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Reflections on Overfishing Documentary

By Carrie Brownstein, May 15, 2009  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Carrie Brownstein
End of the Line, a documentary based on journalist Charles Clover's book of the same name, is showing at a handful of film festivals and will play in some cities on June 8th-World Oceans Day.  I had a chance to watch the film and have a few thoughts to share. The film begins with beautiful footage of marine life and quickly (and graphically) moves toward its key message: The oceans are overfished and fish populations are in trouble. Some of the most well-known and well-respected marine scientists are interviewed in the film to confirm these bleak trends. I appreciate the filmmaker's intention to tell this important story about the oceans. Our oceans are under incredible pressure and overfishing is a HUGE problem. In their latest global status report, the FAO states that slightly over half (52%) of fish populations are fished at their maximum sustainable limits, and there's no room for further expansion. An additional 28% of fish populations are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Why this happens requires a longer discussion, but the short of it is that overfishing happens when fishing quotas (i.e. limits on how many fish can be caught) are exceeded, or because no regulations or ineffective regulations exist to control fishing. Sometimes regulations are on the books but aren't enforced. And corruption in the market is a reality that undermines even the well-intentioned. Even so, I wish that a more complete story was told in the film. The film is professionally produced and visually gets across the gravity of the overfishing situation. But from my work with fisheries around the globe, I know firsthand that it's not all doom and gloom out there. Success stories exist and demonstrate that we can effectively manage our marine resources. Sharing these stories is important because it gives credit to the fishermen-and the fishery scientists and managers-who are working hard to conserve the resources upon which they depend. A classic example of strong fisheries management is a fish hailing from my neck of the woods - the Atlantic striped bass (a.k.a. rockfish or striper). Valuable to both commercial and recreational fisheries, striped bass plummeted in the late 1970s/early 1980s due to overfishing. In response, a number of U.S. states closed the fishery in the mid-to-late 80s to give the population a chance to recover. And it worked! Stripers returned and continue to thrive. According to the latest scientific assessment, striped bass is not overfished nor is overfishing occurring. Another comeback story is the North Atlantic swordfish. The population of this swift predator plummeted to low levels in the 1990s but is now almost fully rebuilt. North Atlantic Swordfish came back because fishery managers-especially in the U.S.-reduced allowable catch levels and closed certain areas to fishing to reduce catches of juvenile swordfish. Fortunately, there are too many examples of successful fisheries management to fit into this blog. But overall my point is that fisheries do need to be well-managed, and when they are, we need to tell their stories. I also would have liked the film to cover aquaculture (fish farming) in a bit more depth. Only a few short minutes are dedicated to this topic; yet, almost half (47%) of the world's fish supply is farmed. More importantly, what is said about aquaculture in the film is all negative. There certainly are problems with aquaculture, but there are also a number of great examples of environmentally responsible aquaculture operations. I've profiled some special farmers here previously.  After spending two years researching aquaculture and meeting some of the world's most innovative fish farmers, I know it's not all bad. Telling the stories of the good work being done informs the public that there are good seafood choices out there. It also creates a sense of pride among producers and encourages them to advance their efforts even further. And when retailers and other buyers select their products over the less sustainable ones, it creates an incentive for others to change. Have you seen the film? What did you think?
Category: Seafood




Anthony Pickles says ...
The film does have an important story to deliver about our oceans, and it's true that fisheries in the US are often better managed than those elsewhere in the world. However the overall message, that as consumer, we can help tackle the problem of overfishing by only eating fish from sustainable sources, is relevant to everyone. We can also help by telling politicians to respect the science and set appropriate quotas, and by joining the campaign for marine protection zones and responsible fishing. See the website for more on film dates in the US and UK - <a href="http://www.endoftheline.com" rel="nofollow">The End of the Line</a>.
05/15/2009 10:49:53 AM CDT
wishbone says ...
Thanks for your comments about the striped bass. This is the main fish being caught in our area, the Chesapeake Bay. Yes, the fishery is being abused to an extent, as can be seen by recent news articles in the area of people being busted for illegally catching fish past their quotas. Other than that, things are great. We run a charter boat, and we do everything we can to protect the fishery. Just think about what the striped bass does for our economy. People pay to go fishing with me. They stay at the local hotels, eat at the local restaurants, and visit the local clubs. Suppose they only catch one striper. Just think of how much money that striper brought to the economy. This is a precious resource that must be sustained. God bless the striper!
