April Benavides speaks to journalist and author Charles Clover about his book The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat, now the basis for a documentary film of the same name. The Economist called the film, “The inconvenient truth about the impact of overfishing on the world’s oceans.” The film is available today on DVD or iTunes.
Listen to the interview here or on iTunes:
A transcript of the conversation after the break.
Welcome to The Download, I’m April Benavides. My guest today is Charles Clover, journalist, author, and former environment editor of The Daily Telegraph and columnist for the environment for The Sunday Times. His book The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat has been adapted for the new documentary of the same name. The Economist called the film, “The inconvenient truth about the impact of overfishing on the world’s oceans.” Welcome, Charles!
Charles: Thank you.
April: So, you’ve been an advocate for the environment for decades now. Was this a cause you always knew you wanted to pursue?
Charles: Well it sort of crept up on me, really. It just got more and more important and a lot of the other issues I was writing about as an environment correspondent seemed to take their place beside it. Overfishing was just the one that nobody had written a book about. And nobody else seemed to take it as seriously as I did. I was a recreational fisherman myself and I fished for salmon and sea trout and recently I’ve started fishing for bass—salt water—but originally I was wondering why the salmon and sea trout that I used to catch weren’t coming back in the same profusion. So it was quite self-interested as to why I got into writing about fish.
April: Well, a lot of us, to your point, don’t have that kind of direct connection with fish and so the news in your book and in the film that by 2048, there may be no fish left in the oceans if we continue as we’ve been going… it seems impossible to grasp. Do you find it challenging to communicate your personal direct experience to people who are just more removed from contact with the ocean?
Charles: Well, first, to say something about that 2048 figure, [which] got headlines around the world a few years ago when it came out in a science paper, but in fact it wasn’t the thrust of the paper. The paper suggests that if we go on as we are, we will have run down most of the world’s major fish stocks by 90% on 1950 levels by some time around the middle of the century. It’s just that some bright spark happened to point to one line that hit the axis as being in 2048 but in fact you can’t predict anything as precisely as that and people have ridiculed the apparent precision of that prediction without undermining its force, which is, that we are running out of fish. And we have eaten them. And if we want to do something about it, we have to manage the oceans in a quite different way to the way we did in the past and we all pretty much have an interest in this. Very large numbers of us eat fish at some point in the year. Some of us may be vegetarian; some of us may eat more or less fish, depending on how close we are to the coast and how much it costs. But if you look at how important fish is to the world, you find that about 1.2 billion people have it as a key component of their diets around the world. And I suspect those figures are underestimates because I think we very often don’t recall that a lot of the fish in developing countries people catch for subsistence reasons. So it’s a food security issue, fish, and I don’t think it’s ever been thought of as such.
April: Right. What was the genesis of turning your book into a film?
Charles: Well, we sat around (a few friends of mine) and said, “Well it’s a very visual subject, you’ve got a book here that got some pretty rave reviews and any, you know, few tens of thousands of people have read it. You walk into a fish restaurant and nobody seems to be paying the blindest bit of notice and there are endangered fish on the menu. Why don’t we make a film?” A lot more people see it; it’s a much more readily absorbable medium than having to go out and buy a book and a lot of people sniffed around the idea of making a film from the film and television world. In the end, I didn’t trust any of them and I thought it’d be better if we made it ourselves and put together a company with which to do so rather than trusting in any particular television slot or network-commissioning decision to produce what we believed needed to be said. That is very much the way that you have to make these great statements. A documentary that’s on television doesn’t seem to really deal with the big issues of the day very often.
April: And the film itself, it’s visually stunning—some of the underwater footage—but then also has all of that kind of hard evidence from scientists about what’s happening to the oceans. It seems that trying to translate that into film must have been challenging in some ways, but also offered you an opportunity maybe to display some things that aren’t as compelling in book form. What were some of the biggest advantages or challenges you found in that transfer to film?
