The End of the Line: a must see


On Monday night I went to the cinema and watched the new environmental movie The End of the Line, directed by Rupert Murray. Featuring habitats, scientists and case studies worldwide, it shows how our rampant and poorly controlled (or uncontrolled) exploitation of the global oceans is depleting (or has depleted) fish stocks to unsustainable levels. Nearly a third of global fisheries have crashed to date, and it is estimated that global fish stocks will be commercially extinct by 2048. Hopefully you will already know this: if not - well, perhaps it's time you started caring. Sorry, this post is not directly about tetrapods, but of course it kind of is, because the loss of fish and other marine animals has a direct effect on everything else in the sea, and on a lot of things on the land too. I fully expected The End of the Line to be bloody depressing, if not downright upsetting. It was, but of course it was hugely educational and it's vital that as many people as possible get to see it, especially those who think that things are fine and that we can carry on exploiting the oceans in the way that we do.


Captivating, charismatic and beautifully filmed, The End of the Line is based predominantly on Charles Clover's book of the same name (Clover 2004). It looks at the decline and horrendous mismanagement of fish stocks, the continued exploitation of endangered species, the hand of big business in extinction*, the unsustainability of current fish-farming practises, and much more. Thoroughly inaccurate (read: manipulated) data had made it look like global fish catches were much higher than they were, which indicated for a while that - though catches in many areas were definitely declining - the global catch as a whole was increasing (presumably because new areas were being exploited, or because of improved technology). China's inaccurate catch data essentially makes it look like things are rosy and that exploitation can continue at present levels (Watson & Pauly 2001). In fact, the global catch as a whole is declining: so much so that stocks will be extinct within the next few decades (Pauly et al. 2003, Worm et al. 2006) [adjacent graph from The Washington Post].

* Mitsubishi is hoarding frozen bluefin tuna and is, allegedly, contributing to the extinction of stocks such that their deep-frozen cache will increase substantially in value after the extinction date. More here.

Data shows that fisheries and fishermen do not act as careful stewards who sensibly manage fish stocks, and that technological advances within the last couple of decades have allowed the fishing industry to systematically deplete the global oceans in step-wise fashion (Pauly et al. 2005). The decline and loss of fish stocks has fundamentally altered the way in which ocean ecosytems are structured and function, on how marine systems can cope with change, and even on things like water quality (Worm et al. 2006). As large fish have gone, other animals (including various rays and invertebrates) have boomed in numbers, and these creatures are now being exploited. That might sound good, but this 'fishing down' the food web means that we are gradually working out each layer of the trophic pyramid; eventually we will be left with nothing but nematodes and algae. There is every indication that these changes have a substantial human effect, particularly in the developing world (Failler & Pan 2007).

If any of this interests or concerns you, you must see this movie, and get others to see it too. Visit the website.


What can we do, if we care? If you really must eat seafood, ensure that what you're eating comes from sustainable sources. If you don't know that something is sustainable, find out! Politicians have shown a reluctance to recommend reductions in catches: they need to promote policies that match the scientific evidence. Let them know what you think, and vote accordingly. We can also help by promoting the creation of marine reserves: to maintain sustainable stocks, we need at least 30% of the world's seas to be protected, and we are currently well short of this. Visit Marine Reserves Now for more, and consider claiming your own two hectares of ocean! The seas belong to us all, not to those who make money from them. Donations to the makers of The End of the Line can be made here [image from wikipedia].

One final thing. While it is (in my experience) not that unusual to hear people saying that they have become vegetarian for ethical reasons, it is incredibly rare to find people who, similarly, don't eat seafood for ethical reasons (I know two such individuals: you know who you are). I don't eat seafood. This started because of my allergies: I seem to be allergic to all of the fish, molluscs and crustaceans that I've tried though, strangely, I'm not allergic to scombroids (the group that includes tuna and mackerel). However, in recent years I've stopped eating them too, so now I am guilt free (or, more guilt free than I was, anyway) and can properly take the moral high ground. Should we actually be shaming people into stopping eating fish (in particular from eating all that unsustainable sushi they love so much)? I don't know - those who make their living from fishing will obviously not think so, and The End of the Line does not encourage this. Personally, I remain appalled that so many people have no concern whatsoever about eating wild animals that are, literally, being fished into extinction.

