Why we must stop pillaging the seas

Charles Clover is so shocked by the vulnerability of fish-stocks that he's made a �1million film that took him from Newfoundland to Japan.

Steven Russell

Charles Clover is so shocked by the vulnerability of fish-stocks that he's made a �1million film that took him from Newfoundland to Japan. With its European premiere looming, he tells Steven Russell about 'this extraordinary nightmare' he hopes will change the world

CHARLES Clover returns from an early-morning haircut to the discord of Tinker the Jack Russell, all bark and no bite, yapping at the postman. It's a stretched metaphor to be sure, but this eruption-from-nowhere is in keeping with the mood of the past few weeks, months, years. Charles and his associates, convinced all is doom if we continue to pillage the world's oceans, have battled the odds to put their arguments on film - a mission that's taken them from Lowestoft to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and on to Alaska, Chile, Japan, the Caribbean and back again. Trouble is, it's been a draining journey literally and figuratively. And, with the European premiere approaching fast and work still to be done, the strain is showing. Charles, for instance, has the air of the Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Does he feel like he looks?

“Yes, I do, most of the time. I very nearly had one at two o'clock in the morning. I do feel, at times, it's just total meltdown,” he sighs, sinking into a sofa at his home in Constable Country.

He was up until the early hours sorting out an anomaly: nothing major, but a detail that needed to be dealt with - the right signature on the right document at the right time. “I'm, very boringly, a Steady Eddie and I don't like winging it. I like everything to be properly written down.”

It's wonderful having a nucleus of passionate creative people combining to beat out a message the world ought to hear, but the admin still has to get done. Neglect it and they might as well whistle in the wind. Charles has thus been dotting a lot of Is and crossing Ts.

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“It's a kind of 'make it up yourself, but do it globally' thing done by five people with not a complete skills set!” he grins, ruefully.

One vexing diversion has involved working out if they have to pay corkage on the wine for a reception at The Science Museum to which luminaries such as Sarah Brown, Stephen Fry and former Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw were invited. “That's what I spent last week trying to sort out” - there's a raising of eyebrows - “and it's a matter of several thousand pounds.”

Then there are the requests from more than a dozen publications for him to pen articles about the film. Charles is a journalist by trade, but he winces at how easily people in the business, even, forget that writing takes time.

Still, he and his band are fuelled by conviction, and their labours should pay off in helping change public and industry opinion.

The End of the Line had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January. A high school screening in Salt Lake City, during that time, offered hope that future generations might not make the same mistakes - might even reverse the damage.

“It blew our minds,” admits Charles. “The first question was 'Will there be fish around when I have kids?' 'Actually, there won't be any bluefin tuna - and, sorry, it's our fault.' And then you're into the argument and they're all completely rapt. If you're of the next generation, you're going to be bloody angry when you see this film.”

The team has some famous names backing their cause. The aforementioned Tweeter-in-chief Mr Fry is sympathetic, for instance, and there's interest from an even-more-exalted direction.

Charles was co-author - with the Prince of Wales - of Highgrove: Portrait of an Estate. The 1993 book examined Prince Charles's conversion to organic farming and gardening, and presented the case for sustainable farming.

The prince was keen to see The End of the Line, so a private screening for 25 people was held at Clarence House. And presumably the heir to the throne was in tune with the message? Charles Clover gives a diplomatic nod.

“Um . . . he got it so much that his officials, his private secretaries, were concerned he would bound off into concern about the oceans before he'd finished with the rainforests, which is a massive two-year project.”

The End of the Line documentary is the progeny of Charles Clover's 2004 book of the same name. It took six months of planning and six months of writing, though had been in his mind for a decade, “but nobody else had seemed remotely interested, because no-one else was convinced it was a problem”.

He'd been convinced by a letter in the science journal Nature that claimed the United Nations Fish Agreement had got its global fish-catch statistics wrong and that they'd actually been going down for a long period because we'd caught virtually all the fish.

The End of the Line is the first major feature-length documentary to highlight the consequences of over-fishing and is billed as a “wake-up call to the world”. The Economist magazine called it “The Inconvenient Truth about the oceans” - a reference to former American vice-president Al Gore's book and film about global warming.

Its 85 minutes chronicle how demand for cod off Newfoundland in the early 1990s decimated the most abundant cod population in the world, how hi-tech fishing vessels leave no escape routes for marine populations, and how farmed fish as a solution is a myth.

The documentary attributes responsibility to consumers who innocently buy endangered fish, politicians who ignore the pleas of scientists, fishermen who break quotas and fish illegally, and a global fishing industry slow to react to impending disaster.

It examines the imminent extinction of bluefin tuna, brought on (it's claimed) by growing demand for sushi; the impact on marine life, leading to a huge overpopulation of jellyfish; and the implications of a world with no fish . . . and the subsequent threat of mass starvation.

Charles confronts politicians and celebrity restaurateurs about the crisis. Scientists, indigenous fishermen and fisheries enforcement officials also feature.

If we carry on like this, warns the film, scientists are predicting the end of most seafood within about 40 years.

You can see why Charles, once a convert to the cause, was fired to progress his message from print to a visual media.

Within a year or so of his book's publication he'd discovered that the then Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw, and David Milliband, who became Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had read it and agreed with it.