05/15/2009 5:59:52 PM CDT
Michael Milne says ...
Glad to hear that you saw the film, as supermarkets have a vital role to play in the recovery of our oceans. The dinner plate is many people's most tangible connection to the ocean. It is time (in fact long-overdue) for the public to be exposed to the hard realities of what is happening on our oceans. 90% of the world's stocks of large predatory fish stocks are gone! 80% of the world's REMAINING fisheries are fully to over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse! Scientists predict the end of commercial fishing by 2048 if things don't change. It's shocking. And people need to know what is happening, and that they can make a difference simply by eating lower on the seafood chain and avoiding over-fished species. IMHO, asking End of the Line to also "tell the story" of the one of the few fishery recoveries reminds me of the press' flawed coverage of global warming (where "balanced" coverage actually resulted in inaccurate coverage and the misrepresentation of the facts). With global warming, the journalistic norm of balanced reporting gave the impression that the scientific community was divided on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming, when in fact the evidence was clear we were. Likewise, your desire for End of the Line to show more "fairness" or "balance" or "accuracy" by including information about fishery recoveries strikes me as a sneaky way to introduce ambiguity into the issue. Suggesting that fishery recovery is common or that it could take place on a widescale under current fishery management systems is immensely misleading. As we begin to pay the price for the "balanced coverage" that helped delay efforts to cut carbon emissions, can't we just skip the "debate" this time and get to work to address overfishing? For example, even Atlantic swordfish was not saved by "telling both sides of the story." It was saved in a large part by public awareness of the plight of swordfish, a boycott by prominent buyers, restaurants, and consumers., adn public pressure for better management. I can only hope End of the Line will spur similar efforts. In the meantime, helping Whole Food customers eat lower on the seafood food chain, avoiding over-fished species, and eliminating seafood that results in the bycatch of sea turtles, whales, dolphins is a powerful solution to this problem. Whole Foods needs to re-consider its seafood policies and support efforts it has opposed in the past, such as when you refused to carry turtle-safe shrimp. While Whole Foods may have better seafood policies than other large supermarket chains, that is of little consequence when all that means is you are last in the race to the bottom, a bottom that is a world without fish.
05/15/2009 6:04:00 PM CDT
Erick B says ...
I would think that we all would agree that, as consumers, "we can help tackle the problem of overfishing by only eating fish from sustainable sources." The question is really what will be most effective in inspiring people to act; make changes in their day-to-day activities, encourage others, actively support campaigns, etc. I think Carrie's point is important. I agree with her that shock therapy needs to be mixed with positive examples of change, as long as they are authentically presented in scale...i.e., if only one percent of some kind of fish are sustainably harvested, we should be made aware of that. but too many doom and gloom messages make us feel disempowered. We all know how ****** up things are...we need to feel like there's a positive change bus worth getting on because it has a chance to arrive... That said, the intentions are all aligned, so I take Carrie's criticisms in that spirit...how do we get people to take action.
05/16/2009 1:09:14 AM CDT
Christopher Hird says ...
I am the executive producer of The End of the Line. I know people like me are meant to keep quiet but we live in changing and dangerous times. I'm really pleased that Michael Milne basically likes the film and hopes -as he does - that the film will lead to increased public awareness, so that the good work which companies like Whole Foods are doing is even more successful. My question to him and Whole Foods is - will you show the film in special screenings in your stores, so that this message gets out? As independent filmmakers, getting distribution is one of our biggest challenges. You could put your money where you mouth is by helping us now. And to your customers my appeal is this: lobby your store to show it.
05/17/2009 5:12:00 PM CDT
brownsteinc says ...
Thanks, readers, for you comments. I’m glad this blog has generated engaging conversation. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I agree that overfishing is happening in many fisheries worldwide. The science is certainly there to show it. My suggestion to present a more balanced perspective is not, by any means, a challenge to the science. This isn’t the climate change debate. Success stories are needed, not to water down the seriousness of the problem, but to show that something can be done to fix it. With a range of tools—reduction of fishing quotas, responsible retailer purchasing policies, consumer choice, etc.—we can work to turn this situation around. Whole Foods Market spent two years analyzing the problems in the aquaculture industry and building solutions into a set of concrete purchasing guidelines for all our stores to follow. We’re now doing the same for wild-caught species. This involves looking at the status of the fish populations as well as assessing other issues including bycatch. A big part of this work includes finding the success stories out there and making sure that our standards reflect the very best work being done. For example, when shrimp fishermen invent a device to keep finfish out of a trawl, and it’s the highest performing method of reducing bycatch (i.e., it keeps the most finfish out of the net), then we want to see that device used. But if the stories of the good work being done weren’t told, people would be left thinking that nothing can be done to solve the problem. That leaves you feeling hopeless and depressed, rather than empowered to act.