The official US release date for The End of the Line is June 19th: go and see it!

Thanks to Rose for the heads-up.

Refs - -

Clover, C. 2004. The End of the Line: How Over-fishing is Changing the World and What We Eat. Ebury Press, London.

Failler, P. & Pan, H. 2007. Global value, full value and societal costs: capturing the true cost of destroying marine ecosystems. Social Science Information 46, 109-134.

Pauly, D., Alder, J., Bennett. E., Christensen, V., Tyedmers, P. & Watson, R. 2003. The future for fisheries. Science 302, 1359-1361.

- ., Watson, R. & Alder, J. 2005. Global trends in world fisheries: impacts on marine ecosystems and food security. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 360, 5-12.

Watson, R. & Pauly, D. 2001. Systematic distortion in world fisheries catch trends. Nature 424, 534-536.

Worm, B., Barbier, E. B., Beaumont, N., Duffy, J. E., Folke, C., Halpern, B. S., Jackson, J. B. C., Lotze, H. K., Micheli, F., Palumbi, S. R., Sala, E., Selkoe, K. A., Stachowicz, J. J. & Watson R. 2006. Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science 314, 787-790.


More like this

I rarely eat seafood - mostly for reasons of taste - but unless I'm misinformed a lot of fish becomes animal feed rather than human dito, so if one wants to reduce one's contribution to overfishing one might want to consider also other animalia one eats.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Years ago I tried to get omega-3 oil from flaxseed, but it had side effects, so I've had to revert to small-fish (anchovy/mackerel/sardine) oil capsules until something else worth trying comes along.

Science News had an article some years back saying that the ocean-floor damage due to trawling for scallops would take centuries to recover, if ever.

I had the impression that lobsters were sufficiently protected, at least in the vicinity of New England, and that cod were, too. I'd really miss salmon, though.

I am vegetarian for ethical reasons. (Concern for animals, concern for people in the world who are in competition with the meat industry and with meat eaters.)

I do not eat seafood, for ethical reasons. (Ditto.)

I like some "meat" (non-seafood) dishes, but can live without them. I *really* miss fish and seafood, but hey, we can't cause harm just so we can have a grilled salmon or a sushi.

I strongly recommend that you read the short article "12 Myths About Hunger".


I've read the book and since then, with great pain, I've been trying really hard to refrain from eating seafood. To make things worse, I lived in Spain for the past eight months and I absolutely love all manners of fish, molluscs and the likes. I restricted myself small, fast-reproducing fish like herrings, sardines and anchovies, though. It is much easier now that I am home since we have no sea and all the fish we eat is from the rivers and lakes.

By Anomalocaris (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Every year, year in and year out, they pull 400,000 tons (tonnes!) of herring from a single shoal off Ireland. As the ecological web in the rest of the sea collapses, I suppose that shoal will stop yielding its quota, howsoever careful they have been to fish it sustainably.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Marine biology can be pretty depressing...I should know, I have a masters in it. Overfishing, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, loose can be pretty grim. But when given a chance, some fish stocks can recover amazingly happened during both world wars, and some fishery closures and managements have been very successful.

About eating seafood (and fish generally)- its important to note that not all seafood is equal in terms of environmental impact. Some types of fish are probably the most ecologically friendly form of meat you can eat (I'm thinking tilapia here) Shellfish farming is generally environmentally friendly, except for the occasional exotic species introduction. And farm raised catfish, fortunately, is also quite environmentally friendly.

So things are bad, but not hopeless

I don't eat seafood, but I do take fish oil tablets. Should I stop?

