by Craig Weatherby
A just-released documentary titled “The End of the Line” shines a light on the problem of overfishing.
The film, which is narrated by actor Ted Danson, premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and made its U.S. theatrical debut on June 19 in New York and Los Angeles.
It is being screened in cinemas in major cities over the course of summer. You can see the locations and dates here.
“The End of the Line” is being billed as “‘An Inconvenient Truth' for oceans” and is based on a 2004 book by Charles Clover, former environment editor of London's Daily Telegraph.
If overfishing is to ever rise in priority among the eco-woes currently pricking people's consciences—and prompt them and fish sellers to take action—people need to see it, and demand sustainable seafood, in droves.
It will take some serious marketing skills, money, and celebrity support to bring this film the kind of attention received by “An Inconvenient Truth.”
We applaud the moviemakers' motives, given the truly dire threat that overfishing poses both to pricey sushi fare like blue fin tuna… and to the less famous species that support hundreds of millions of poor people worldwide.
Well-managed stocks such as Alaskan salmon, halibut, sablefish, scallop, pollock, and crab, and some fisheries in the lower 48 prove that it can be done right (See “Alaska Leads on Seafood Sustainability”).
Does the film do the job?
Early reviewers in Britain say the film excels when it explores the plight of poor fishermen… such as a Senegalese man whose livelihood is threatened by his country's selling of fishing rights to the highest bidder.
Many film critics felt that director Rupert Murray relied a bit too much on overheated rhetoric and unintentionally silly sequences.
For example, the narration stereotypes sushi eaters as “fashion conscious”, and the movie features several slow-motion shots of bloody fish and decks, as though commercial fishing didn't inevitably involve death.
But these are quibbles... we can only hope that the film prompts consumers to demand sustainably harvested seafood.
To learn how the overfishing problem can be solved, see “Alaska's Seafood Strategy Endorsed by Science.”
And to find sustainably harvested seafood, use the Searchable Guide to Sustainable Seafood “widget” created by the filmmakers and presented on our Web site. This tool relies on respected fishery-sustainability ratings developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.
Dire situation demands consumer action
According to a 2006 report on world fisheries from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 23 percent of fisheries are under or moderately exploited, 52 percent are fully exploited, and one-quarter overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion (FAO 2007).
And the FAO report found a consistent downward trend in the proportions of underexploited and moderately exploited stocks... with an increasing trend toward overexploited and depleted stocks.
Significantly, the FAO finds that most of the top 10 species—which account in total for about 30 percent of the world capture fisheries production in terms of quantity—are fully exploited or overexploited (FAO 2007).
So while the situation is about as bad as the filmmakers say, and the trends are not encouraging.
As the filmmakers' Web site says, the film has “three messages for consumers, citizens and companies.”
We concur with the first and last, but need to challenge the second point:
1) Ask before you buy: Only eat sustainable seafood.
Naturally, we endorse this point, and we sell only sustainable seafood.
As mentioned above, you can look up our offerings and other sustainable fisheries using the Searchable Guide to Sustainable Seafood “widget” created by the filmmakers and presented on our Web site. This tool relies on respected fishery-sustainability ratings developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.
2) Tell politicians: respect the science, cut the fishing fleet
This seems like an unhelpfully vague recommendation, since many fishing fleets are not too large, as shown by this excerpt from the UN's 2006 report on world fisheries:
“Many countries have adopted policies to limit the growth of national fishing capacity or reduce it in order to protect the fishery resources and to make fishing economically viable for the harvesting enterprises. There are indications that the fleets of decked fishing vessels in longstanding developed fishing nations have continued to decrease in size, especially those operating offshore and in distant waters” (FAO 2006).
The focus should be on cutting fishing pressure on depleted stocks, which will automatically force cuts in over-large fishing fleets.
3) Join the campaign for marine protected areas and responsible fishing
This is essentially the same as point #1. The best way to do this is to choose sustainable seafood, and let your Congresspersons know you want them to protect all threatened fisheries.
The politics of overfishing
Compared with the United States, governments in Europe, Russia, and Japan are guiltier of allowing overfishing.
For example, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) approved Mediterranean Blue fin tuna quotas for 2010 that are 30 percent lower than today's number… but all the experts say that that quota is still far too high to prevent a collapse of the rapidly declining fishery.
