Fishing like there’s no tomorrow

IN THE CITIES and the suburbs of the affluent world, the fish are waiting. Across the cold counters of supermarkets and specialist costermongers, fillets lie translucent on the ice, sparkling like champagne; effete king prawns in pretty pink piles, squid in creamy ringlets, mounds of scallop cushions and whole fish – pan-sized to please and fanning out in geometric formation – give the very impression of a living shoal twisting and dancing above the ocean floor.

Octopus tentacles crowd through pots of vinegar and oil; tuna steaks as dark as red wine lie next to white swordfish, mackerel with skin of shining blue tinsel and flatfish patterned as intricately as a Persian rug. Down the aisles are cans of tuna and herring in reassuring rows, sardines playing sardines, sumptuously greasy quilts of smoked salmon in cling wrap; and in the freezers, seafood so coiffured, quiffed and made-over that the balls, nuggets, patties, fingers and sticks are a pageant of taste and form.

Out on the boulevards, the bistros promise the catch of the day, imperial seafood platters and nature's own savoury piñata, the lobster special; while for the budget-minded there is always fish and chips, fillet burgers under the golden arches or a pizza with extra anchovies. Fashion-conscious urbanites find caloric solace and lifestyle choice in sushi packed like coloured candy, or fallen balloons of rice-noodle dumplings that no late morning of dim sum would be complete without. Last thing at night bright amber beads of omega-3 are swallowed down whole. There is even a small oily tin for the cat. It is an uncanny abundance.

‘When we look at a piece of fish on our plate,' asks the leading British journalist Charles Clover in lightly censorious tone, ‘what do we know about the fish?' Amid the amplitude, the question is apt and disquieting. We indulge magnificently, but more often than not, we know not what we eat. Mostly, we don't know where our seafood has come from. We don't know how it has been caught. We are ignorant about what else may have been damaged along the way.

Clover, for many years the environment editor of the London Daily Telegraph, has been preoccupied with documenting what we don't know about fish for around two decades. At first sight, he appears an unlikely marine environmentalist. Devoid of dreadlocks and rainbow-dolphin paraphernalia, he is instead a mixture of sparkle and starch. Quite the patrician (he once co-authored a book on organic food with Prince Charles), Clover is nonetheless unfailingly phlegmatic. Years of combating ‘blue-wash' have left him intolerant of fools and foolishness. He doesn't take bullshit kindly. In 2005, Clover published The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World (Ebury), a seminal work that is lively, accessible and angry, yet seasoned with peppery black humour. In 2009, the book was adapted for screen by Rupert Murray, receiving a widespread release and a slew of positive reviews. Both book and film expose the ugliness and calamity that swim beneath our decadence.

There is a reason why the origin of the seafood on our plates is so often hidden. Under the euphemism of fishing, in pursuit of seafood, we are exterminating animals from the oceans: wiping out the larger predators, altering food webs and destroying habitats at a staggering rate and on a confounding scale, in an epic slaughter of life beneath the waves. The truth taints the palate. Starting in the fresh waters, in rivers and lakes, spreading to the coastal shallows and now rampant in the high and deep seas, we have stalked the stocks to the point of catastrophe. It is a darkly grand story of the reduction of our collective inheritance, and one little apprehended under the glaring lights of the fish-market floor.


WORLDWIDE, STOCKS OF the great fish have been reduced by 90 per cent from 1950s levels.[1] King cod is gone from the Grand Banks. Bluefin tuna is on the brink in the Mediterranean. The great billfish, such as marlin and swordfish, have been radically reduced in numbers. Sharks have become more hunted than hunter. Smaller species are in trouble, too: around two-thirds of all fisheries exploited since the 1950s have collapsed.[2] The overall global catch of all fish has now been in decline for two decades.[3] One reputable, if not uncontroversial, study has forecast the disintegration of all presently exploited commercial fisheries before 2050.[4]

The axiom that what happens at sea stays at sea is apt for more than a cruise romance. It is notoriously difficult to find out what actually goes on in commercial fishing. Occasionally, though, evidence becomes available which brings matters plainly into the open. The Prolific is a plucky-looking trawler, painted in bright red and white, like a boat from a children's book. On a calm day in August 2008, the Norwegian coastguard encountered the British-owned craft and decided to film what they saw. The short movie depicts the Prolificexpelling from its hold a steady stream of good-sized whole fish, dead.[5] Fish dumping – ‘discarding' is the jargon – is not allowed in Norwegian waters, so the Prolific had simply crossed back over the nautical border. In filming the boat, the Norwegian coastguards were seeking to document the travesty.