Charles: Well, I think it is—if you’ll excuse the expression—a bit dry reading statistics on paper, even if there is a lot of, sort of, word pictures and travelogues, with which I tried to make it a proper narrative. I mean, the book is a good narrative, it’s the first overfishing book with a narrative that impels you from the beginning to the end (I’d like to think). So we wanted a film that did the same thing, so to do that, in the visual language, you need sequences, which is what Rupert Murray, the director, is particularly good at filming. He films them himself; he is a brilliant cameraman. So, whether it’s the hunting of the bluefin tuna in the Straits of Gibraltar, in these huge nets, which I think is probably the best sequence in the film—it is an utterly stunning sequence of the Al Majabra, as it’s called, these big muscled men wrestling huge bluefin by hand in the foam and spray of their death throes—is just the most amazing sequence. And it just sort of brings home, you know, how intimate the relationship between men and fish has been down the centuries. I think there’s also some very, very moving sequences about modern industrial trawling compared to going out in herring drifters. There are some incredibly moving sequences in Africa, where people on the Senegal coast and West Africa depend on fish in very large numbers and they are now faced with terrible alternatives of either trying to immigrate illegally to Europe or stay there and live by some other means because the European trawlers have taken a lot of the fish that they used to catch. And so those sequences are what make the film different and sort of bigger, really, and better than the book. I think also two other things that we learned in the process of making the film that the book didn’t have. One of them was, as I say, this is your food security, was all around us at the time, but whether or not we were going to run out of maize—corn, as you call it in America—by some deadline, because of the take-up of bio-fuels and the fact that nobody is growing enough grain and nobody is growing enough rice either. And it occurred to us that, you know, fish are part of this problem. And, whether or not we can actually substitute farmed fish for wild fish. Everyone’s assumed that we could. But, in fact, there are many, many problems and many reasons why farmed fish are dependent upon catching wild fish because actually many of them, the carnivorous ones, have to be fed on small wild fish. And then, of course, there was the other issue of global warming, which is now very controversial. But there obviously are many, many processes at work and one of the processes that is enhanced by fish is the process of keeping the sea alkaline and absorbing carbon dioxide. There was a paper, which dropped in science on the day we set off for the Sundance Film Festival, that said that the droppings of fish are what keep the top layer of the ocean alkaline and [are] absorbing carbon dioxide. So all I’m saying is that overfishing, which started off as “why can’t I catch any more salmon or any sea trout?” suddenly, in the course of my researches, and in the course of then making the film, came to be seen as, you know, this great thing that is coming upon us within 50 years, is intimately involved with all the major environmental issues and maybe, you know, is integral to some very big ones. And maybe we’re wrong to give the hierarchy of environmental threats that we commonly think of the listing that we do—maybe overfishing is even more important.
April: Yeah, I totally get that from the film. You mentioned the bluefin tuna, which is endangered, and that sequence in the film. Coming up in March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is going to meet and is considering an international ban on the fishing of bluefin tuna. What are your thoughts at this point on how that vote’s going to go?
Charles: Well, my thoughts are that we have a much better chance than we ever imagined, even last autumn, of getting the international trade in bluefin tuna stopped. In March, I still think there’s a pretty uphill struggle, but when I first started out with the film—trying to use the film as a campaigning tool to get ministers and European officials to concentrate on this and to back a trade ban on bluefin tuna, (which I think has been overfished to the point where we have to stop fishing), that was last June—I didn’t think I was going to get very far because every single country had a reason why it didn’t need to make this a major issue. But yet, I went to see our minister Huw Irranca-Davies and about two weeks later, while he was still thinking about it, President Sarcozy made the first of one of his rather vacillating statements saying that he was going to support the listing of bluefin under this CITES Treaty, which was the one that the trade in ivory was banned under in 1989. That’s how you protect a species from wholesale poaching, which is essentially what’s happening in the Mediterranean Eastern Atlantic, because far more bluefin are being caught than should be. So I think we’ve got a much better chance, and particularly after last week when the European parliament, after some fairly heavy lobbying by ourselves, I have to tell you, voted in favor of a trade ban, an Appendix I listing under CITES, without the 18-month delay that President Sarcozy has been calling for. So we’re now waiting for the commission to decide and then the European Council ministers will have to decide at the 27 Nations and I would think there was now a good chance of Europe coming out in favor of an Appendix I listing and then the rest of the world has to decide, because it takes a two-thirds majority at a meeting that represents over a hundred nations to get a listing under Appendix I. So, it’s a pretty uphill struggle, but I think that there are a lot of people around the world, particularly in Africa, who will see that it’s Europe’s rather malign fisheries polices that’s done them a load of harm and think it’s about time Europe took some of their own medicine in terms of actually having this sorted out.
