17 October 2009

When the boat comes in?

By Juliette Harkin

I went to watch a film about fish this week at the Garage Theatre in Norwich. I am not really interested in fish and I don't eat fish. But, the screening of The End of the Line gripped me from beginning to end, with its breathtaking underwater filming and powerful messages. It told us in no uncertain terms that, as leading scientists all agree, we have drastically depleted our supplies of large fish such as bluefin tuna. The filmmakers ask us to consider what a world without fish would really be like. They convince sceptics that it will affect me – as I swim on a beach that is infested by jellyfish because we have eaten all their natural predators.

On current projections we will run out of most sea fish by 2050. Yet the EU has run shy of introducing – and adequately policing - tough but essential quotas for the massive commercial fishing industry, which uses the most obscene methods to make big profits and strip our oceans of sustainable stocks of fish.

The related costs of massive over-fishing are movingly and beautifully potrayed in this film, through the story of traditional fishermen on West Africa's coast line. A young father explains how the sea used to be full of fish and how his father and his grandfather encouraged him to fish. Using more traditional fishing methods, these coastal villagers relied on the sea for a living. Yet they are forced into mere subsistence as the big European trawlers encroach on the African shores. At the end of the day the catch for the Senegalese fisherman barely covers his fuel costs. He contemplates the difficult decision of trying to travel to Europe to make a future for the daughter he holds in his arms. He knows how dangerous the sea can be and that he would risk his life trying to reach Europe. If he is lucky he will make the journey and, as one of the fisheries experts so poignantly said, he will not be as welcome on our shores as his fish is in our restaurants. But it is the practices of large-scale European trawlers that are decimating his livelihood.

The film is a call to action: ask where your fish is coming from before you buy it, put pressure on politicians to 'listen to the science and cut fishing fleets', and then let's campaign for marine-protected-areas and sustainable fishing.

We should start in the North Sea, right here off the Norfolk coast. The North Sea has been horribly over-fished by big business: our cod has been hugely depleted. We need to learn from Newfoundland where their cod stocks have completely disappeared – this in spite of a long-term ban. The cod never recovered. You can't suck up 50% of all the fish in the North Sea into your nets, and still expect to have a viable livelihood in the following years.

We should also do something about the damage caused by offshore dredging to the fish and other creatures that live there. So long as we go on allowing the East Anglian coast to be dredged for building supplies like sand and gravel, we are condemning our fish stocks to decline.

The alternative is marine reserves or National Parks for the ocean. Places where commercial fishing – and dredging – would be banned, and our fish can finally start to recover. The National Parks movement has been successful on land - we have the Broads National Park - it is time for the movement to enter the hidden frontier, the most terribly exploited place on this Earth, now: the sea…

As John Ruskin said: "There is no wealth but life'. Without life, without fish, our seas are nothing but a desert.

The End of the Line will be screened at 10pm on More4, on Tuesday 20th October.

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