It was when a third of the cinema audience sprang to its feet shouting at us, and my wife, fearing violence, slipped out of the side door, that I began wondering if we had taken on more than we could handle. The screening last month of The End of the Line in Malta, the centre of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna industry, was the closest I have yet come to a riot since I first pointed out that overfishing is killing our oceans.
Making the case for a ban on the international bluefin trade in a country that earns £87m a year from supplying sushi to Japan was always going to be like telling the barnyard cats that mice were off the menu.
Though I knew that Malta’s prosperous tuna ranchers wouldn’t enjoy being told they were making their precious fish extinct, the fury of their reaction took me by surprise. Were the figures right? What business did we British have in talking about banning trade in tuna? What about banning trade in north Atlantic cod, eh? Eh? I remember shouting back, “Sit down, shut up and I’ll answer your questions,” but the Maltese tuna men were not in the mood to listen.
I cast my mind back a year, to one of the film’s first screenings, held for schoolchildren at the Sundance film festival in Utah. The opening question had a stunning directness: “When I’m your age, will there still be fish in the sea?” I only wished the teenager who asked it could have seen my Maltese audience. It would have shown him what we’re up against.
LOW-BUDGET documentary features don’t usually get this kind of reaction, but The End of the Line — a film based on my 2004 book of that name — is no ordinary documentary. It is a wake-up call about the decline of the world’s wild fish catches, alerting viewers to the imminent eradication of one of the planet’s great species, and showing them what can be done to stop it.
The bluefin tuna has been around for 400m years. An astonishing fish, it accelerates faster than a sports car and migrates across whole oceans. Unfortunately, its rich, marbled flesh has become one of the most prized delicacies on earth. In the past decade its population has fallen 60% through rampant illegal fishing. The stock is now on the verge of collapse and the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) predicts that bluefin spawners will be virtually eradicated by 2012.
Although the bluefin is recognised as an endangered species — alongside the giant panda and the white rhino — large specimens continue to fetch thousands of pounds at auction and it is still served in restaurants across the world. Quotas limit the catch but scientific experts on population renewal rates point out these quotas have been set far too high and are, in any case, widely ignored and unenforced. Only last month, an attempt to give bluefin tuna real protection by bringing in an international trade ban failed spectacularly when signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species at Doha, Qatar, voted overwhelmingly against it. The night before the vote, the Japanese delegation threw a banquet for favoured guests. The pièce de résistance? Bluefin tuna sushi.
My own understanding of what has been happening to fish in the sea began, improbably, on a riverbank in Wales, many miles inland, where I caught a 23lb salmon. It was one of the last of a run of big spring fish that has now virtually died out. For all my pride at landing such a catch, I felt guilty because I discovered that the spring run had almost certainly declined, there and elsewhere, as a result of angling alone. If an angler could overfish a species with a fly or a spinner, I wondered, what was happening in the sea, where they used enormous trawls, long-lines and giant purse seine nets? As a journalist specialising in the environment, I decided to learn more and publish my findings in a book.
I BEGAN my journey in the once-great flatfish port of Lowestoft, in Suffolk, where the biggest employer is now the fisheries lab, set up to ensure there would always be fish to catch. I went to Bonavista in Newfoundland, where catching a cod attracts a fine of $500 and where the locals, subsidised not to fish, long only to return to their trawlers. I watched the last bluefin tuna of the Mediterranean being rounded up illegally by purse seiners and spotter aircraft because of negligent enforcement. And I went to Dakar, in Senegal, where one of Africa’s most productive marine ecosystems is being mined out by subsidised European fleets. I also saw vast ships catching blue whiting in unsustainable quantities to be turned into fishmeal for salmon farms.
My journey taught me that we face a choice. Do we go with the rare examples of good, sustainable practice: the dazzling marine reserves of New Zealand, or the way fishing is regulated in Iceland or in the United States’ waters in Alaska? Or do we go on as we are and leave our grandchildren with nothing wild to eat but jellyfish and plankton?
THE book’s questions seemed to strike a chord — reviews were favourable, sales encouraging — but it was only when I joined up with the director Rupert Murray and the producers Claire Lewis, Christopher Hird and George Duffield to turn the book into a documentary that things really started to take off.
I have mercifully forgotten most of the process of making the film, how we all fell out with each other at least once during the two-year process of filming and editing and how our New York publicists got paid the most for doing the least. Now I mainly remember the redeeming moments, such as the day when we had run out of money with only half the film shot and George Duffield, our co-producer and fundraiser, rang up and asked which country I was in. He had been offered $600,000 by the foundation of Ted Waitt, the Gateway computer founder, but the deal had to be tied up within 48 hours.
Independent film-making is a roller-coaster ride. Ted Danson, our Hollywood narrator, said yes first time, charged nothing and has tirelessly supported the film. A big Hollywood studio talked to us for months about distributing the film across Europe and then backed out. Instead, we had to distribute it ourselves, which in Britain turned out to be an extraordinary success after Stephen Fry and Sarah Brown came to the launch and tweeted about it.
When Julian Metcalfe, founder of the sandwich chain Pret A Manger, saw it he undertook to serve only tuna caught by selective methods. Several influential customers of the Japanese restaurant chain Nobu — including Ben and Kate Goldsmith, Zac Goldsmith, Colin and Livia Firth — called on its owner and chef to drop bluefin from his menus. The actress Greta Scacchi lent her glamorous figure to the enterprise, posing naked with an enormous cod, and followed up this act of courage by joining me on a visit to the fisheries minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, who soon announced his support for a bluefin trade ban.