April: Right. Well, to your point that it’s an uphill battle, but it’s nice that there is more hope than there was maybe a year ago.
Charles: Yeah, I was sitting and having lunch with somebody from the Pew Environment Group about a month ago and we looked at each other and sort of said, “Did you ever think we’d get this far?” And we decided that neither of us did. So, occasionally, when the human race sees something that is so blindingly obviously wrong, the right thing can happen. It’s just: we’ve got to cross our fingers until then.
April: And you’ve recently, in addition to the book and the film and all of your writing, you’ve recently launched the U.S. chapter of a sustainable fish dining website, fish2fork.com. Tell us about the concept and where the inspiration for it came from.
Charles: Well, the inspiration for this website is in the film. The film has this storyline about why certain restaurants, particularly certain very famous sushi restaurants, like Nobu, continue to serve endangered fish. You wouldn’t serve endangered lions or tigers or zebras—you wouldn’t get away with that because the clientele would almost certainly not eat it, and would regard you as odd for doing so. So why do we accept and indeed heap awards upon, you know, celebrity chefs who serve endangered species? The film takes the war to Nobu—who wouldn’t give us any very straight answers and continues still to serve bluefin, with a disclaimer that it’s an environmentally overfished species, which is strange construction, and that you’re asked to choose an alternative—but he still serves it. And so we thought, actually, most of the endangered fish that are sold are sold in restaurants, not in retailers, not in sandwich chains, not in staff canteens and kitchens, they’re served in white tablecloth restaurants for a lot of money. So we thought, “well, why not let’s do the old-fashioned journalistic thing of showing the public which of those very celebrity chefs are responsible for doing this?” So name and shame. So that’s what fisk2fork does. It says which are the good restaurants, where they try very hard to serve sustainable seafood, and it shows the bad restaurants, which get 5 red fish skeletons. We go from 5 red fish skeletons to 5 blue fish. And the guys who get the 5 red fish skeletons are, by and large, mostly sushi restaurants and, with perfect symmetry, the two best restaurants happen to be sushi restaurants, too…So we’re telling the world this on fish2fork.
April: Fish2fork.com and your book and the film I think give people a lot of tools to do their part. Do you have any parting advice for all of us who want to make sure there’s still some tuna on our plates and swimming around the ocean 50 years from now?
Charles: Well, there are various things you can do: try not to eat bluefin tuna, try not to eat any endangered tuna—Bigeye tuna is also endangered. Rate your local restaurant on fish2fork—it’s there for the public, it’s for you. You can fill in the questionnaire about your local restaurant, you can rate it, you can rat on a restaurant, you can pat a chef on the back: all off the website. And we hope that that will lead to the kind of movement it already is leading to across the world, where it becomes socially unacceptable to serve endangered fish, as it once became socially unacceptable to serve, you know, birds of paradise feathers to ladies in their hats about a hundred years ago. I just think this is an unacceptable aspect of modern society, which we will grow out of. This is one of those means you have to help that happen.
April: It’s up to all of us. Well, many thanks to Charles Clover for joining us to discuss his book, the inspiration for the documentary film The End of the Line, which you can watch on DVD from Docurama Films or on the iTunes store. Thank you, Charles.
Charles: Thank you.