05/18/2009 9:52:50 AM CDT
Bill Gerencer says ...
Thank you for the excellent and honest perspective. Yes, there are serious problems with fishing in various parts of the world's oceans, and, truth be known, only a modest percentage of the area encompassed by our worlds oceans actually support marine life, the rest is a virtual liquid desert. However, many of the stories you hear don't carry the whole truth, i.e. Did you know that George's Banks haddock stocks are estimated by the National marine Fisheries Service to be at their highest levels since the service began assessing the stock since 1931? (The long term average was 120,000 metric tons of spawning-stock biomass, the previous high was 200,000 metric tons, and in 1993 the stock was depleted to a mere 14,000 metric tons but today it's 315,000 metric tons of spawning stock biomass!!! This remarkable comeback has gone largely unreported.) Problems remain in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank due to our inability to be or play God (all-knowing and all powerful) but fishing mortality rates and fishing effort are at historic low levels. Or, why is it that most of the so-called health warnings about mercury in seafood come from conservation groups and animal rights groups, not public health organizations? And at that, their recommended solution to mercury in our oceans is to stop eating fish. Is an abstinence program really the best way to reduce mercury pollution?
05/20/2009 11:25:47 AM CDT
Bill Gerencer says ...
By the way - the Swordfish boycott had little to do with the stock's recovery. ICCAT had implemented measures that began the recovery almost ten years earlier. When the boycott was announced in 1999, the stock had grown from 58% BMSY (Bio-mass at Maximum Sustainable Yield) to 65% BMSY or by about 10% indicating a strong resurgence since most of this biomass was a large number of small fish. By the end of 2001, the Spawning-stock biomass had grown to 99% BMSY or virtually fully recovered. What the boycott actually accomplished was crash the sword price, nearly kill off the US swordfish fleet and, in their absence, increase swordfish imports to 90% of fish consumed in this country. Now the United States faces the prospect of trying to rebuild it's fleet and catch it's quota allocation or we will soon lose a large portion of that quota to countries who do not share our passion for conservation or the ability and intention to fish for swordfish without harming endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles. I refuse to use the words "fair and balanced," because they have been appropriated to the realm of a bad joke but unless we know the full story in each case, then we are subject to the law if unintended consequences (if such a thing exists) and will continue to learn the hard way that the end result never justifies the means used to achieve that end.
05/20/2009 12:36:07 PM CDT
Rich Ruais says ...
I have only seen a promo on "End of the Line" and will not pay to see the film adding to gloom and doom profiteers coffers. The movie is based largely on the Ransom Myers &amp; Boris Worm 2003 study published in Nature causing a wave of scientific criticism of Nature for allowing such poor science to see the light of day. Here are just a few of the peer reviewed comments. Dr. John Silbert (noted Pacific large pelagics researcher labeled Worm's paper "fundamentally flawed" and goes on to note that "Myers and Worm do the fisheries community a disservice by applying a simplistic analysis to the available date which exaggerates declines in abundance and implies unrealistic rebuilding benchmarks". Dr. Gary Sharp (Center for Climate/Ocean Resources)calls their paper "meta-analysis", "not good science" and the most "recent nonsense" and Dr Vidar Wespestad (NOAA scientists for 20 years) stated " I can clearly state that these views do not hold in our water in our region and in fact (the article)...is erroneous and people truly knowledgeable are writing a rebuttal". World famed scientist Dr. Michael Sissenwine (former NOAA Chief Scientist, Director Northeast Fisheries Service Lab, Woodls Hole, MA, etc.)commented that most of the decline cited by Worm's paper occurred more than 50 years ago before the establishment of many major international Regional Management Organizations (RMO's) were even formed. He noted that "...humanity cannot harvest the oceans and expect to leave behind a pristine environment" and that aqn "aggressive regulatory" programs in the US and world-wide had been formed to tackle problem fisheries which continue to exists such as the North Atlantic bluefin tuna, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea. After the initial controversy even Myers agreed that "when fisheries management is used...there is not a concern about the biomass reducing by 50 or 60 or even 70%". The need is to get political pressure on the RFMO's to get stocks to BMSY (the biomass level necessary to produce maximum sustainable yield" as noted by Gerencer above has been done for haddock, swordfish, yellowfin tuna and many more species. It is absolutely wrong and irresponsible in my view to tell consumers they are responsible for sustaining fish populations by their seafood choices based on recommendations from groups of questionable competency and motivations. For