The Prolific is shown dumping more than five thousand kilograms of freshly caught cod and other white fish into the ocean. The recording is unspectacular and at first does not seem to make sense. A trawler dumping fish: surely it is supposed to be catching them? At the very least, we think, something must have gone wrong: refrigeration failing, for example.

As the film continues, the flow of dead fish is like an absurd joke that runs on too long. Later, the action shifts as the crew begin dumping fish from boxes heavy enough to require two men to lift. While their faces cannot be made out, their body language seems resigned. It seems as if what the crew is doing is not particularly unusual. It is just part of the job.

What we witness in the film is not shocking because it is an aberration, but because it is banal. Every year, somewhere between a quarter and a third of everything caught through fishing worldwide is dumped back over the side, dead or dying.[6] It is hard not to think of the catchy advertising boast: ‘It's the fish John West reject that make John West the best.'

Some discarding is perversely mandated by regulations which impose fixed quotas in mixed fisheries, leaving no alternative for fishermen but to consign overboard what they cannot lawfully land. And there is the profit motive of some individual captains who engage in the iniquitous but economically rational practice of ‘high-grading', which involves dumping all but the most profitable sizes of the most precious fish in order to maximise their return for each trip to sea. It is no accident that so much of what is sold commercially can fit comfortably into a conventional frying pan. Then there is the collateral damage of our war on fish: the ‘by-catch' that nobody wants at all. Depending on the fishery, the refuse pile includes everything from giant turtles to sharks, unmarketable fish including juveniles, starfish, corals and even dolphins or small whales.

The quantity of ‘by-catch' is partly a product of the global fishing toolkit. For instance, huge tuna purse seines set under sophisticated fish-aggregation devices scoop up innumerable other animals along with their shoaling target. Some prawn runs are so indiscriminate that more than four-fifths of everything caught is hurled back, maimed or dead, into the seas. Bottom-trawlers are among the most egregiously destructive, sweeping giant nets across the ocean floor, obliterating the seabed and dragging up everything, leaving mud and blood, rubble and fragments in their wake. The demolition has spread to the deep seas, where boats with 10,000-horsepower engines pull nets held open by trawl doors that weigh up to five tonnes.[7]Worldwide, efforts to proscribe the carnage have met with limited success.

17 December 2007 was the first day of the annual meeting of European Union fisheries ministers at the Justus Lipsius building, in Brussels. The building, in the heart of the Eurocrat quarter of the Belgian capital, has been the seat of the Council of the European Union for around fifteen years. At about 7 am, activists from fourteen European countries descended on the building, constructing across the main entrance a wall of blocks and cement thirty metres long and more than two metres high. Other entrances were also impeded, preventing free entry to the building. The remarkable effort in construction took forty or so minutes, during which time the builders were largely unhindered by the Belgian constabulary. It seemed fantastic that the work teams had been able to raise the edifice so fast and without interference. An Englishman passing by in a business suit was impressed by the standard of the craft: ‘Nice bit of brick work, that,' he observed.

Eventually the police arrived in force to arrest all two hundred activists, many of whom had by then chained themselves together as a human barrier in front of the wall. One by one, the men and women were removed, decoupled from the human chain and dragged off to waiting wagons. Proceedings ended when the last of the arrested had been driven away for processing. The wall remained for a time, emblazoned with the slogan ‘Shut down until fish stocks recover', but the demolition gang moved only slightly less swiftly than the construction team, and by midday little trace was left. The action was designed to prevent the EU ministers setting the annual catch quotas for European waters, an exercise in cynical bargaining which decides how much the fishing fleets of the various member states are permitted to catch.

