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Running out of fish

Published: 
Thursday, November 13, 2014
The End of the Line won the inaugural Puma Creative Impact Award in 2011 for its groundbreaking exposé on the devastating effects of overfishing on marine biodiversity and livelihoods.

By the year 2048, most fish species in the planet’s oceans may well be dead, driven to extinction by us humans. Such collapse will be largely due to super-efficient fishing technologies which are overwhelming fish species’ capacity to bounce back. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we establish protected marine sanctuaries, and regulate fishing sustainably, we can share the planet with fish for a long time to come. These ideas were explored by experts in the recently screened 2009 UK film The End of the Line, shown at UWI as part of the Green Screen environmental film series organised by Sustain T&T.

Now in its fourth year, Green Screen, aims to educate people on a range of environmental issues through film. In this year’s series which ran from October 28 to November 7, films ranged from full-length features such as the 2014 US film Virunga (about the battle to save biodiversity in the battle-torn Congo) to short local films like the 2013 T&T film The Blue and the Gold (about one woman’s quest to bring the blue and gold macaws back to the Nariva Swamp).

On November 3, Green Screen focused on fish life with two films: The End of the Line, made in the UK, and Caribbean Fish Sanctuaries, made in Barbados. After the films, Marc De Verteuil, director of the independent environmental advocacy group Papa Bois Conservation, discussed related T&T issues and chaired a question-and-answer session at the UWI Teaching and Learning Centre venue for the event.

The two films generated awareness of the global scope of the annihilation facing fish life, and some possible solutions to this. The discussion session afterwards raised many questions about what T&T might be doing to protect and conserve fish life in our own territorial waters.

Caribbean Fish Sanctuaries

(2012, Barbados, 22 min)

The second of two films shown that evening was a shorter documentary on problems facing Caribbean fisheries, and some solutions that are actually working. It portrayed some successful, inspiring examples of regional marine reserves, including Bluefields Bay in Jamaica, the Soufriere Marine Reserve of St Lucia, and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off Belize.

The film explained that global warming and coral bleaching, combined with overfishing, are making more barren reefs in the region, especially off Jamaica’s shores, where for years now, fishermen have just been catching baby fish because there are not enough larger, mature fish to replenish the stocks.  Jamaican fisherman Cavin Lattiebudare is filmed saying: “Fishing (is) now hand-to-mouth.” 

In 2007 Jamaica established five new fish sanctuaries; today this has increased to 14, including the Bluefields Bay sanctuary which the film says is achieving success—because the fishermen were extensively consulted beforehand, and supported the need to conserve fish. They now help to patrol the bay. The film also explored the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA) of St Lucia, in the shadow of the Pitons. Launched in 1995, the marine reserves here have resulted in a fourfold increase in the total weight of fish in the sanctuary, and a threefold increase in weight of fish caught outside of the sanctuary, over a six-year period, the film said. The successes are the result of long consultation with all local stakeholders to inform the planning and structure of the SMMA in the first place.

Belize’s Hol Cahn Marine Reserve, formed in 1987, is another success story, the film said. This reserve covers approximately 18 sq km (4,448 acres) of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forest, and has succeeded in replenishing fish stocks in the reserve areas, growing larger fish, and generating jobs for many local small businesses which benefit from the great diving, the rich marine life and the tourism spinoffs. The Belize Government consulted extensively with all local stakeholders in planning the reserve.

Now: how many marine reserves does T&T have? No-one at the film screening on Monday could really say for sure.

The End of the Line 

(2009, UK, 85 min)

The End of the Line film is based on the 2004 book The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, written by journalist Charles Clover, a former environment editor of the Daily Telegraph (London) and a current columnist of the Sunday Times (London). The British newspaper The Independent called Clover’s book “persuasive and desperately disturbing.....the maritime equivalent of Silent Spring.”  Clover’s book described the ruthless horror of how modern fishing is destroying not only fish populations, but ocean ecosystems, and concluded that current worldwide fish consumption is unsustainable. It showed how official figures on fish stocks have been wrong for years; how illegal fishing is plundering stocks; and how current technologies are making fishing like a form of warfare against life forms that cannot hope to survive. No “resource”—even the fish in the sea—is infinite.

The film interpretation of this book contains startlingly beautiful as well as brutal imagery, interwoven with sober interviews with research scientists such as Boris Worm, professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

Opening scenes show the swiftly-moving filaments of tiny marine organisms, awash in translucent blue waters, hinting at the beauty, diversity and fragility of marine life. Images of resilience include healthy, muscular-looking bluefin tuna, swimming powerfully in silver-blue shoals like predatory Mafiosi gangs of the deep, torpedoing their way through the world’s oceans. 

But then later in the documentary, we are shown grim shots of massive, bloody fish butchery, and conveyor belts of endless numbers of dead fish. The sheer scale of the devastation of fish life (and myriad other forms of sea life) at the hands of industrialised fishing fleets tells a terrible story of plunder and waste. Fishing boats routinely use sophisticated sonar, radar, and thousands of miles of lines and nets—even illegal spotter aircraft—to track and kill their prey, who generally don’t stand a chance.

The film powerfully portrays the 1992 collapse of cod in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a place where for 500 years, the cod used to be so plentiful that a fishing captain in 1500 once wrote it was “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.” But all that life ended due to centuries of too much hunting. The cod simply reached a point where they couldn’t survive. Since the banning of fishing in Newfoundland in 1992, stocks still have not recovered.

The film alleged that Japan’s sprawling Mitsubishi conglomerate was deliberately driving the endangered bluefin tuna to extinction so its profitable stockpile of frozen fish would skyrocket in value.

In one moving scene, a man comments on how crazy human beings must be, to wipe out entire fish species so thoughtlessly and stupidly: “I feel (...) the sea is going to be dead,” he says at one point, in a kind of stunned way.

The End of the Line was the first major film to look at such devastating impacts of overfishing. Its research revealed that a quarter of the world’s fish stocks were being exploited to extinction, and a further half were already at their maximum capacity. 

Shrimp trawling, in particular, is shown to be lethal not only to shrimps, but whole underwater ecosystems: it scrapes all life from the seabeds, life that may never recover, the film explained. This form of fishing is said to be a million times more destructive to life than oil or gas exploration.

But in the face of all this bad news, the film reminds us that we have the power to change it—and that the devastation is reversible. The film suggests several proven methods to rebuild fish stocks and stop the waste. These include controlling the fishing of threatened species, establishing networks of protected marine parks where fish are safe to breed and grow, and educating consumers to only buy fish from sustainably run fisheries.

The film cites Alaska as a great example of a place which is succeeding in managing its fisheries well. And the film makes the point that whereas globally, governments subsidise collapsing fisheries to the tune of US$30 billion a year (it’s argued these subsidies actually drive the overfishing and worsen the environmental depletion), it would cost only half that amount, or about US$12-15 billion, to fund a network of global marine reserves to give fish a chance.

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