example Carl Safina's site still list swordfish as avoid because of overfishing when the next assessment will likely show the stock is beyond BMSY. And please Mr. Hird, when you ask Whole Foods to run your show in all their outlets why not just ask them for a blank check instead. The studies world-wide demonstrating the health and life prolonging benefits of increased seafood consumption are overwhelming especially for young children. The omega-3 and selenium benefits for healthy hearts, neurological and developmental skills clearly outweigh any risks from mercury as more and more science shows every year. At a recent conference "Proceedings of the International Symposium on Selenium-mercury Interactions" scientist M.F. Flores-Arce concluded that "the evidence of harm by the mercury in fish to humans is scant and leading nutrition experts have in fact concluded that the health benefits of seafood, if only as a sourcve of omega-3 fatty acids,greatl outweigh and potential risk associated with the presence of mercury." Studies or movies that scare the public away from seafood consumption are irresponsible to the health and longevity of human beings, in my view. Sustainability battles will be continued in RFMO's and great strides have already been made. Responsible stores like Whole Foods should aggressively advertise the health benefits of seafood to their customers and not carry out the agenda of doom and gloom profiteers.
05/22/2009 11:09:12 AM CDT
Christopher Hird says ...
It is always nice to read a review of a film by someone who has not seen it - and Rich Ruais goes one better by saying he has no intention of seeing The End of the Line. I urge people to see the film before they judge. And, Mr Ruais, my suggestion that it be shown in Whole Foods stores, is not a request for a blank cheque but a suggestion to provide a platform for the informed debate of which you clearly do not want to be a part.
05/23/2009 2:53:19 PM CDT
Rich Ruais says ...
Mr Hird: I beg to differ about not wanting to be a part of the debate or, more importantly, contributing to progress on a solution. I am a former professional government fishery manager and fishery representative engaged in domestic and international fora in the Atlantic since 1978 attempting to advance enlightened conservation. I have served on the US Delegation to the International Commission for Atlantic Tunas since 1991 longer then any other private or US governement citizen. I am an Advisor to the National Marine Fisheries Service Highly Migratory Species Advisory Panel since its creation. I testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce,Science and Transportation on this very issue on June 12, 2003. Maybe my comment about not being willing to see the film was a bit hasty but it was based on my frustrated recollection of the flawed, deliberately overly dramatic Myers/Worm paper which no doubt served their purpose and yours handsomely. It hasn't helped solve remaining problems which are far too complex for this forum though I will try to give readers a flavor. And I will view the film when I am sure doing so does not profit fear mongers. Feel free to send me a copy to R.Ruais at P.O. Box 447, Salem, NH 03079 and I will send you a free copy of my testimony in return so we can both be educated. I will also send you and my wish is that Whole Foods would distribute NOAA's Fish Watch Brochure on the swordfish success story: rebuilding the resource 3 years ahead of schedule largely on the backs of American fishermen with more then 2 million square nautical miles of closed areas, implementation of circle hooks and mandatory training programs on the use of dehooking devices and other techniques to maximize survival of bycatch of other pelagic living marine resources. The problem in the Atlantic has been a dysfunctional European Community, inadequate European and North African country fishery management infrastructure, industry ignorance and greed (particularly Mediterranean based and Asian fishing industry) all providing a formidable obstacle to repeating the swordfish success with, for example, North Atlantic bluefin tuna a more complex and poorly biologically understood resource with occassionally significant value. Basic data on stock structure, mixing patterns, spawning information and sexual maturity remains poorly known. The problem has also included a failed US international fish policy, executed at the NOAA level,of attempting to "lead by example" with unilateral fishery restriction imposed on our domestic fleet. Because fish matters are generally a low level priority within presidential administrations our unilateral conservation sacrifices (although occassionally appreciated by other countries benefiting from temporarily higher catch rates and prices) do not serve the purpose of long term resource wide sustainability. In simple terms, although we try to lead in practice, when we look over our shoulder (or fish rail to rail on the high seas with competing nations) no one is following our lead. Our leadership will not produce the desired results until fisheries are elevated as a matter of national policy. Countries simply do not take the US serious on fisheries, are glad to accept our disproportionate share of conservation and until US fish negotiations have the attention at the highest