The wall building caused only a short delay in proceedings; but then, the real purpose had been to draw public, media and political attention to the issue in an effort to force a shift in policymaking. Some press interest was briefly focused across the continent, but there was no sudden change in political and policy direction. The great fish trade-off was completed as usual, and catch limits were set well above scientific advice. Over the past two decades the council of European fisheries ministers has approved catch limits exceeding scientific recommendations by an average of 15 to 30 per cent, depending on the species of fish.[8] Like glass, science does not bend and by the EU's own admission, almost nine-tenths of European fish stocks are now over-fished: an environmental, economic and cultural debacle.[9]


ACROSS TIME, THE ocean has been imagined as a foreign dominion, ruled by gods, spirits or fantastic creatures, impervious to terrestrial power. But these myths have vanished in modernity's great unmaking. The failure of the European Union's common fisheries policy to guarantee healthy stocks is symptomatic of a wider global malfunctioning. Like the hosts of a party so committed to accommodating guests as to be too embarrassed to restrain debauchery, fisheries ministers and officials preside over a multi-layered regime of wild excess. No doubt there are good and true men and women among them. Some countries perform better than others. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, there is a dominance of vested interests so complete as to make the sanctioning of the rape of the oceans an abiding political fact.

The world's fishing fleet is two and a half times larger than the oceans can sustainably support.[10] Yet, more than a third of the global fishing industry's revenues come from subsidies, which are currently estimated at around US$34 billion a year.[11] We are funding the fishing industry to systematically destroy our shared inheritance.

The perverse illogic of the global fishing complex can be traced partly to the concentration of fishermen in and around port towns, creating identifiable block votes in specific electorates. Even when the fish are gone, localised voting blocks remain, all the more shrill because the writing is on the wall. As Charles Clover acidly observes, in Britain there is still a fisheries minister despite the wild-capture fishing sector being roughly the size of the lawnmower industry.[12] But looming behind the decreasing numbers of fishermen, and their families, employees and suppliers, are powerful ghosts. Implanted deep within the collective memory is an ideal type, doughty, bearded and gruff, in a sou'wester, the captain of a little boat, plying an honest fishing trade in a struggle with the vicissitudes of the sea. Collective identities are tied up in the myth of the noble fisherman, whose bravery and endurance commands the respect of unadventurous and weak-kneed landlubbers.

Small-scale fishermen still exist, but the industrial might of the global fishing industry bears little resemblance to old man Santiago. Much of the planet's seafood is caught and bought by transnational corporate giants, as blind to the long-term interests of small-scale fishermen as the wind and waves, and just as amoral. It is sometimes said that fishermen are natural conservationists, because it cannot be in their long-term interests if fish stocks collapse, a claim which undoubtedly has some truth in local and traditional fishing communities. Overwhelmingly, though, history suggests that once capital is in play, wolves make poor guards of sheep. In an age of fluid global finance, the exhaustion of a fish stock means no more to a corporate investor than an indication that it is time to seek a new venture for increasing return. Whatever normative restraints that apply to a traditional fishing community are inapplicable to a mega-trawler flagged to a nation on the other side of the world and owned by a corporation, a non-human abstraction that is mandated to do no more than maximise profit.


THE RETAIL DISPLAYS of seafood shout of plenitude, but there are spectres at our feast. The oceans are not exempted from the political economy of global resource distribution. No matter the overall scarcity, the developed world's bowl is always full. Japan is the world's single largest seafood importer, eating far more fish than remain within its territorial waters. Australia's fisheries are among the better managed, but the country is still a net importer of seafood. Europe's shortfall has to be made up from somewhere. In the coastal waters of developing countries, trawlers sweep through, retaining the most lucrative fish for first-world tables, but smashing and killing much else in their path, depriving developing populations of critical food resources. Stocks off the west coast of Africa are thought to have halved since 1945.[13]

Clover saves special rancour for the wastefulness of aquaculture. Intuitively, fish farming suggests a way of reducing pressure on the wild resource. In practice, the cultivation of fish often makes matters worse, adding new layers of exploitation. In order to feed the salmon, prawns and other farmed seafood, feed is required, which entails catching vast quantities of smaller and less marketable animals from the ocean, then reducing them to meal. In what Clover describes as a ‘new circle of hell', edible fish are diverted from the mouths of the developing world to the fish farms of the north.[14]

