The end of the line

Author Charles Clover on the scourge of overfishing, disgraceful restaurants, and yes, sustainable McDonald's.

Topics: Environment, Food,

The end of the line

I first met Charles Clover, the environment editor for London’s Daily Telegraph, over a dinner of striped bass in Washington. I used to surf cast for the fish off the beaches of Long Island, N.Y., in the 1980s, a time of stringent catch limits because of the shrinking bass population. Then strong fisheries management and conservation measures led to a dramatic rebound in the fishery, now evident on our dinner plates.

Clover has been monitoring the oceans since the late 1980s. His book, “The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat,” was published in the United States last year but, sadly, was met with a deafening lack of attention. That’s a shame, because Clover presents a compendium of how precisely we are eating our way through the seas. Scientists reported last year that fish would be gone from the oceans by 2048 if this behavior goes unchecked — though Clover points out that it’s not as if the seas will be empty. In the absence of all the fish we’ve eaten, we’ll also experience a surfeit of species like jellyfish because biodiversity has been undone.

In a globe-trotting expedition, Clover takes readers to Newfoundland to visit with fisherman who no longer have cod to catch; to Africa, where massive fleets roam the seas unchecked to feed the hungry maws in Madrid, Spain, and Tokyo; to Scotland, where successful boats fish illegally, because legal species are in short supply; to Denmark, where sand eels filled with dioxin and PCBs were sent to salmon farms and are now fished out; and to the Mediterranean, where bluefin tuna are being wiped out, while sky-high prices fall due to oversupply. He also outs several high-end eateries that serve tasty morsels of “endangered species.”

While this amounts to a depressing indictment, Clover also writes about those who have gotten it right. Their efforts include marine parks in New Zealand that have led to a dramatic rebound in fish populations, and an approach to “fisheries rights” that has proved successful in places like Alaska and Iceland. He also investigates what’s in McDonald’s fish sandwich; the answer will surprise you.

“The problem with world fisheries is nobody sticks up for the fish,” Clover says. Finally, with this book, someone has.

I had no idea how bad the global health of fisheries was until I read your book. How did you get started on this subject?

I began looking at this around the end of the 1980s. When I became environmental correspondent there was a huge fuss about the North Sea and pollution and red tide. But I thought there was too much emphasis being placed on pollution and too little on the killing of organisms, because pollution didn’t kill much and fishing actually did.

I went to the Shetland Islands and a terrible thing was happening. The sand eels that live in the North Atlantic — the sand eels on which the Arctic terns that migrate thousands of miles depend — didn’t come back that year. So the Arctic terns were starving and chicks were dying. It was all heartbreaking stuff.

As it turned out, fishermen were catching the sand eels, mashing them up and turning them into feed for salmon farms. And they were doing that right under the cliffs and on the beaches where the birds were starving. The sand eel at the time was the No. 1 forage fish for the fish industry and I heard via the bird network that they caught so much in Denmark that they were feeding the fish oil to power stations to make coal burn better. So we fingered them for that. People in the House of Lords were saying, “So that’s what’s screwing up our salmon fishery!”

Then I was sitting at some global warming conference in 1990 — yes, way back in 1990 — with the British government’s chief scientist, and he said, “You think all these figures on global warming are bad, you ought to look at these figures on fisheries.”

It seemed everywhere you looked — from Africa to Antarctica — there was overfishing. And it seems like the same problems and mistakes get repeated all over.

Well it does, and it just gets worse, that’s the thing, and people don’t accept you’ve got to do something about it.

But we don’t always know it’s occurring.

When I was writing about the sand eels, the bizarre thing was that the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery was also under way. I read about it six months later. We’d never run any stories on Newfoundland. Even fisheries professors didn’t know about it in 1991 — and they closed the fishery in 1992.

Is that what happened with North Sea cod too? You describe the decline of that fishery over many years.

The fisheries scientists have never accepted there was a collapse of the same order in the North Sea as in Newfoundland. But if your population is depleted by more than 90 percent, is that not a collapse? Newfoundland is considered a historic collapse and in the North Sea they keep fishing.

Do you think there’s any hope that the Atlantic cod can come back?

It seems to me that if you catch as little fish as possible, there’s got to be a chance. But at the moment, the extent to which the cod fishing is going on — even though the quotas have dwindled in the Northeast — is quite staggering. The by-catch of cod in other fisheries, such as haddock and bottom fish, has been two or three times as great as the actual cod quota.

One thing you write about is the tension between preserving the fishermen’s way of life and the disappearance of the catch. In some cases, fishermen even fish illegally. Wouldn’t it seem in their interest to come up with a more sustainable approach?

It’s curious. I think it’s just two views of reality fighting each other. One reality is you’ve bought a boat and you have a mortgage so you are going to believe the guy who says there is something left in the sea, that you haven’t fished it all out. If you’ve got conflicting views on whether the scientists are correct, then you give fishermen something to believe in and they will believe it. They will believe anything other than that their work is screwing up their own livelihood. There’s nothing worse than self-interest to build self-delusion.

