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Can End of the Line Stem the Tide?

Must-see documentary film The End of the Line (newly-released on DVD) and British journalist Charles Clover’s book of the same name examine the imminent threat of overfishing to the world’s fisheries and marine life—and efforts to stem the tide. Among those efforts: A new website, Fish2fork, that rates restaurants on the sustainability of the seafood they serve, from five leaping fish for the best performers to five fish skeletons for the worst.

I spoke with Clover at his Fish2fork office in the UK.

How did you become concerned about dwindling fish stocks and motivated to promote sustainable seafood consumption?

I started as a recreational fisherman before I became a journalist. Initially I didn’t even fish in the sea, but for migratory salmon and sea trout. I discovered that it was angling pressure alone that had collapsed the spring run of the salmon, so I wondered what was happening with more murderous operations like trawling and long-lining. I started looking further and further out, at all the fish in the sea.

People killed rare birds of paradise to stick feathers in their hats in the 18th and 19th centuries. No taste is worth the extinction of an endangered species. It’s a totally unsociable, uncitizenlike act.

What did you hope to accomplish with The End of the Line?

In one sense, this film is talked about as a sort of Inconvenient Truth about the sea. But we didn’t want to be a polemic—we wanted to contain both ends of the argument. Boris Worm and Ray Hilborn, coming at the issues from quite different perspectives, wrote a paper together for Science last July that largely agrees with the position presented in the film.

There’s not much you can argue about with the fisheries declines. You can argue about when collapses will happen, and whether sustainable fisheries are real. There are arguments about whether even the most sustainable fisheries are sustainable over time, unless you ratchet up the management controls. But there’s real scientific consensus on what will become of the world’s fisheries if big improvements in management don’t take place—and it isn’t good.

The End of the Line is eye-opening, and it’s also a call to action. Have you seen changes for the better since the film’s release?

It was a runaway success in the UK, the most talked about documentary of the year, and it’s now moving about Europe. We launched the Spanish version with popular Spanish singer Miguel Bosé—who’s also passionate about the issue—as narrator.

The Week magazine summarizes what’s been in the papers here, and I’d never seen a film get talked about there two weeks in a row—but this film was. Famous actresses took their clothes off and had their pictures taken with fresh fish! The British press went bonkers about it.

As a result, Julien Metcalfe, who owns Pret A Manger (a national sandwich chain with very good pro-organic food), took yellowfin tuna out of their sushi. And they took anything other than pole-and-line tuna out of their chain. They made sweeping changes to what they’re doing with tuna in the British market. You walk in and find that your tuna sandwich is explicitely labeled skipjack. That’s a major change.

[Department store] Marks and Spencer also made big changes to their fish sourcing as a direct result of the film. Compass, a large catering company in the UK, made major changes.

The consumer is a strong player in Britain and across Europe. Cutting off markets is an incredibly important thing if you want to effect change: If people won’t buy something, it doesn’t have a value, and people who want it to have a value will have to do what you say. So for the first time in 15 years, the North Sea ministers decided to apply science to the policies on cod. The fishermen can’t get a decent price for it, supermarkets won’t bite, the price is collapsing—consumers appear to be making a difference. The ministers’ consciousness has been raised on this, and so has the industry’s.

Despite that progress, has the overall decline in fisheries projected in your book and the film continued?

I’m afraid so. The challenges are as urgent as ever. More so with the bluefin.

The bluefin is the blue whale of the fish world. It’s an iconic species about which everyone is behaving completely irrationally. For people to be doing absolutely the wrong thing for purely the wrong reasons—pure greed—is frustrating.

There are lots of signs, at least, that the growing consciousness in the public has begun to affect politicians. The industry turned the corner in the UK and Denmark about four years ago. They’re apparently trying to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, there are still big differences in awareness across the Atlantic. There aren’t more than one or two restaurants in the UK still serving bluefin tuna on their menus. There are many in the US.

What motivated you to create the Fish2fork website?

Nobu Matsuhisa’s [whose restaurant Nobu appears in the film] is not the only guy who sells endangered fish as sushi. Half of the fish eaten in Europe is eaten in restaurants. We felt there was a big gap: People have rated retailers but not rated restaurants. So an important follow-up to the film was a website that rated restaurants.

People pile out of their Toyota Priuses, where they’ve been watching some environmental film, and pile into a restaurant where they eat endangered seafood. We felt that if we put this stuff up on a website where people could look, restaurants would take these endangered fish off their menus.

We’re not out to put little guys out of business—we’d rather show the bad guys how to do better. If someone gets a really bad review, we send it to them and say “Are you sure you mean to serve these critically endangered species? Do you know you’re scoring badly because of that? Do you just not care?” We give them the chance to come back and say “we’ve had a big rethink and taken it off the menu.”

Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

Yes, one other thing: There is an aspect of me and of The End of the Line that I want to make clear. We are not saying to people “Don’t eat fish.” There are still quite a lot of stocks of, say, pelagic fish that are relatively well managed which you can eat. And there’s a lot of shellfish. But we all have to be much more manageable, think more sustainably about what we’re buying.

To learn more about overfishing and its consequences, watch the film The End of the Line, read Clover’s book, and visit National Geographic’s Ocean Now website. To find restaurants that serve sustainable seafood—and avoid those that don’t—visit Fish2fork.