A dire kettle of fish

Unless all of us start to take decisive action, our seas will be empty in less than 40 years. The plunder of our oceans means that we all have to think before we eat.

I shed a tear. I could feel the emotion welling up as the narrator explained what had happened to the cod. They are gone.

According to legend, about 100 years ago you could walk along their backs over the sea in Canada, but in less than a generation they were destroyed.

And after a moratorium on catching them in the Newfoundland area was imposed for almost as long, they have still not recovered. They are irrevocably gone.

The ecosystem that sustained them has changed so much that they can no longer recover.

This is rapidly becoming the ­reality for species after species.

This story, and a thousand like it, gives the playful saying “gone fishing” a much more sinister meaning.

Unless all of us start to take decisive action, the sea will be empty of fish in less than 40 years – that’s the worst-case ­scenario. The best case gives us another decade or two.

Either way, a child born today could grow up to live in a time where there is no fish on the menu.

The repercussions for poor fishing communities across the globe who rely on fish to make a living are alarming.

Martin Purvis from the Marine Stewardship Council, says: “Nearly 10 million Africans depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood. Fish is an ­important source of protein for many and an important export commodity. In order to secure ­incomes and food security, the continent’s fish stocks and marine ecosystems need to be preserved.”

The End of the Line, a ­hard-hitting documentary based on the book written by ­investigative journalist Charles Clover, is changing the world.

Using the stories of fishermen, activists and those who safeguard the ocean, the film tells the tales of illegal fishing, renegade ­trawlers, technology so advanced that no fish can hide from the net, and of politicians and even some scientists who are complicit in plundering nature’s capital.

But it is not enough to abdicate responsibility by blaming big ­corporations and shady politicians.

Jeremy Williams of the Dive Factory in Durban, who has been a spearfisherman for 36 years, says: “We all like to blame the Russian trawlers, but it is down to all of us. The way we conduct our lives affects the sea. The sea and the land are interconnected. Not eating fish isn’t enough.”

Williams, a former Springbok diver and conservationist who was on the panel to put Durban’s ­Aliwal Shoal reserve in place, ­continues: “We all have to bear some of the responsibility.”

Just as we all recycle so that we don’t bequeath our ­grandchildren a rubbish dump to live on, we all have to become ­advocates for the sea.

Currently, less than 2% of the oceans, which cover more than 40% of the earth, are protected ­reserves. At least 12% of our land is devoted to reserves.

Less than 7% of South Africa’s territorial seas is set aside for marine reserves, while Mauritania leads Africa by protecting more than 45% of the ocean.

China, which has the biggest seafood print on the planet, should be ashamed of its paltry 1%.

Fish stocks have been ­plummeting since the late 1980s, about 30 years after the arrival of industrial fishing methods.

The trouble is that because of China’s dodgy recordkeeping, the world didn’t catch on until 2001.

To give you an idea of how big a trawler net is, picture 13 747 ­passenger jets wing-tip to wing-tip inside one. Just imagine the fish, coral, kelp and other by-catch being scraped out of the sea.

Now imagine the 1.4 billion hooks dropped into the sea annually and the long fishing lines that would go around the earth 550 times, ­according to The End of the Line.

A new study called Seafood Print by Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist who features in the film, has discovered that the world catch is neither stable nor fairly distributed.

He says between 60% and 70% of the world’s edible fish population has collapsed. One of his critics, Ray Hilborn, says only 30%.

Surely that’s still too high.

The world catch refers to the 77?billion kilograms of wild fish netted annually. That’s the weight of 14 million African elephants.

In a nutshell, the detailed study explains why none of us can be blasé about what seafood we eat.

Eating apex predators such as tuna and salmon is far more damaging to the ocean than eating fish that are lower down the food chain, such as mackerel, anchovies and hake.

Eating farmed fish isn’t always the answer either. Every kilogram of farmed salmon has to eat 5kg of anchovies.

The good news is that there is already a battalion of warriors at work.

The Marine Stewardship Council set up a Cape Town office two years ago.

It has the buy-in of two of our biggest retailers – Woolworths, which leads the industry with 28 products from sustainable sources, and Pick n Pay.

So far the only certified fishery is the SA Hake Trawl Fishery, but seven others have begun the ­process of getting certification.

We, the consumers, can speed up this process by asking before buying.

By refusing to eat fish from endangered populations or unethical sources, we can stop restaurants from serving it.

Just as we have risen to the challenge of saving what’s left of the ozone layer or doing our bit to curb our consumerism, we can save the finite resources of the ocean for our grandchildren.

After all, the adage “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” should mean something.

» Visit www.endoftheline.com. The film is currently on circuit.

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