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August 18, 2009

New Film: "The End of the Line"

Humane Society International

The latest in a recent spate of environmental films, “The End of the Line,” about the global fishery collapse, ranks among the best. Its sympathetic interviewees, thematic coherence, and simple prescriptions for action make it a model for the genre. Inspired by Charles Clover’s "The End of the Line" (2006) and informed by other fine works like Callum Roberts’ "The Unnatural History of the Sea" (2007), it is a sobering estimation of the current crisis. Still, it is decidedly upbeat in its discussion of remedies.

Race to the bottom

Since 1950, large-scale industrial fishing has reached global proportions and wrought havoc on the entire ocean ecosystem. High-tech vessels equipped with sonar and radar leave fish nowhere to hide and virtually no chance of escape, and bottom trawlers with massive gear devastate the ocean floor. About 1.4 billion hooks and enough fishing line to encircle the planet 550 times go into the water every year.

To top things off, or bottom things out, quotas determined by international bodies and developed nations frequently ignore the science showing that industrial fishing is unsustainable in scale. In just a half century, 90 percent of the larger fish have disappeared. “The End of the Line” follows this trail of loss, from the straits of Gibraltar to the coast of Senegal, from the Alaskan fisheries to the Tokyo fish market.

Where did they go?

It’s no surprise where these fish went. We ate them, and worse, we wasted them, tossing many overboard as unwanted "bycatch."

Many know of the decline of cod, sardines, flounder, haddock, and more recently, bluefin tuna, shark, and orange roughy, but the reality is that during the last several decades, dozens of fish species have been decimated, one after another, by the human appetite. This occurs even as human dependence on fish has increased. By some estimates, 200 million people worldwide earn all or part of their income through fishing and related activities. For the world’s poor, fish remains a critical food source, providing one billion people their daily protein. Industrial fishing is the scourge of subsistence fisheries.

The industrial fishery and animal welfare

Quite apart from its devastation of global fish populations, the fishing industrial complex raises a range of animal welfare issues, many addressed by The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) and Humane Society International (HSI). Modern fishing methods take an enormous lethal toll on marine mammals like dolphins, sea lions, seals, and whales, and on turtles and seabirds. Shark finning and shark killing contests jeopardize the survival of a crucial apex predator species. The Newfoundland seal slaughter continues in part as a consequence of Canada’s fishery crisis, as seals are blamed for eating cod. And whether it’s whale entanglement, the threat of noise pollution and acoustic harassment of whales and dolphins, the physical harassment of sea lions and manatees, the defense of the dolphin-safe tuna label, or the ban on high seas driftnet fishing, The HSUS and HSI are working to uphold the protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, other U.S. legislation, and international treaties.

Of course, the industrial fishery also harms animal welfare through its place in the global food equation. About 28 million tons of fish are fed annually to other fish, pigs and poultry on factory farms. This is six times the total amount of fish directly consumed by Americans. To the more familiar apprehensions about animal welfare in such facilities, we can add a cluster of emergent concerns relating to the question of pain and suffering in farmed (as well as wild) fish used for animal food.

The decimation of fish populations is also tied to the bushmeat crisis, as citizens in coastal communities depleted of fish resources take to the jungles to find other sources of animal protein.

Whither fishing?

Scientists in “The End of the Line” say the global fishery will collapse by the mid-21st century if we don’t change course. But it’s their optimism that makes the film effective, for it turns out that there’s plenty we can do to avert disaster. The global fishery collapse is relatively simple to address in comparison with other environmental problems.

A sustainable fishery requires that we respect the science, set reasonable catch limits, and reduce fleet capacity. At least 20 to 30 percent of the world’s ocean should be set aside for marine reserves, which would allow species recovery to occur, and create hundreds of thousands of green jobs at a cost comparable to the subsidies that currently fuel overfishing.

There is an urgent need for reform, regulation and enforcement, too. Some 7 billion tons of catch annually is dumped over the side, and illegal, unreported fishing represents a 25 billion dollar market we must curtail.

Conscientious consumer choices are also crucial and can have a direct, immediate effect. The film encourages people to rely on guides to seafood, sustainability labels, and other means to shift the market, noting that Wal-Mart, Birds Eye, and McDonalds are already moving in the right direction.

It was the twentieth century marine advocate Jacques Cousteau who called the sea "The Silent World" in a 1953 work. In “The End of the Line,” this generation’s marine scientists are admonishing us to take care that it does not become an empty one.

Take action

Avoid seafood products that are known to cause harm to the marine ecosystem or to support cruel industries like shark finning or seal hunting. Sign our No Shark Fin Pledge and boycott Canadian seafood.

Urge your government to create marine sanctuaries that are closed to industrial fishing and to call for global bans on the most destructive fishing practices such as  setting on dolphins for tuna, the use of driftnets, shark finning, and whaling, and to enforce those bans.