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Reflections on Overfishing Documentary

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?