The End of the Line by Charles Clover

The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat is a non-fiction book by the journalist and author Charles Clover. Published in 2004 in the UK, the book has become one of the most important and widely-cited on the issue of overfishing. It was made into a feature length documentary film in 2009.

The End of the Line is an investigative book, written as an expose of the wasteful and destructive practices of the commercial fishing industry. It is truly global in its outlook, covering commercial fishing practices across the world. The investigative nature of the book and the wide range of topics it covers is no surprise. Clover has vast experience as a journalist covering environmental issues, being a former environment editor of the Telegraph and previously writing a column for the Sunday Times focusing on wildlife and conservation. He is currently the executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, a charity which campaigns for sustainable fishing practices and the creation of marine reserves and a co-founder of Fish2Fork, a guide which allows consumers to identify which restaurants are serving sustainable fish species.

The book begins with a powerful comparison of trawling for fish in the ocean with carrying out the same practice on land. Clover points out that sweeping a huge weighted net across the plains of Africa and catching lions, elephants and rhinos (including endangered species and pregnant females) while also smashing up the ground and uprooting every plant and tree would never be accepted. Despite this an identical activity, trawling, is carried out every single day of the year in every single sea and ocean across the world, but people view what happens in the sea differently to what happens on land and little issue is made of the destruction trawling causes. Indeed, Clover points out that most people still commercial fishermen “in the mould of friendly Captain Birds Eye” and not “overseers in a slaughterhouse.”

Clover believes that a “perception changing moment” for the oceans is arriving, as people begin to realise that fish will not replenish their stocks if we keep on catching them at current rates. Popular species such as northern cod, North Sea mackerel and bluefin tuna have all come perilously close to becoming fished out, and claims that seas are scientifically managed and rules are enforced to stop overfishing have become increasingly difficult to believe. Clover’s claim that “fishing with modern technology is the most destructive activity on earth” makes his opinion crystal clear and sets the tone for most of the rest of the book.

Following chapters cover a huge range of issues, and, as stated, Clover has travelled across the world to examine overfishing in distant countries as well as what is happening closer to home. From dolphin deaths caused by commercial fishing boats on the English coast to the gigantic fish markets of Tokyo and Madrid and the issues of the increasing power of fish catching technology and illegal ‘blackfish,’ the scope of this book is vast. The reader’s eyes are opened to the true extent of overfishing and the huge level of damage humans are doing to the world’s seas and oceans, much of which will be irreversible if it is not stopped very soon.

Nigella Lawson is criticised for promoting recipes for tuna carpaccio and swordfish steak, both of which feature species which are overfished or threatened.

Clover turns his fire on a number of targets, from politicians such as then Prime Minister Tony Blair (who demanded higher catches for British fishermen while ignoring declining stocks) to celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson who Clover accuses of promoting the consumption of endangered species. He is critical of many aspects of the commercial fishing industry, but some surprising organisations are praised. McDonalds, for example, is given credit for using Alaskan pollock and New Zealand hoki in the 275 million fish sandwiches they sell in North America alone each year. The reason McDonald’s doesn’t make more of the fact that these fish are Marine Stewardship Council certified is that the restaurant would have to pay royalties for using the MSC logo.

While Clover is extremely critical of many aspects of the commercial fishing industry he makes it clear that he has respect for the job that individual fishermen do and understands how hard it can be for them to make a living, especially when it is the large corporations and super-trawlers which are responsible for the majority of overfishing and destruction of the marine environment. In the chapter After the Gold Rush Clover describes how Canadian fishermen in Newfoundland have badly struggled since the once plentiful Grand Banks cod stocks have been reduced from a breeding stock of over four million tons (prior to commercial fishing beginning) to around 50,000 tons in 2003. Around 44,000 people have been put out of work in the fishing and the wider fish processing industries and the Canadian government has had to spend over $4 billion in social security, retraining and buying up fishing licences. Clover describes, with great empathy how many of the fishermen now struggle to catch enough crab and shellfish in the short open season to make enough money to qualify for state benefits for the rest of the year. This book may be anti-overfishing but is not anti-fisherman.

Grand Banks
The decline of the Grand Banks cod fishing is the subject of the chapter After the Gold Rush.

Other chapters focus on single issues. One of the most powerful is the chapter titled The Law and the Commons which focuses on the Atlantic Dawn, an Irish vessel which is the largest trawler ever built or, as Clover puts it “the greatest fish killing machine the world has ever seen.” Clover explains how the 145-metre long, 14,000 ton pelagic trawler was constructed at a time when EU nations were meant to be reducing the size of their fishing fleets due to dwindling stocks. Despite this the Irish government took a huge deal of pride in the construction of the vessel, even though it was built in Norway taking advantage of subsidies from the Norwegian government. As the Atlantic Dawn could catch 400 tons of fish a day and store 7000 tons in its hold it would be almost impossible for the vessel to operate in European waters, as it would catch all of its quota in such a short amount of time that the vessel could not operate in a way which made economic sense. Clover describes the political double-dealing and questionable negotiations (including an intervention from then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern) which managed to convince the EU to allow the Atlantic Dawn to fish in the waters of the poverty-stricken, dictatorial nation of Mauritania. It is a depressing chapter which shows how governments and big business can align to pave the way for hugely destructive fishing practices to take place.

This review should not give the impression that The End of the Line is a negative book. While Clover is ready to criticise he is also happy to give credit to positive developments in fisheries management. The Icelandic individual transfer quota system which has seen non-EU Iceland build the best fish stocks in Europe is praised and many aspects of it are suggested as a model for the rest of the world to follow. Towards the end of the book Clover also outlines his vision of how productive and plentiful the future seas of Britain could be if we manage to reduce the damage the commercial fishing industry causes and restore stocks to their pre-industrial fishing levels. Clover is also positive about angling, making the now-familiar argument that anglers add a huge amount of money to the economy while catching only a small number of fish and, when compared to the commercial fishing industry, causing no damage to the marine environment.

The fact that The End of the Line was written well over a decade ago means that some of the cultural and political references are now a little out of date. The top politicians of the day which are mentioned throughout are Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair, while a positive reference to The Darkness (a briefly popular comedy metal band) may confuse readers who were not paying attention to the pop charts in 2003. An updated version of this book would be most welcome, and it would be fascinating to see Clover’s take on many of the major issues currently high in the agenda for the oceans, such as Brexit and the potential for the UK to take back control of its own waters, plastic pollution and current issues regarding the supposed progress which has been made in rebuilding certain fish stocks such as North Sea cod.

Overall The End of the Line is a powerful and provocative book. It lays bare the true state of the world’s seas and oceans and the true impact which the demand for fish has had on both fish stocks and the health of the entire marine environment. While some of the references may inevitably have aged the overall power of the book is undiminished, and anyone with any interest in sea fishing will find this book fascinating, though-provoking and dismaying in equal measure.

Buy the book The End of the Line on Amazon by clicking here,or the film can be purchased on DVD by clicking here.