The lesson of ‘less’: Why ‘The End of the Line’ seafood documentary doesn’t go far enough

By Twilight Greenaway

I walked out of the screening of “The End of the Line” feeling deeply uneasy. Most of my discomfort had been carefully orchestrated by the film’s director, Rupert Murray, who filled the 80 minutes with straight-talking scientists and image upon image of wild fish being violently removed from the ocean.

endofthelinetunaFishermen stabbed endangered bluefin tuna (left) in roiling pools of bloodied water. Giant trawl nets scraped across the ocean’s bottom, decimating coral and seaweed in its wake, leaving pounds of wasted sea life to be tossed back over the side of the boat. Then there was the sheer number of industrial-size factory vessels, crawling ominously over the surface of the ocean with their highly precise tracking systems, often blatant disregard for quotas, and the ability to catch several times the number of fish remaining in the ocean below them.

Like with all good hard-hitting Big Issue documentaries, “The End of the Line” closed with a classic what-you-can-do list. On a policy level, we were asked to put pressure on governments to create more marine reserve areas and to push for better enforcement of fishing quotas, among other suggestions. The filmmakers implored us as individuals to eat only wild fish from sustainable fisheries and to switch from large, carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna to smaller species lower on the food chain.

endofthelineNone of these recommendations will come as a surprise if you’ve seen the film — or read about the issue recently — and they’re all worthwhile. But I left “The End of the Line” with a feeling not unlike the one I had at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth,” when I was told that riding my bike more often and switching to compact florescent light bulbs would somehow keep the glaciers from melting like butter.

A full 90 percent of the big fish are gone, the movie reminds us. Three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are now said to be either fully exploited or over-fished. The shift to aquaculture hasn’t ultimately meant less demand for wild seafood, but often more demand, in the form of feed for carnivorous fish. Eating fish from the remaining 7% of the ocean that has been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But how on earth, I wondered, can that be good enough?

Why was there absolutely no mention of eating less?

One reason might have to do with today’s scientific community and their approach to quantity. So far, it seems more like an absence of an approach. According to Jennifer Jacquet, a PhD candidate at the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, and blogger for Shifting Baselines, many in the fisheries world are currently arguing for seafood consumption targets similar to greenhouse gas emission targets.

“If we can model global climate, we can certainly come up with estimates for seafood consumption what would be ideally sustainable,” she told me by phone this week.

But the lack of a clear target isn’t the only issue here. Like most industries, the fishing industry has become increasingly industrialized and monolithic. And, let’s face it, any suggestion that consumers should eat — or rather, buy — less is not a possibility they’d like to see floated.

What does it really mean to eat less seafood? On the surface, our per-capita consumption rates of actual fish and shellfish meat in the U.S. are only moderately high (around 16 pounds a year). But, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, there’s another type of indirect consumption behind that number. The “total per capita use” of all edible and industrial fishery products, which we can assume includes wild fish that is very likely fed to farmed fish and made into fish meal used in industrial agriculture to speed up the animal’s growth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), that number was a whopping 69.1 pounds per person a year in 2006 (PDF). You can bet it’s only increased.

So, there’s a way that eating lower on the food chain is a form of eating less. On the other hand, many of the small, pelagic (open ocean) fish are being caught in parts of the developing world where local populations rely on them for primary nutrition. Clearly, a fisherman taking a pound of anchovies from say, Peru, to feed his family directly is definitely an improvement over a trawler taking 6 pounds of anchovies to feed a salmon that we will later eat one pound of…but it’s hard not to wonder if this shift is enough.

And it’s inherently troubling that the word less would be so absent from the larger conversation.

Jacquet, who has made public statements about her decision to stop eating seafood and argues that a movement to abstain might be a valuable way to widen the debate, says she’s been uninvited from several conferences and events in recent years. “One of my colleagues told me that I wouldn’t be welcomed at the table if I wasn’t interested in eating seafood. The fact that I study the ocean and am interested in it for other reasons wasn’t enough. I found that very telling,” she says.

There’s now a great deal of science to support the fact that eating less meat is better for the environment, Jacquet adds. “Everyone from the United Nations to Cornell University has made that argument. We’re really behind [on such thinking] in the oceans.” The need to connect the seafood industry (which uses an enormous amount of fuel) to climate change is another important piece of the puzzle, she believes. “The lifecycle analysis of seafood is just amazing,” she says. “We’re transporting salmon from Chile to Norway or from Thailand to New York, every day.”

At the heart of the problem may be a familiar type of disconnection. For as long as we view fish as a commodity, and not also as wildlife, we’ll see the possibility of eating less simply as a form of rejection, rather than as a deeper level of engagement.

