Books: no net gain from empty seas

Relentless overfishing may wipe out fish stocks within decades. Two new books – Mark Kurlansky’s The Last Fish Tale and Taras Gresco’s Bottomfeeder -- offer little cause for hope, writes Alex Renton.

The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Our Disappearing Fisheries
Mark Kurlansky
Jonathan Cape
, 2008

Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on Our Plates Is Killing the Planet
Taras Grescoe
Macmillan, 2008

In the literature of humanity making a mess of the world — let’s call it apocalypse studies — the overfishing theme is an old one. Only the weather has worried people for longer than the decline in fish stocks and the terms of the debate about commercial fishing have hardly changed. In 1376, Cornish fishermen petitioned the parliament in London to ban the wondrychoum, an early version of the beam trawl, which then, as now, involved dragging a net through the water or along the seabed with the aid of a heavy beam. The Cornish complained that it swept fish up indiscriminately and they asked that parliament increase the size of the net’s mesh.

Three centuries later, Scots longline fishermen petitioned King Charles the First to protect them from “the great destruction made of fish by a net or engine now called the Trawle”. In 1883, a royal commission under the Earl of Dalhousie declared that, because of trawling under the new steam-powered vessels, the North Sea was ‘”exhausted”. Further commissions in 1902 and 1904 concluded the same. They had seen nothing yet.

Humankind got the technology after the Second World War that would make it genuinely possible to catch and eat all the fish. By any measure, we then set about doing just that. The greatest and most ancient of all the mass fisheries, the fantastic swarming of cod off Newfoundland that European fleets fished for at least 500 years, was finally closed in 1992. It shows no signs of recovery. The number of large fish in the world is down by 90%, according to one well-credited report; a more controversial review of the research, published in Science in 2006, stated that there will be no commercially exploitable stocks of wild fish at all by 2048.

This squander seems so wilfully stupid that you have to ask whether the scientists have got it right. “Nothing is certain in the ocean,” writes Mark Kurlansky in The Last Fish Tale. “Fish that were said to be plentiful have suddenly disappeared. Fish that were said to be extinct have been discovered alive… [but] something huge — a massive shifting in the natural order of the planet — is occurring in the oceans.”

Even if you don’t believe the figures on stock collapse, you only need to follow the world’s biggest fishing fleets to realise that something major is going on. In 1950, more than 90% of fish caught commercially were taken in the northern hemisphere, says Kurlansky. “Today, Peru has one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world and the European Union is sending its ships away from its own tired waters to fish African waters, underpaying African countries to fish their finite resources.”

Kurlansky, an American, specialises in entertaining social history centred on human staples: he’s done cod, oysters and salt brilliantly. But I’m not certain he’s cut out for apocalypse literature, which favours the bold statement and the big metaphor. Here, for example, is Canadian writer Taras Grescoe in the conclusion to Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates Is Killing Our Planet: “In the unilateral arms race against the fish, our neutron bombs have already been deployed: the bottom trawls that can devastate seamounts, the longlines that trail dozens of miles of hooks, the giant purse seine nets big enough easily to pull in half-a-dozen Trafalgar-class nuclear submarines.” Not only do we continue, he says, to subsidise the building of new boats and the acquisition of radar and sonar equipment to track down the very last schools of fish in their hiding places, but we even pay 17 billion British pounds (nearly US$35 billion) a year to fishermen in the rich west not to fish.

It’s a big mess and Grescoe charts it with muscular prose and a well-stamped passport. One moment we’re in Marseille, worrying about whether rascasse, the scorpionfish that’s key to bouillabaisse [a French fish stew], is going to run out (it isn’t, yet); next we’re in Bangladesh, counting the flavour enhancers, pesticides and antibiotics that go into tiger prawn feed.

By the end of this decade, half the marine products we eat will be farmed. But there is no solace in aquaculture, which is ugly, dirty and wasteful. Grescoe documents the decline of the good fish — anchoveta, pilchard, sardine, blue whiting — that we, in our madness, catch and convert into fish meal for salmon in farms. It takes 3.9 kilogrammes of wild fish to produce one kilogramme of flabby, artificially coloured farmed salmon. These tend to escape their cages — they are, after all, genetically programmed to migrate thousands of miles — and contaminate wild salmon with sea lice and other diseases. There is now virtually no commercial wild salmon fishery in the North Atlantic. The North Sea stocks of herring, the world’s most delicious pelagic fish, collapsed in the 1970s, not because we ate too many kippers but because of the demands of the pig feed industry.

What can we do to avert the fish doomsday? These two are the latest in half-a-dozen books on the subject published in the last five years; the first of them, Charles Clover‘s The End of the Line (Ebury Press, 2005), is being made into a big-budget documentary. There have been no signs yet of government leaping to action. In fact, the fish problem tells a clear story of the structural inability of government and industry to deal with potentially catastrophic problems, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Anyone hoping for decisive action on climate change should take note.

Marine biologist Callum Roberts shows in his sober and useful study of overfishing, The Unnatural History of the Sea (Gaia Books, 2007), that for more than a century governmental and international bodies have consistently ignored the science they commission on fish stocks depletion. In recent times, quotas have always been set 15 to 30% higher than is recommended. We’re romantic about fishing and fishermen; paradoxically, that has fuelled the industry’s suicidal dive towards oblivion. No one has dared tell them to stop.

None of these authors has any new big ideas. Marine reserves plainly do work but only if they are policed properly. Roberts wants a third of the world’s oceans turned into “no-take zones”, where fishing is completely prohibited. Grescoe spends time with ‘”artisanal” fishermen, dredging oysters by sail in Chesapeake Bay in the eastern United States or standing on a beach in Kerala, in southern India, using their own muscle power to pull in the net. These “slow” fisheries are an inspiring model. “They would not produce vast fortunes but they would allow a large number of people to live very well. They would also keep coastal communities alive.”

This is idealistic. People fish ‘”slow” because they are made to, by poverty or legislation. Given the potential, most fishermen will succumb to the male tendency to go shopping for a better hook and a bigger engine or, indeed, a 144-metre supertrawler with a crew of 100 capable of catching 400 tonnes of fish a day (it’s called the Atlantic Dawn, it was commissioned in Ireland and it catches blue whiting for fish meal).

Finger-wagging literature like this needs to be fun and Grescoe’s book succeeds in this respect. I enjoyed his table-thumping, which is fired by a food lover’s passion for the animals whose disappearance he mourns. Kurlansky, however, who just about invented the popular gastro-science-history genre, is the victim of an unbecoming sleight of hand by his British publishers. His book is chiefly a sentimental, meandering history of the US fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the fish on which its fortunes have risen and fallen. It was sold as such in the States. In Britain, publisher Jonathan Cape has chopped off the Gloucester part of the book’s American subtitle and pitched it as ‘”the story of fishing at sea and the demise of an entire way of life”. Clearly, the Cape marketing department thinks we can’t get enough apocalyptic gloom at the moment.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008