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2009 #permalink

Years ago I tried to get omega-3 oil from flaxseed, but it had side effects, so I've had to revert to small-fish (anchovy/mackerel/sardine) oil capsules until something else worth trying comes along.

Are you sure you need that many omega-3 fatty acids? Most of what's claimed about them has turned out to be bogus, you know. It's even possible to eat too much of them and get ill as a result.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

There is a small glimmer of hope in getting the message across to the mass of people perhaps. I saw a piece on last night's BBC News at Ten, which covered this topic. The graphic image of a net a mile long in the deep ocean enclosing, then suffocating, a massive shoal of tuna was, I found personally, quite distressing as they panicked and pushed their heads through the net to escape. It was filmed by a diver actually inside the net as part, I understand, of the Fragile Paradise programme to be shown in the BBC South Pacific series this coming week. I have only bought tinned tuna that is line caught, but nonetheless I found the scene horrifying - worst of all was the turtle trapped inside with them and equally doomed.

More exposure like that nationally will affect ordinary people's attitude. I have never understood why wild fish could be slaughtered en masse yet nobody expressed any horror about it.

By Sandra Naish (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

Luckily I'm not that keen on fish, but I am reminded of the book 'Cod' which talks about the history of cod fishing, and how even centuries ago the cod stocks were running low due to intensive fishing, so, like deforestation/top soil erosion, its something we've known about for a long long time but haven't bothered to do anything about, which is horrendous.

I'm another one who only eats sustainable fish, and then only seldom (I'm a very occasional eater of non vegetable food - I stick to organic, and free range, or do without)

(The following is from a UK perspective...)

However, any plan or program for marine recovery needs to take into account the fact that most fishermen aren't out there by choice. Many of them have huge mortgages out on those boats, and they have them because they believed the figures they were given, which we now all know were inaccurate. They still have to pay the money, or go bankrupt - many traditional fishing ports don't have any real alternative employment prospects. They can't just stop fishing, sadly :(

I am absolutely in agreement that fishing to modern levels needs to stop urgently - immediately. I just hope (though doubt) it could be achieved without hardship for the little guys (the big corporations can go sit on a tack, for me) and without dismantling yet more traditional communities and leaving them without a viable future. I have no answers.

By DunkTheBiscuit (not verified) on 13 Jun 2009 #permalink

Another excellent article, Darren.

Yes, do like the man says - see the film, read the book, eat carefully.

There is no way to describe how important it is to me that we save our oceans and all the creatures that live there. So, for the second time, should I stop taking fish oil tablets?

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

I don't see the point.

Why should I PAY to be indoctrinated in a way which, if it concerned not fisheries but buying something, I would consider extremely pushy and lame?

To be sure - marine conservation is important thing. But the movie etc is not.

Hi Jerzy. I think you are missing the point here: you may well be particularly informed when it comes to conservation, decline of ocean resources etc., but you are in a small minority. Those of us who care have a duty to bring this knowledge to the widest possible audience. If a movie is the best way of doing this, then SUPPORT THE MOVIE.

I hope I'm not being pushy, but I really, really need to know if I should stop taking fish oil tablets. I already don't eat seafood, and I want to do anything else I can to help.

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

Sorry for previous lack of response, Michael. Your fish oil tablets should (somewhere on the labelling) give you some information on the source of the fish that have been used: if this info isn't useful, a guide to the brands themselves can be found here. Glad to see you're doing your part.

Those in the UK might have seen the last episode of South Pacific this evening (Sunday 14th June). It also looked at the over-exploitation of the oceans.

Hold on: I've just realised that the page I linked to provides information on the quality of the product (in terms of contaminants), not on whether it came from a sustainable source or not. I'm afraid you might have to do a bit of personal research, sorry.

Thank you so much, Darren. I wish that caring for our Earth was a top priority for everyone. Alas, there really are people who, sadly, just don't care.