“If we went to the store and I wanted you to match up the filets to the heads of the fish from which they were cut, I bet you couldn’t do it,” says Jacquet. “In fact, Iprobably couldn’t do it! We’re that far removed.”

"The End of the Line" concludes with a clear, inspiring vision of the future: one of the film’s scientists describes the feasibility of a series of new, vastly expanded marine protected areas. (Today, only 1 percent of the oceans are closed to fishing vessels.) Such areas, he explains, can be created at less of a cost than we currently spend globally on subsidies for the seafood industries. Since seeing the film, the possibility of thriving oceans once again full of wild fish of all colors and sizes seems ever more compelling. With that image in my mind, giving up most seafood — seeing it as a rare treat, as Mark Bittman wrote recently in the New York Times — until then doesn’t felt like much of a sacrifice.

More

  • Visit Fish or Cut Bait (takes the Monterey Seafood watch list a step further)
  • This chart, linked to on Grist recently, synthesized the environmental and health impacts of many standard seafood choices in an easy visual way
  • Sign the End of the Line Pledge

Raised on a small organic farm in Hawaii, Twilight Greenaway has a BA in journalism from Antioch College and an MFA from Warren Wilson. Her food politics pieces have appeared in  Culinate, Edible San Francisco, Meatpaper, and Common Ground. She writes and produces the weekly e-newsletter of the Center for Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.

8 Responsesto “The lesson of ‘less’: Why ‘The End of the Line’ seafood documentary doesn’t go far enough”

  1. *Sigh* The fallacy of less and the fallacy of not eating meat wrapped up together. I refuse to take this guilt trip.

    If I eat less of one thing then I need to eat more of something else. If I eat less meat then I must eat more plants. The meat I eat eats grass which I can not eat. Those livestock turn sunshine and CO2 into high quality lipids and proteins which I can digest very well. It is very efficient to eat meat as a part of my diet. I already don't eat much so I can't eat less. I'm not gaining any weight so I'm not eating too much - I need every calorie I eat for the level of physical activity and environment I live in.

    What can you do? Raise more of your own food. The solution isn't to eat less but to produce more of what you do eat. Gain more connection with your food.

    Back to the fish, they're so expensive I eat very little seafood - I live far from the ocean. Perhaps we need to look at how things are subsidized to create cheap food. Eliminating that subsidy and letting the market forces raise the prices may well correct the problem.

  2. Aimee says:

    Walter,
    It may indeed be true that you personally don't need to eat less. But surely you cannot be asserting that most of us don't. I'm willing to use myself as an example - along with more than two thirds of Americans, I'm overweight. Along with somewhere between 25 and 35%, I'm obese. The average number of calories consumed daily in America is now well over 3,000, almost a third more than what it was only forty years ago. I already follow many of your suggestions: all the pork, chevon (goat), eggs, milk, and cheese my family eats is produced on our own farm. Our yearly beef consumption is one quarter of a pasture raised steer from our neighbor. Vegetables are largely traded for with our neighbors. We eat seasonally and preserve for the winter. But I'm still fat and I could easily eat one third fewer calories by removing the thin layer of junk food off the top of our diet. Personally, I intend to eat every bit of wild salmon I can afford (I live in the pacific NW) but I don't mind if the price goes up to reflect more of it's true cost. I'll be able to afford less of it I guess. 

  3. I can certainly agree with you that someone who eats too much needs to eat less. I don't think that's most, based on people I know, but I also don't know if people I know are a very representative sample set. If your figure of 35% is of the population is obese then that means that 65% aren't so most aren't. I'm a little hesitant about statistics because according to Body Mass Index charts I'm obese, as are many athletic people - muscle weighs more than fat so it throws off those charts.

    The action thought is how to help people eat better meals. From what I've heard most obesity comes not from eating fish or meat but rather from eating 'junk food' - all those highly processed, easy calorie, highly appetitive foods. We've been told for 30(?) years that those are bad for us. Perhaps it is like cigarettes. Maybe it's Darwinism.

    As to helping the fish, letting the price rise to reflect the cost, as both of us have mentioned, helps. I wish we could see that go on for oil too - it does wonders for conservation and improvements in energy efficiency. I do agree with catch limits and no-fishing zones. I do find the trawling and other large scale operations offensive, on land and sea - for fishes, pigs and other animals. The big question is will it happen before we see too disastrous a crash? I don't have an answer to that. A lot of this we'll know better in 100 years.

    My objection was to extend the guilt to "everyone" when it is only some and to use the generalization of "meat is bad", "use less" when no suggestion of what to eat more of is made.

    Trade you some bacon for lox... :) Our fish solution on fish is that this year we're attempting to raise trout who eat scraps from the meat of our pigs. Not quite salmon. :) It's an experiment.