levels of the State, Commerce Department's and the Administration, we will continue to spin our wheels. Fish are the chips for the State Department on other matters deemed more important. We see it repeatedly. There is no leverage provided our fish negotiators beyond low level communications and relatively meaningless pre-meetings. But the tools are available because of US fishing industry lobbying, in the form of trade sanctions mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the High Seas Driftnet Moratorium Protection Act, if the political will (and obstinate lawyers) were available at NOAA and State to implement them against any fishing nations not employing "comparable" fishing restrictions imposed on US fishermen to minimize bycatch and maximize bycatch survival. So you see Mr. Hird, suggesting that sustainability should reside in the hands of US consumers, or seafood markets or profit driven "certification" entities is a bankrupt and dangerous strategy. Just what would be accomplished by looping your doom and gloom "End of the Line" in front of potential seafood buyers -- a walk to the meat counter? It is a US government responsibility and where the competency lies to uncover the continuing international conservation scofflaws and have the gov't stop the illegal fish from entering the US market. Putting this complicated, fact intensive job in the hands of restaurants/fish markets only risks hurting law abiding US fishermen held to highest conservation standards of fishermen anywhere in the world today. Thanks to Whole Foods for the opportunity to set some facts straight. And please Whole Foods, consider distributing NOAA Fish Watch Brochures on responsible conservation and sustainable fisheries like those produced by American fishermen for swordfish, sea scallops, haddock and many more. Send me an address MS Carrie Brownstein and I will mail you sample NOAA brochures to consider. Rich Ruais
05/26/2009 10:49:44 AM CDT
:Putnam maclean says ...
As a fisherman I feel compelled to point out that the Sustainable Fisheries Act, and many other Federal and State laws mandate sustainanbly managed fisheries. In some cases there is stock rebuilding occuring thru the process and fisherman may be very restricted in what they are allowed to catch. Atlantic cod for example. When "green groups" encourage boycotts intended to depress prices in these fisheries they cause deliberate and unnecessary harm to those men and women already trying to work through a very difficult process that makes the system work. Is it any wonder working people question the motives of peripheral do-gooders who loudly try to claim the moral high ground without providing rational solutions.
05/27/2009 10:57:44 AM CDT
Roy Palmer says ...
Supermarkets can start by ensuring that their buying practices relating to seafood ensure there is limited seafood wastage which is far from the current state of play. Fishing does have a chequered history and it is no saint in many areas but to show just one side without, as you highlighted, the brighter newer face of the industry is a total injustice. Much is being learnt and much is happening to move the cowboys out of the world of fishing. Unfortunately fisheries science is not an exact science but major progress is being made. To not eat seafood puts the human race at risk - it is the most nutritious food you can put in your mouth and most countries do not sufficient quantities. We need to make the Oceans (78pct of the world) work for us in a sustainable fashion otherwise with the increasing world population we will have insufficent food. Land will not be able to cope and we need to be thinking more about utilisation of Oceans rather than 'locking them up'. We all need to work together in a positive manner to reach that goal
06/29/2009 10:10:15 PM CDT
Stefanie says ...
I found this movie to be so true and very inspiring to help our oceans. The film does an amazing job at pointing out the true issues of what is affecting our oceans and why so many species are in trouble. This is a movie that everyone can relate to and really shows us how we need to do something now to help the oceans before it is too late.
04/03/2010 7:51:48 AM CDT
Cathy Phifer says ...
I agree with everything you said on this film...when are we going to realize that Overfishing hurts us all and the whole planet?
04/10/2010 6:33:24 PM CDT
Gabriela Nunez says ...
Thank you all for your comments. The movie, unlikely to what some people say, can be watched on Youtube, for free. I only want to say that I really appreciate the sincere information, specially from the people who are against, because we do have to be critical about the information we get everyday. Personally, I am a vegan, I don't even eat fish, so I am not affected either by people who criticize fish consumption of endangered species, or by people who say that it is irresponsible to ask people to eat less fish. However, I do think that we are ignoring the scientific perspective, cause as I read in these blogs, most of us have worked in Policy Making, film directors, fishermen, etc. Anyway, I would love that more people are engaged, specially I think that if only one can do it, that makes a large difference, because that means there are at least people who don't give up that easily.
10/17/2015 11:21:57 PM CDT