The End of the Line

Bookshelf: The End of the Line

The End of the Line
The End of the Line

The End of the Line – Charles Clover

This book should be billed as compulsory reading for anyone who eats fish. Clover, a journalist, describes from various perspectives the effects of overfishing on the world’s oceans. The European Union comes in for a particular roasting, on several counts – which surprised me, because I thought it would be primarily the Japanese who get it in the nose for their exploitation of bluefin tuna.

As a mathematician, I am horrified by Clover’s indictment of the mathematical models used to manage fish populations. The more sophisticated these models have gotten, the less effective has our management of wild fish populations been. There is also (as usual) a disturbing disconnect between the mild-mannered scientists doing the work, and the public policy makers and governments who are chiefly interested in preserving their own status – of necessity a very short-term view of things.

That said, it is incredible how quickly wild fish populations have been decimated and even destroyed. Clover describes the piscine bounty that awaited the pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower in 1620, and describes how the same fishing grounds are now closed because there is simply nothing left to catch.

My favourite (and the most hopeful) part of the book was the section on marine reserves, and I was delighted and astonished to learn about Goat Island in New Zealand, about 90 kilometres north of Auckland. The reserve was established in 1975 and opened to the public in 1977 (it’s now a HUGE attraction for tourists and locals alike – refer to Sylvia Earle’s comments on the value of the whale watching industry as opposed to whaling for another example of how marine life can have more value alive than dead), and both Clover’s book and my internet wanderings confirm that the ocean there now teems with life to such an extent that children stand knee-deep in the water at the beach, surrounded by shoals of curious fish. Here’s Clover’s description of the place – I would LOVE to visit it!

Leigh is perhaps the world’s best example of what natural ecosystems look like when they are left alone, without fishing pressure, for a long time. The reserve has exceeded its founders’ original expectations, and not just from an ecological point of view. Before it was earmarked as a reserve, Goat Island was a popular fishing spot for fishermen. Conflict arose with the marine lab because, as Wilson put it, “people kept eating the experiments.” The reserve was created, after twelve years of lobbying by Ballantine and his colleagues at the university marine lab, for narrowly scientific reasons. Ballantine is the first to admit that he never foresaw what an attraction the reserve would become…

We stood looking at these unexpected beneficiaries of science. Most were families who had driven out of Auckland for the day to stand in the clear sea water and gawk as a profusion of fish swam around them. Others came to snorkel, renting a wetsuit on the beach for a few dollars, or to stare through the glass panel of the boat at the fearless shoals of large snapper, blue maomao, and spotties that swam above forests of kelp, only yards from the shore…

What happened to the ecosystem was also unexpected. Snapper are the most prized sporting fish on this coast – and for that reason increasingly small and scarce. In the 1,370 acres of the reserve, the largest snapper are eight times the size of the snapper outside. They are also fourteen times more numerous. Brochures tell you that you will also find butterfly perch, silver drummer, porae, red moki, leather jacket, blue cod, red cod, goat fish, hiwihiwi, butterfish, marble fish, red-banded perch, and demoiselles – all swimming around without fear of people and within a few yards of the shore. Indeed, they have so little fear that they may nibble you to see if you are edible.

Most of this marine menagerie is readily visible to an inexperienced eleven-year-old snorkeler in a rented wetsuit… Further out, in deeper water accessible to more adventurous divers, are delicate gorgonian fans, lace corals, sponges, sea squirts, and anemones. Under the kelp forests, hidden in holes and crevices in the rock ledges, are big rock lobster, or crayfish, much larger than those in the commercially fished waters outside…

This makes me kind of wistful when I think about what our coastline could look like, if the MPA permits were properly administered and the money collected went to actually protecting the ocean and deterring poachers. (Contact Underwater Africa if you want to stay up to date on this issue.)

In my post about sea urchins I mentioned how juvenile abalone shelter among urchins. When the rock lobster population gets out of hand, too many urchins (their favourite food) get eaten, and the population of abalone is affected. In the same way, the food chain has been severely disrupted in oceans around the world through the activities of humans. Furthermore, instead of restoring a balance by removing fishing from the equation in the worst affected areas, other top predators such as seals have been allowed to multiply unchecked. We aren’t allowed to catch undersized cod, but seals certainly are! Here’s Clover’s description of how the food chain is supposed to work, in the Goat Island reserve:

When the reserve was created, explains Ballantine, there was nothing particularly special about the marine ecology. The rocky coastal reefs were known as “rock barrens” because nothing grew on them. The most common bottom-living species were large sea urchins, which graze on kelp. As in other parts of New Zealand’s northeast coast, the kelp forests had virtually disappeared by the 1960s. The connection between the disappearance of the kelp and overfishing became clear only when the Goat Island Reserve had been established for many years. At a certain point,the undisturbed snapper and crayfish reached a size at which they could prey on the kina, or large sea urchins, that fed on kelp. So the kelp forests gradually returned, bringing in turn food and shelter for many other species of fish and shellfish. Biologists call this a “trophic cascade”, when the recovery of predators at the top of the food chain has effects that flow down to lower levels.

The book is written in a journalistic style, but it’s not always easy to keep track of the facts that Clover throws at one. He adds a bit of local colour with interviews with fishermen and officials, but some maps would have gone a long way towards demonstrating the extent of the problem and educating those less knowledgeable about North American geography than… well, who DOES know about American geography? (I doubt many Americans do!)

I also felt that Clover could have made more of just how incredible the different fish are, as marvels of nature. He mentions that the bluefin tuna can accelerate faster than a Porsche, and for many of the deep-sea fish he lists the very advanced ages they can attain (some over 100 years), but there’s very little sense of wonder in his descriptions. As you will be when you read this book, I think he may have been overwhelmed by the numbers and lost track of the victims in all of this.

The magnitude of the problem seems completely insurmountable, and as an individual there seems little to be done. I would encourage you, however, to read this book and be sensible about the fish choices you make. It’s both a human health issue – when we run out of fish, our diets will be MUCH poorer for it – and a conservation issue. Get hold of a SASSI card. Keep your conscience clean when eating seafood! Perhaps that can be a new year’s resolution for all of us…

The book is available here. I’ll do a review of the documentary based upon it as soon as we get a chance to watch it!

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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