  4. I just saw Food, Inc. last night and before the movie started, I watched a trailer for THE COVE. Like yourself, I'm not sure I could sit through a movie like that, showing the dolphin murders in Japan...even though it's important to get the information out there and publicize this, I could hardly stomach the preview...

    Food, Inc. was fabulous, by the way!

  5. Aimee says:

    Walter, I've been following your trout story (fish tale?) on your blog. Your farm is an inspiration. Feel free to check out my own efforts at http://www.newtofarmlife.blogspot.com

  6. Walter! We are not talking about meat, whether industrial or yours. We are talking about fish. Fish that, as Twilight puts it, should be considered more like wild game than like pigs. The world is running out of fish. We haven't yet figured out how to breed most of what we like in captivity in an environmentally friendly manner on the same scale as say, pigs on pasture. They are not equivalent. I'm sorry, but as the guilt-trip cruise director of this blog, I say that eating a lot less seafood in general, and choosing sustainably farmed shellfish and non-carnivorous fish when you do eat it, is a no-brainer for the ethically minded.

    Edible San Francisco's seafood issue had a great cover story on sustainable sushi" as a microcosm for this debate: http://ediblesanfrancisco.com/wordpress/2009/04/20/roll-call/

  7. I do find it weird when someone says that poultry or fish are not meat. They are.

    As to eating less, as I said, I don't eat much, sometimes none at all in a year, so I can't eat much less, not to make any difference. Personally I won't make a dent.

    Looking at it more generally there is the question of what is to be substituted. If people eat less of one thing then we must eat more of something else - ignoring those who are over eating as they really aren't getting fat on fish. Eating further down the food chain makes sense, there is more there to eat generally.

    With all the different worries eating fish that eat plankton, grazers, would be good as the plankton eats CO2 thus solving a different problem. Honestly though, they're still fish and they're still meat.

    So what we want to say is eat lower on the food chain, don't eat carnivores. Hmm... Professional courtesy. That works. It's also healthier from the point of view of avoiding the build up of toxic metals and such that tend to accumulate in apex predators. A secret defense. :)

  8. sky2evan says:

    Eating Less is not a "fallacy". Most people in 1st world countries probably consume more than enough calories & protein per day. What Mr. Walter Jeffries is referring to = Stuff yourself until you feel full + eating for the sake of pleasure. In other words, consumption out of desires, not out of necessity. Most people, of course, do not desire to decrease their consumption of anything, but to increase it. Fish, foods, cars, homes, appliances, clothes, cars, gadgets, trips, services, whatever. That's the whole point of staying in the Rat Race, Keeping Up with the Jones, & chasing Success, Happiness, & the American Dream = to be able to buy, own or consume whatever we want. Nobody believes in Less = More. And 6 billion people worldwide wanting to copy us & consume what we consume. Very few people will consider decreasing consumption for the sake of "the world", especially when the primary concern of most Americans is their own personal "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - not the world's. Individuals making voluntary sacrifices for the greater common good??? Or governments making such laws??? That would be heretically un-American, and considered "socialist", and "violating freedom & human rights". Because as we all "know" & assume, the fish & the world don't have any freedoms or rights. They exist only for our own desires and purposes, even when the goal is "sustainability" (sustainable for human consumption, of course). Consumption & Happiness (More = More)wins over Ethics any day and every day, every year, with almost everyone. As long as these fundamental paradigms & drivers exist & people accept, live & follow them, all manners of ecological crises & disasters are inevitable. More + More + More = Eventually Less. Why should anyone be surprised? 6 billion people living selfishly for their own interests doesn't produce "world peace", but many people still think it can produce stability. So when crises like Overfishing, deforestation, desertification, mass species extinction, global warming, etc. occur, The human response has been the same, all across the board. Denial, Debate, Inaction, Debate, Small Action, Debate, etc. Years are wasted in Denial, Debate, & Inaction, and the problems continue to worsen. Even now, we can't even all agree that human beings are responsible, or that the consequences might be disastrous, because the human beings who have a stake in the status quo don't want to lose their stake in the status quo. Only when vast numbers of human beings die (or their property gets destroyed), do human beings Act Quickly & Collectively. That's because only when lots of people die do the surviving humans feel personally threatened. And yes, humans are very capable of compassion, but unfortunately, it's usually reserved for other human beings (especially for those in the same social groups or categories), and not to fish or most non-humans. In fact,I believe the majority of world problems can be ultimately traced back to this source - the reality that not enough people care about the world more than themselves (& their loved ones), and the fantastical idea that it's possible to have a better world with 6 billion people selfishly caring more about themselves than the world.