Book Review: The End of the Line

The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, Charles Clover, (Ebury Press, £14.99)

Fish is fashionably good for you. Yet no-one is more guilty of destroying the fish stocks than the celebrity chefs who have made such a business of selling their healthy options. In this amazingly good read, the tough-minded environment editor of the Daily Telegraph shows how, at every stage of the fishing industry, its practitioners contribute to self- destruction. From the elite restaurateurs, purveying endangered bluefin tuna, to environmentalists, preferring their narrow personal agendas to practical measures to safeguard world fish stocks, Charles Clover opens up the whole industry to a searing assessment.

Anyone who loves to eat fish will be fascinated, appalled, and challenged by this book. We learn that Gordon Ramsay’s haute cuisine can do more damage than McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, how the bureaucrats supposed to be saving fish stocks conspire to destroy them, and see an industry plagued with scandals from Japan to Senegal. All over the world, fish stocks are under threat from fishermen more efficient than ever before.

The trouble is that the fish has now no chance against its predator. Radar tells us where the shoals are to be found and satellite tracking where the fishing boat is. Powerful motors and modern equipment do the rest. Wind and wave are still the old enemy but even their threat is reduced by more accurate weather information, effective communication, and improved vessels.

Mr Clover takes us on a journey from Seattle to Wellington and Lowestoft to Dakar. He inspires us by the story of this tough business and shocks us by the self-betrayal of so many who earn their living from the sea. But he is not always right. I can sympathise with his justified anger at the failure of successive EU ministers and civil servants, having myself been the longest-serving UK fisheries minister ever and five years of running the Marine Stewardship Council.

For years we were too often the voice of the industry and insufficiently the guardians of the fish stocks. However, to despair of a reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is to miss the point. It is the only way forward here in Europe where almost every fishery has always been shared by several nations. The common nature of the fisheries policy is only a recognition of the facts of life.

When fish were abundant and gear relatively primitive, there was fish for all. The Cod War drove Britain from her traditional grounds round Iceland and the effects of our loss were reflected in a particularly generous deal under the CFP when we joined the EU. The CFP has not so far failed because it is common, but because no nation has been prepared to face its own fishermen with the consequences of their over fishing.

Instead, we shared out fish we did not have and allowed catches we knew would endanger the future. We have nurtured fishermen in their belief that it is the others who have taken too much and that only they have obeyed the laws.

In fact we are all guilty and it is only by acting together that we in Europe can recover our resource. The fish do not arrive with national flags on their fins. Most of our waters have always been shared and we shall have to share in a scheme for their recovery. After all, this is the story throughout the world.

Canada alone has fished out the Grand Banks and then had the effrontery to act as pirates in international waters to try to keep the Spanish at bay. In Ecuador, the future of the Galapagos is threatened by disputes between local fishermen and the conservation policies of their government. The battles at sea are raw and the emotions uncomplicated.

The political clout at home is immense and the politics nationalist and uncomprehending. I remember arguing furiously with the Danish Minister in the EU Fisheries Council and convincing my colleagues that the Danes should not get an extension to their special derogation to take Norwegian eelpout. It was the right environmental decision but Mr Grove returned to Copenhagen to be sacked. Politically he was unsustainable.

All this comes to life in Mr Clover’s well-observed narrative and his colourful interviews. He combines the easy writing of a quality journalist with the much rarer gift of judgment and depth of thought. Even in his criticism he shows understanding and sympathy. When he praises, he does not miss the blemishes, does not hide the difficulties. So, in his description of the Marine Stewardship Council as one of the most hopeful international initiatives, he does not shy away from the inherent problems of this attempt to use eco-labelling to harness market forces to save the fish.

Indeed, this is Mr Clover’s own odyssey as much as it is the story of the destruction of our fisheries. It is all the better and more convincing for it. This is no mere polemic, written to prove a point. It has taken seven years to write as the author fought his way through the obfuscations of the fishing industry to understand what was really happening to the harvest of the seas. The six travel-packed months that he spent as a private detective uncovering the truth have revealed the sordid secrets of a world of fisheries bent on self-destruction.

Yet it is the reflection and the debate that has informed and followed the searches of the investigatory journalist that makes this so seminal a work. The shock horror is there, but it is only part of the story. Mr Clover wants to find an answer to the devastation and to enable his reader to play a real part in delivering that solution. As a result, one emerges from the narrative angry, but not without hope. Even more certainly, eating fish will never be the same again.