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.
Fishermen 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.
None 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.
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.