Beneath the gilded profusion of seafood for our dining pleasure lies a deeper irony: for all the ubiquity and convenience, our menu is but a pale imitation of the riches enjoyed by previous generations. One of the scientists featured in the film The End of the Line is the softly spoken and smiley Professor Callum Roberts. In his work, Roberts has examined the scientific, archaeological and historical record to establish changes in patterns of seafood capture over time. Because of our ‘collective amnesia', writes Roberts in his magisterial and essential The Unnatural History of the Sea (Gaia Books, 2007), ‘few people really appreciate how far the oceans have been altered from their pre-exploitation state.'[15] He concludes that stories handed down, of enormous fish and vast shoals writhing, unthinkable today, were not the tales of addled sailors but sober descriptions of actual experience. We have, in the language of marine biologists, fished down the food chain, reducing or eliminating layers of predators in turn, but the transformation is barely noticed as ‘new species' take the place of those no longer available. As Professor Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia has put it, ‘We are eating today what our grandparents used as bait.'[16]


EYES WIDE OPEN, dead fish always look surprised. Destructive fishing is the most serious environmental threat to the oceans that comes from our activities on the water, but it is compounded by other dangers. The spread of pollution in the oceans is both ubiquitous and concentrated. In the North Pacific, the trash gyre of plastic and other rubbish has now grown to cover an area of ocean about three times the size of Victoria. Then there is climate change. The impact of global warming on the ocean is potentially severe: raising water temperatures, disrupting currents, melting ice and altering chemical composition to increase acidity. We are in the realm of diabolical consequences and unpredictable feedback loops; it simply is not clear how weird things might get if climate change cannot be brought under control. Meanwhile, the depravity of the plunder is unabated. In The End of the Line, Clover documents an instance in North America of fish being rendered into oil that is burned as fuel. Recently, technology has been pioneered that allows the tiny krill, minute shrimps at the base of the food chain in the Southern Ocean, to be vacuumed from the water. In darker moments, scientists warn of a return to primordial oceans, dominated by invertebrates. We face the long night of an aquatic dystopia of our own making.

If the world's fish stocks are to be renewed, we must create great marine reserves, spanning the world's oceans. Like national parks at sea, marine reserves can let ecosystems recover, generating to a new profusion of life. The campaign must be monumental: in forty scientific studies examining how much of the world's oceans should be protected, the majority indicated a range between 20 and 50 per cent, but currently the figure languishes at less than 1 per cent.[17]

In those instances where marine reserves have been established, offering full protection from fishing, the increase in fish stocks is remarkable, growing five and tenfold in a decade or less.[18] Fishermen have been shown to benefit too, because marine reserves act as nodes of fish production, restocking the surrounding waters.[19] Other measures are also needed: fleet reductions; an end to perverse subsidies and disinterested adherence to scientific advice on catch limits; greater restrictions and improved enforcement; the banning of certain gear types; and improved certification requirements.

As consumers we can and should choose more sustainable seafood, but we can't simply buy our way out of trouble. Ethical purchasing alone is insufficient. Ultimately, if we are to redeem our oceans, we will have to engage in a political contest. Vested interests and timid tolerance of the status quo must be confronted, in order to secure the common wealth. Beneath the surface and sinking, with hope and will we can still strike back upwards toward the light.  ♦


[1] RA Myers & B Worm (2003), ‘Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities', Nature 423: 280-83.

[2] C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing, Octopus, London, 2007, pp. 339-40.

[3] C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 327.

[4] B Worm et al, ‘Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services', Science, 3 November 2006: 314 (5800), 787-90.


[6] C Clover, The End of the Line, Ebury, London, 2005, p.64.

[7] C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 325.

[8] C Roberts, ‘Quota calls fail to catch the drift', BBC Viewpoint, 17 December 2007:




[12] C Clover, The End of the Line, p. 271.

[13] Quoted in C Clover, The End of the Line, p. 31.

[14] C Clover, The End of the Line, p. 256.

[15] C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, pp. 328 & xii.

[16] Quoted in C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 328.

[17] FR Gell & CM Roberts, ‘Benefits beyond Boundaries: The Fishery Effects of Marine Reserves', Trends in Ecology and Evolution: 18, 2003, 448-55.

[18] C Roberts (2007), ‘Waves of despair', The Guardian: Society Supplement, 5 September 2007.

[19] C Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 365.

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