End of the Line
Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture
Vol. 9, No. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 110-111
Book review: The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat
By Charles Clover
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008
Charles Clover, an environmental journalist and sport fisherman, has traveled the world to expose the dire state of
the world’s fisheries. The End of the Line (recently republished in paper from the 2006 hardcover original) weaves together local history, science, investigative journalism, and anecdotal evidence to expose the atrocities being commit- ted against global fish populations. Much of the problem stems from what University of California, Santa Barbara, ecologist Garrett Hardin has termed the “tragedy of the commons,” wherein common property is unsustainably managed by competitive stakeholders (similar to how some people order extravagantly when sharing a restaurant check). Clover traces the factors that have led to the depletion of
the ocean’s large fish stocks, now at 10 percent of their 1950 levels: lack of incentive to conserve fish stocks; bycatches in which unwanted fish are thrown back dead; flags of convenience that allow ships to bypass laws and quotas; exploitation of developing nations’ fishing grounds by devel- oped countries; and subsidies, including unemployment insurance, to keep unsustainable fishing communities alive.
The issues can be complex. In the case of canned tuna, Clover notes that the world supply of skipjack tuna is healthy (these fish have been referred to as “roaches of the ocean”), and the stock is responsibly managed. However, the methods of catching skipjack entail a bycatch of up to 60 percent, including endangered bluefin, sea turtle, and who knows what else. Dolphins are threatened by the tuna catch in only one small portion of the waters where the skipjack is fished; ironically, the most dolphin-safe method of catching tuna also renders the most wasteful bycatch.
As large fish slide toward extinction, fish-finding technology is advancing. Meanwhile, government policy remains complacent, enforcement of laws is lax, and public awareness and outcry are either minimal or nonexistent. The state of aquaculture is no better. Farmed fish eat three times their weight in various species of wild-caught fish, such as blue herring, which are perfectly palatable for human consumption. Furthermore, this artificial interven- tion into the food chain leads to higher concentrations of mercury and pcbs in the farmed fish that we eat. Fish farms also release drugs and pesticides into the water and poten- tially expose wild fish to escaped farmed fish, thereby risking cross breeding and subsequent genetic weakening.
Amid the gloom, Clover finds a few pockets of light: marine reserves have been shown to be effective in restoring wildlife, enhancing local economic development, and increasing wild stocks; and sardines and other small fish high in Omega-3 are still in good supply. Clover cites New York City’s Le Bernardin as a responsible restaurant, although he skewers other fashionable restaurants like Nobu for serving threatened and endangered species. He points conscientious eaters outside the geographic and fiscal range of Le Bernadin to McDonald’s, whose fish fillet is made from Alaskan pollock. However, although pollock itself is sustainable, Clover seems unaware of industry practices that threaten the native salmon. At least the newly ubiquitous tilapia is a sustainably farmed vegetation-eating fish, which may prove a boon for the developing world.
Clover’s account is largely personal, and he is at his best when covering the North Sea and other fisheries close to his uk home. Unfortunately, his strengths as a journalist are also the book’s major weakness. His personal account makes the polemic exploratory rather than systematic. Many of his points are repetitive, and although this approach sustains the force of his argument, it weakens the articulation of his ideas. Each of the twenty chapters works as a stand- alone essay, which although individually painless becomes tedious in aggregate, like reading twenty Harper’s articles in succession. It is almost as if Clover’s journalism training in short-form, present-tense reporting has prevented him from sustaining a coherent argument throughout the book. Instead, we wade along with him in a haphazard journey to knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. Although The End of the Line doesn’t make for bad reading, Clover’s point could have been made in fewer pages. Still, his case is powerful, and his recommendations appear quite sensible. Clover believes in citizen ownership of the seas, tradable rights to fisherman, increased monitoring and enforcement of stronger international and local laws, better labeling to reveal where and how fish are caught, and, of course, a great reduction in fish harvesting and consumption. Although the current prospects are dim, Clover does list some fish that are safe to eat, among them farmed mussels and oysters, Pacific salmon, striped bass, and lobsters, whose genetic makeup closely resembles that of insects. Might they be an intermediate step to prepare us for entomophagy when fish stocks go the way of the carrier pigeon?
—Zachary Barowitz, New York, NY
© Copyright 2009 by The Regents of the University of California