, as is the case here in Canada, unemployment insurance, which amounts to a massive subsidy to fishermen to stay where they are, with a fully equipped fleet ready to go fishing the moment there are even small numbers of fish to catch. To read more on the decline of Canada’s cod fishery, you can check out Unnatural Disaster here. Of course, that’s not a topic politicians would care to tackle.

I also found the details behind a McDonald’s Fish Filet of interest. It is actually sourced from certified sustainably-caught stock. McDonald’s would need to pay royalties to advertise that their fish is Marine Stewardship Council approved. Presumably they don’t do so because much of the public is too woefully uninformed about such issues to care.

The Nature of Things program has a connected website at One Ocean where you can watch the four episodes online.

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