Support for a ban rolled in — thanks to our other big benefactor, Erica Knie of the marine environmental campaign group MarViva — from Kofi Annan and Javier Solana, the former secretaries-general of the United Nations, the actor Michael Douglas and, thanks to to the US and Madrid-based group Oceana, the narrator of our Spanish-language version, the singer and ocean activist Miguel Bosé. The film was screened at Clarence House, No 10 Downing Street, the department of the environment and in Brussels, where I debated reform with the fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, who is Maltese. We went on to screen it at the UN general assembly and at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas meeting in Recife, Brazil.
Suddenly we had 10,000 friends on Facebook, a virtual army of people angry about our destruction of the sea. Somewhere along the way we had become campaigners. Somehow, we had done what environmental groups had failed to do before: we had made people care about fish in the same way as they do about other animals. And we had become a force that European politicians could not ignore.
ALL that people power cried out to be harnessed. We decided to focus on white-tablecloth restaurants, where so many of the endangered fish are eaten. We set up a restaurant review website, fish2fork, that ranked restaurants on the sustainability of what they served. About 15% of the restaurants we reviewed changed their menus as a result and Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons put his sourcing policy for fish online.
Two of the producers, George Duffield and Chris Gorell Barnes, started thinking even bigger. The film says that according to UN law, the sea belongs to us citizens, so why shouldn’t we claim it back? Why not raise money from citizens with interests in the sea, from yachtsmen to divers, shipping lines, retailers and even oil and gas companies?
The idea of a foundation crystallised rapidly after David Miliband, the foreign secretary, announced proposals to make everything within a 200-mile radius around a bunch of obscure islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean into the largest marine reserve in the world. We knew there were obstacles, but we also knew the benefit a marine reserve would bring to the reefs of the Chagos archipelago and the Indian Ocean.
However, the British government would not have the money to police a reserve. So I urged George and Chris to use their idea of a foundation — to be called the Blue Marine Foundation — to raise the money.
A week after our confrontation in Malta, I went to Doha for the culmination of our bluefin campaign, the three-yearly summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. We had high hopes: the EU and the United States had confirmed their support for a bluefin trade ban, and wasn’t this a tribute to the power of the case made in our film? Yes and yes.
But they did nothing to back this with diplomacy — until too late. Though Norway, a fishing nation, accepted the opinion of a specially convened panel of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that the bluefin had declined so far that it met the criteria for a trade ban, other influential fishing nations, such as South Africa and Australia, had not been persuaded and were worried about the precedent that might be set for stocks of other fish in their waters.
Japan, the world’s hungriest bluefin customer, had clearly worked for months to nourish their fears and, when the vote was held, we suffered a crushing defeat.
We had not failed utterly, however. We never thought at the outset that we would get as far as persuading the EU and America to back a bluefin trade ban. And even though that proposal has been defeated, Monaco might bring the proposal back again in three years’ time. That, in turn, will keep up the pressure on Japan. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean countries will be under new pressure to agree science-based quotas and crack down on illegal fishing. Doha was a setback, though one that made our film sadly even more relevant than before.
Then the phone rang. It was George Duffield. He said: “We’ve got the money.” The Blue Marine Foundation had just received the promise of several million pounds to help to create the largest marine reserve in the world, provided the British government could iron out the diplomatic problems. The funding would make it possible to throw out the tuna fleets that fish in those waters.
There is more to do — persuading people to avoid eating endangered fish, getting the film distributed in China and Japan, which the message does not yet seem to have reached. But our little army of the converted is growing daily ... and it does look, finally, as though someone is listening.
Ocean Giants worth up to $100,000 each
Bluefin tuna are remarkable creatures, able to dive to 3,000ft and migrate thousands of miles each year across the ocean. Since the second world war, industrialised fishing techniques and growing fleets of large fishing vessels have steadily reduced the population of these ocean giants, bringing them precariously close to collapse. Only about 41,000 reproductively mature bluefin are left in the western Atlantic, down from about 222,600 in 1970.
Biology Atlantic bluefin tuna can live for 40 years, grow to 14ft long and weigh up to 1,600lb. They have two known spawning grounds — the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean. Their annual return to these regions makes protection of spawning areas an urgent priority.
Older and larger female fish produce more eggs than younger ones. A 15- to 20-year-old spawning female produces up to 45m eggs, whereas a five-year-old may produce only 5m. So protection of these giant females is extremely important for the future of the species.
History Archeological evidence shows that humans have hunted bluefin tuna since the 7th century BC.
The Romans and Phoenicians fished for it with traps and hand lines. Fishing practices remained essentially unchanged and relatively few of the fish were taken until the 20th century, when the introduction of canning technology created high demand for bluefin tuna.
Fishermen, driven by the potential for higher profits, began using larger purse seines, harpoons and longer open-ocean fishing lines. Since the introduction of sonar, radar and spotter planes, commercial fishing has caught bluefin tuna faster than nature can replace them.
In the 1980s, the Japanese market for sushi and sashimi exploded, driving the value of these fish even higher. The largest fish are exported directly to Japan for sale; others are caught for tuna farms in the Mediterranean. Here juvenile bluefin tuna are raised to a marketable size and larger bluefin tuna are held for a few months to increase the fat content in their flesh to command a higher market value. Prime bluefin tuna can sell for more than $100,000 per fish.
Unfortunately, these “farms” don’t breed the fish; they just enhance the value of ones caught by fishermen.