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

It appears the movie will indeed be released here in the United States, thankfully (I was a bit worried it wasn't a worldwide thing). Off I go to find out about those fish oil tabs..

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

OK, I looked at the label on the bottle and it says that the tablets come from sardine, mackerel, and anchovy. Are any of these fish in peril?

By Michael Erickson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2009 #permalink

Another very worthwhile topic, Darren; thanks as always for starting a worthy discussion. I find myself going back to my Masters Days, as well (which was in Conservation Biology). Such study is both rewarding and incredibly depressing. I will echo the sentiments of other posters and add that direct catch is not the only factor impacting ocean biomass; in fact, terrestrial agriculture has a distinct impact on coastal habitats and ocean chemistry. In some localities (especially shallow bays), this impact might exceed direct catch mortality. There are other environmental and ethical concerns regarding terrestrial farming (and aquatic farming), as well, which I'm sure all here are well aware of. The upshot is that merely foregoing seafood, or assuming a vegetarian (or vegan) diet, does not in and of itself eliminate the impacts in question (though if more of population did so, it would certainly help). This is not to make anyone here feel bad, but is meant only to indicate the scale and difficulty of the problem.

Looking broadly, all fisheries and agriculture are ultimately a form of light industry, even though they look "green" to much of the population, and a terrifying percentage of the food-supply industry is unsustainable and/or has heavy impacts on species survival. Fisheries are, of course, among the worst, but my personal take (for what it's worth) has been to start adapting my food choices at all levels: I am doing my best to make more sustainable choices as they relate to ocean animals, domestic animals, and domestic plants. I still maintain omnivory, and I suppose it would be better to remove all predatory tendencies from my diet, so I am hardly guilt free, but it's a step in the right direction.

By Mike Habib (not verified) on 15 Jun 2009 #permalink

Thanks for those thoughts, Mike. There's a lot to be depressed about. Plastic pollution and climate change are also having an impact on the health of the oceans, as are other factors. However, The End of the Line does a good job of showing that the most immediate, proximate factor resulting in the decline of fish stocks and deterioration of ocean ecosystems is the fishing industry.

Having said that, I strongly agree with your primary point: that we should be making ethical lifestyle choices across the board, wherever possible.

Darren's previous link links to this, which appears to be extremely useful. (I'd hope that Darren's reference to it conferred some authority.) You can drill down, perhaps via the full lists, to the explanations, the one of which for eco-worst Atlantic cod I find interesting, in that it says that cod from the Gulf of Maine are no longer overfished.

Don't know if any folks from the City of Brotherly Love are reading this, but we're going to be doing a free preview of The End of the Line here at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, at 6:00 p.m. tonight.

I think I'm going to have to change the name of my web mail address. One thing that has bugged me for a long time are people who are vegetarian but who still eat fish. I haven't been able to wrap my brain around the logic of this, maybe they think that fish are low enough down on the evolutionary ladder that they don't count as animals. Maybe it's because the bible says it's okay to eat fish on "meatless" days. The other thing that has bothered me is the idea of using fish as fertilizer for crops. It always seemed like such a gigantic waste.

Having said that I do love to eat fish. Over the years I've been gradually trying to eliminate seafood from my diet but it's been so hard. It was easy to get off of tinned tuna. Remember when they use to show those films of dolphins caught in tuna nets? I guess I was the only one who was just as horrified to see tuna being caught in tuna nets.

Another global problem that is happening now, at least in developed countries is that is trendy to eat fish as part of a healthy diet. A lot of people are promoting the idea of several servings of fish a week as an alternative to red meat. I guess just eating less meat has never occured to anyone. I'm not suggesting that everyone become vegetarian(I tried it myself, it didn't work) But do we really need to est as much meat as we do, fish or otherwise?

Maybe it's because the bible says it's okay to eat fish on "meatless" days.

Catholic tradition -- no Bible involved.

