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Fishing for the future of ocean life

Documentary focuses on the implications of overfishing in marine populations

Human over-consumption of fish is killing the oceans, according to the documentary The End of the Line, which ended a run at Cinéma du Parc last week sponsored by Greenpeace Canada. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Charles Clover, the film argues that unless there are radical changes to fishing quotas and a conscious commitment to curtail consumption, we are facing an enormous environmental crisis.

Much of the film’s argument is derived from trends in the fish population – in particular, the decline of northern bluefin tuna. The film quotes a study published in Nature in 2003 that measures the bluefin population at only 10 per cent of its historical level. With its legal status still unclear, bluefin tuna is sometimes found on the menu at upscale restaurants around the world. This past summer the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands called for a ban on the trade of the northern bluefin.

Although it is widely accepted in the scientific community that global fishing stocks are in decline, coming up with an estimate of the damage has proved controversial. There has been some recent self-criticism among scientists that objective science has been giving way to sensationalism. Notably, Ray Hilborn, a professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington, accused several studies of overstating their results in an issue of Fisheries journal in 2006.

The film claims that at current fishing rates, we will see a collapse in the oceans by 2048. The problem is that predicting the complete end of seafood is impossible. It violates a basic assumption in economics called the law of diminishing returns – eventually, if a fish population declines sufficiently, it will become unprofitable for anyone to exploit it.

“The fisheries merely become commercially extinct,” says McGill professor Andrew Hendry, who studies evolutionary dynamics at the Redpath Museum. “Although that still doesn’t tell us how quickly they can recover.”

Imposing serious fishing quotas tends to be a problem for governments wary of upsetting voters. However, delaying important decisions only exacerbates the problem, as the federal government discovered in 1992 when it finally ordered a stop to all cod fishing in the North Atlantic, a ban still in effect to this day.

The collapse of the cod fishery in the Grand Banks has had catastrophic effects for Newfoundland. Overnight, the provincial economy lost 40,000 jobs. Losing the cod was a devastating blow to a culture that had been based around it for four centuries. With the industry closed, young Newfoundlanders have since been leaving the small, fish-dependent towns along the coast in search of better opportunities.

“You walk along the shore of one of those villages, and all you see are two-, three-million dollar boats rotting on the dry docks,” says Derrick Lovell, a U1 student in Canadian Studies who hails from the northwest corner of the island. “My parents are teachers. There used to be about 600 kids at their school, and the number has now gone down to 120.”

The arguments made by The End of the Line offer a limited perspective on the science of fisheries, diminishing the importance of the issue. Nevertheless, despite the film’s shortcomings, it could be a starting point to discuss a real problem affecting the environment. In Canada, the nightmare returned this summer with the collapse of the salmon fishery in British Columbia’s Fraser River.

Calls to ramp up conservation efforts, such as those put forth by the film, will likely grow stronger. But whether the world is willing to have a serious conversation on the management of our oceans remains to be seen.