From a consumer’s point of view, should we be eating fish at all?

I didn’t say in my book, “Don’t eat fish.” I say, “Don’t eat certain fish, don’t eat endangered fish.” If a fish takes 20 years to double its population, that’s a long time. If it takes 30 years before it breeds, don’t touch it. But if you eat something that’s fast reproducing and not overfished, you should be all right. And there’s quite a lot of those species out there. You can eat a hell of a lot of shellfish, a huge amount of mussels and oysters, and your deep-water scallops, with a clear conscience. You can have a really nice fish stew, it’s not a problem. But why eat endangered fish? And the slow-reproducing ones are probably going to have mercury in them anyway, so it’s a win-win.

I think [cutting back on endangered fish] would be enough of a message to the fishermen of the world and the industries. God knows we’re eating a lot of them at the moment. If you go to New York, restaurants seem actively to encourage it.

Yes. You finger some restaurants in your book, including some very well-regarded ones like Nobu and BLT Fish. Did you get a chance to look at BLT Fish’s more recent menu? Had anything improved?

It was utterly disgraceful. In terms of endangered fish, there were more on that menu than I’ve seen on a lot. And the restaurant’s gotten worse since I wrote about them in the book. They’ve got Icelandic halibut, which is a quite amazing fish, and about as sustainable a halibut as you could get in terms of the way it’s caught, but it is still an endangered species in the Atlantic. New York chefs are a disgrace. They served caviar for a decade longer than they should have. They serve bluefin tuna because they’ve kidded themselves that it’s a sustainable catch, which it isn’t. They serve other things that are overfished, like red snapper.

You also uncover a hidden secret about McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich: that the fish comes from two fisheries actually certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. In other words, McDonald’s fish sandwich is more sustainable than Nobu’s tuna sashimi. Did that surprise you?

Not really. McDonald’s is sustainable because it is a big company and needs continuity of supply, but isn’t that arguably a definition of sustainability?

Buying Alaskan pollock as McDonald’s does is not a bad practice — except that they don’t seek to advertise their MSC connection, which might mean they would have to pay for the logo. Gambling you can make your fortune before you run out of exotic fish is an individual decision and one Nobu shares with many restaurateurs from Asia.

Despite the grim realities, you do provide a few examples in the book of places where action is being taken, and measures are working to protect fish. Do you sense improvement?

Here and there. It’s actually quite instructive over here in Europe because things are much worse than in the U.S. In the U.S., fisheries science means something to people, in places like the Northeast. They’ve seen what a collapse means and they don’t want to go back, so they listen to the scientists. The industry will sit in a room and have a discussion, whereas over here [in Europe] you’ll get your legs run over [for talking about it].

Take the Mediterranean, which may be the crucible of civilization but is also the crucible of kleptomania when it comes to fishing. The only fish that come out of the Mediterranean are about 3 inches long because that’s the only size that gets through the net. It’s a disgrace out there. It’s in Europe’s backyard, and Europe goes on about how “green” it is, but when it comes to fisheries, the [European Commission] Fisheries Directorate says it’s there for the preservation of the fishing industry and fishermen of Europe. It does not conserve fish.

So, I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere, but acknowledging the problem is a very big thing.

But why has it gone right, say, in Alaska? In the U.S., we always hear how good the wild Alaskan salmon fishery is.

I think it’s like Iceland: When you’ve got nothing else, you look after it. When you’re an island surrounded by cod, if your cod goes down, you are stuffed. I think it’s pretty much the same with Alaska; they understand they have a resource they haven’t destroyed yet. They were able to act on the basis of other people’s mistakes. Sooner or later the message gets across that mistakes have been made and if you’re the last one starting out, maybe you’re going to make slightly fewer than anyone else.

You paint a stark picture of Africa, where industrial fleets ply the waters of countries that have virtually no oversight of the catch. And then it all ends up on plates in Europe and Japan.

That is one of the most depressing bits of all. I just don’t see an impetus for change coming from the countries themselves. In Senegal, there might be an intelligent movement of artisan fishermen that will chuck out the foreigners. But the other possibility is that we — the European Union — have to reform agreements. Because of EU limits, a lot of the colonialist fleet that has fished there has reflagged as African, so now there’s a huge Senegalese industrial trawler fleet. I don’t see it getting resolved. The problem is no one really understands fishery economics. If you want to invest in the fishery, you take the fishermen away for a protracted period. If you want to invest in anything else you put loads of people and money in — but with fishing it’s the opposite. It’s an extractive industry.

That’s what was interesting about the marine sanctuaries you write about in New Zealand, where fishing has been completely banned. Not only have the fish populations recovered, but they have reached a level of growth and biodiversity the scientists never imagined was possible.

If we did that with the cod we’d be caught up to our eyeballs. I don’t see why you can’t have a low-impact fishery, a buffer zone, like you do for land-based parks in Africa. It keeps everyone happy, and you keep everything protected.

Author’s note: For details about the fish mentioned in this interview, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Environmental Defense, and Fishbase.

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