But do we really need to est as much meat as we do, fish or otherwise?

Most First-Worlders eat way more meat than they need to.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

â¦or than is good for them, even.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 17 Jun 2009 #permalink

Maybe I missed something, but it is pretty amazing that you can have this level of discussion in a post like this without a single mention of the need to reduce the human population.

the need to reduce the human population.

Purely based on extrapolation of current birth and death rates, the human population will have started decreasing before the end of the century. There was a nice paper on this in Nature in 2001. By some estimates it will have dropped to below the present level in 2100.

This is not taking things like Peak Oil into account.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 18 Jun 2009 #permalink

Hi. I chanced upon this blog and am not a regular contributor/reader, but...

In addition to reducing the population, which I've tried to talk about to anyone that would listen, and that even the UN has studied and reported on for years (decades?), there is one major, humongous issue which could solve most problems...

It is capitalism. Capitalism drives virtually all governmental and societal problems like this, in non-developing countries. Of course elimination of capitalism will not magically deliver us to a land of angels and milk and honey, but it will get us 90% of the way to having a maximally good world. (I am, of course, excluding many typical human stupidities which need to be evolved out of.)

You give me 15% of the people in the streets, and I will give you excellence.

TK, you can try to introduce the Tobin Tax worldwide in the same second. I won't.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 Jun 2009 #permalink

I'm not entirely convinced that reducing the population is really the solution here. (Yes, I know this is practically heresy, but hear me out...)

Both the overfishing issue and the climate change issue seem to be heading toward crisis within a few decades. This is too soon for population reductions to be of any help, so these problems will have to be solved without recourse to reducing population.

However, the technologies necessary to solve/endure the climate change crisis (some form of cheap, non-fossil-fuel energy: widely used nuclear, massive solar (hopefully including space solar panels), advanced biofuels - not the corn junk) will make the population crisis not nearly so extreme. IIRC it's supposed to level out somewhere around 9 billion people - with the technologies we'll need *anyway* to get through the climate change, we could probably support that population with a smaller environmental impact than we currently use to support the current population. (Land area isn't the issue, energy and water is - and with cheap clean energy we can solve the water problem by desalination.) We can't go backwards anymore - the only solution is more technology, not less.

Furthermore, the decline of population in the West will probably be a bad thing for the environment in the really long run, since that will reduce the global influence of those nations, which are the ones where environmental consciousness has most taken hold.

If we wanted to help by reducing population, we'd have had to do it 50 or 100 years ago. It's too late now for that.

By William Miller (not verified) on 19 Jun 2009 #permalink

hopefully including space solar panels

A German consortium is going to plaster a small strip of the Sahara with solar panels. Much, much cheaper than installing them in orbit.

IIRC it's supposed to level out somewhere around 9 billion people

Yes -- or 12, depending on the assumptions.

the decline of population in the West


Besides, France has got its birth rate back up to 2.1 children per woman by socialism alone. :-)

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 20 Jun 2009 #permalink

TK, could you define "capitalism"? What do you mean? A randbot will define any kind of economy with a statal sector "socialist" and not capitalist, Robert Kurz will consider any society based on work and the principle of value - including Stalinism or social democracy or any other kind of state socialism - capitalist, and of course there are thousands intermediate definitions between those extremes (including the rather peculiar one of Attac, that capitalism somehow turns into socialism if you add the Tobin Tax :-)).

There are several sources for information on the sustainability of various types of seafood. For North American, the Monterey Bay Aquarium sponsors Seafood Watch:
In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society has a program called Fish Online:
Both provide downloadable pocket guides that you can print and take with you when shopping or dining out.

There are a few tentative success stories out there, of fisheries being managed sustainably, and maintaining consistent yields over time. They are few and far between, but deserve credit and attention, and if you are going to eat seafood, then by all means support them with your money.

By George Hammond (not verified) on 06 Jul 2009 #permalink