Fishing interests pressured politicians in ICCAT member countries to support dangerously high quotas… and to oppose proven conservation measures such as the catch-shares system used in many Alaskan fisheries.
Kowtowing to short term political and economic gain can only hasten self-destruction of the fragile Mediterranean tuna industry.
Much of the demand for blue fin tuna comes from Japan, whose consumers seem to be slumbering through the Blue fin sustainability crisis.
Sadly, the owners of some high-end U.S. and UK sushi restaurants—such as actor Robert DeNiro's chic Nobu chain, which is picketed in the film—still offer Blue fin tuna.
Danson's misleading mercury message
Unfortunately, during his CNN appearance, a well-meaning Ted Danson mouthed some seriously misleading, easily refutable claims about the risk of fish-borne mercury.
It's an odd mixed message… why should we care about saving fish to eat if it is dangerous to eat?
There has never been a single documented case in the US of any person getting mercury poisoning from eating fish.
This is both because the dangers of the minuscule amounts in fish have been wildly overstated, and because the safety factor built into the FDA's mercury limits for fish ensure consumer protection.
People in Japan eat far more fish than we do, and fish-borne mercury has never been a health problem there.
To the contrary, the Japanese are much healthier than Americans, in part because they eat so much fish.
Farmed salmon increase pressure on wild fish
The film says that it takes five kilos of anchovy to produce one kilo of farmed salmon… in other words, a “wild-feed to finish” ratio of 5:1.
The International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO) claims that new research will show that the ratio has dropped to 1.7:1, worldwide, with some salmon farms having higher ratios and some lower.
We'll reserve judgment until we see the new report, which the IFFO claims will correct an error in the calculations made by Albert Tacon, Ph.D., of The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, whose research is cited as the source of the 5:1 ratio claim in the movie.
The IFFO says that Tacon failed to account for the fact that nearly one-quarter of the raw material used to make fishmeal and oil is recycled trimmings (e.g., heads and guts) from the processing of fish for human consumption.
It seems rather unlikely that Dr. Tacon would make this big an error, since he has been publishing aquaculture feed research since the mid-1980's.
Interestingly, Tacon was prescient in highlighting the dilemma facing salmon farmers, who want to use vegetable oils and grains instead of fishmeal and fish oil to raise salmon, but do so only at risk to the fishes' health and to the nutritional quality of their product.
He even noted the excessively high ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats in Western diets… a point we've made repeatedly.
In these passages, Dr. Tacon and his co-author note that salmon cannot convert the short-chain, plant-source omega called ALA into the long-chain, marine-source omegas called EPA and DHA… which are the kinds of omega-3s that the human body needs and benefits from the most (Sargent JR, Tacon AG 1999). We inserted clarifying points between brackets:
- “Vegetable oils rich in [omega-3 ALA] can partially substitute for [omega-3 EPA and DHA from fish] in salmonid [salmon, trout, and steelhead] and marine-fish feeds. However, this is nutritionally undesirable for human nutrition because the health-promoting effects of fish-derived [omega-3 EPA and DHA] reflect a very high intake of [omega-6 fatty acids] relative to [omega-3 ALA] in Western diets.
- “If partial replacement of fish oils in fish feeds with vegetable oils becomes necessary in future, it is argued that [omega-3 ALA]-rich oils, such as linseed oil, are the oils of choice because they are much more acceptable from a human nutritional perspective, especially given the innate ability of freshwater fish, including salmonids, to convert dietary [omega-3 ALA] to [omega-3 EPA and DHA].”
For more on this, see “Report Finds Americans Need More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s.”
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006. Rome, 2007. Accessed at ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/009/a0699e/a0699e.pdf
- International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO). IFFO Statement on the film “The End of the Line”. June 8, 2009: Accessed at http://www.iffo.net/default.asp?fname=3&url=196&sWebIdiomas=1
- Sargent JR, Tacon AG. Development of farmed fish: a nutritionally necessary alternative to meat. Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 May;58(2):377-83. Review.
- Tacon AG. Lipid nutritional pathology in farmed fish. Arch Tierernahr. 1996;49(1):33-9. Review.