The US edition was published in the autumn of 2006 and the work has also been translated into Japanese, Dutch, German, Italian and French. The author has been to the U.S Congress as a result, and spoken to the head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

“It has,” he says, “completely rewritten the narrative, whether the fishing industry likes it or not. They used to complain about the greens; what they haven't realised is that 'the greens' are the rest of us.”

Is he now Public Enemy Number One, then, in the eyes of the fishing industry? He considers. “Probably.”

The thing is, “If you are convinced that this subject is more important than most of the world thinks it is, then you sort of go with it beyond the book that made the point. You perceive that while people read the book, nobody has actually done very much about the messages in the book. And you think 'Why was that exactly?'”

You can't rely on the film and TV establishment to address your big idea, because it doesn't view the world the way you perceive it, “so the only way is to build your own edifice and say 'The world looks like this.'

“You have to raise your standard and hope like-minded people come to you. The astonishing thing is how many people came to us, and how many of the right people came to us, and how we got the money more easily than we would have thought . . . apart from some lurchy moments.”

There was a couple of fruitless years spent trying to “sell” the idea to film companies. Then Charles had a serendipitous meeting in the autumn of 2006 with BAFTA-nominated film and TV producer Claire Lewis, who produces the 7UP series with director Michael Apted.

She was making a documentary about the Royal Navy's Fishery Protection Squadron. “Halfway through, she realised the squadron wasn't involved in protecting the fishermen; they were protecting the fish from the fishermen!”

The captain produced a dogged-eared copy of The End of the Line and said 'This is why we're doing it; you really ought to read this book.'”

Claire shot a short interview with the author. The story goes that, viewing the footage later, the BBC folk who commissioned the film reckoned the more interesting angle was not the workaday life of a Naval vessel but this “bloke saying it's all going to hell in a handcart”.

Charles and Claire realised they were on the same wavelength. It more than rankled with him that many traditional wildlife films failed to tell the whole story, underplaying the influence of Man on the oceans, “and human influence is the dominating factor. We are the biggest predator. Everybody thought the oceans were teeming, but they (many other films) leave out the largest predator the world has ever known”.

Claire felt they needed to make An Inconvenient Truth-style of documentary. “I'm a scribbler, a sort of blind man in a film world, but I'd found someone I could trust,” says Charles. “And she found Christopher Hird, who had a background in cutting-edge documentary. We three then started looking for other people with other skills.”

Not that making an independent documentary on a relative shoestring and with precious little in the way of support systems was ever going to be plain sailing. “Half of the task seemed to be structuring the actual vehicle, and then there's a small amount of time that's actually about making the film!”

The project proper lasted about two-and-a-half years - between nine months and a year longer than they'd intended, and about �500,000 beyond original budget estimates. (Channel 4 gave the first wedge of �100,000 - the most it's ever granted to a documentary, apparently.) “But you couldn't have done it any cheaper than we did it, on a million quid.”

Capturing the essence of over-fishing on camera was no easy task. The team shot 500 hours of high-definition digital footage - a vast amount - and some careful and skilful editing was required to mould a coherent whole from a mass of information.

“It's a global issue, a global story, and it's a nightmare narrative to put together and show the big picture because of that,” explains Charles.

It was a documentary that had to be made on the European Union's doorstep “because we all still haven't 'got' it.

“We've still got this obsession that it's about Edward Heath and 1973 and chaps in oily jumpers and whether or not they're allowed to catch the last cod or not.

“This is about much bigger things, which have much more relevance to people - to ourselves: about what we can eat in the future; whether or not we have healthy ecosystems. But Europe has allowed itself not to understand how important it is - and has allowed, frankly, organised criminals in the south of Europe to dictate Europe's policy on the oceans.”

There were practical frustrations. A major segment about the massive illegal catching and selling of fish in Cornwall was axed because the court hearings were not quite finished - that's �28,000 of filming snipped from the documentary. Not that all is lost.

Modern technology and practices mean that producing a single documentary isn't the end of the matter. Material can be reshaped and updated, with long- and short-version DVDs produced. So the story of the Newlyn scandal will be included later - just not in the first “proper” cut.

Versions will be going to supporters such as the environmental groups WWF and Oceana, who can run screenings of their own. The documentary should also see life as an educational resource in schools; and campaigners aim to take it to the UK party conferences in the autumn.

The documentary argues that solutions are simple and doable, given enough international political will and activism.

Here's the mantra: “We need to control fishing by reducing the number of fishing boats across the world, protect large areas of the ocean through a network of marine reserves off-limits to fishing, and educate consumers that they have a choice by purchasing fish from independently-certified sustainable fisheries.”

Charles himself is optimistic.

“I think it is quite interesting how the human race does so often nearly come off the cliff and then do something about it - when it is spelt out to ordinary punters with issues like car safety or smoking, for instance. Someone has to put it in your face and say 'You are going to die, early, if you get lung cancer.'

“The world is going to run out of food; it's going to run out of lovely things that swim in the sea; you won't be able to eat bluefin tuna again; you won't be able to eat cod again because your conscience won't let you . . . That's the point we've reached, and it's only happened in the last 10 years.

“Expecting it to happen overnight - bang! - is a bit much, frankly, but the fact we've got as far as we have with this thought, with this film, is evidence of people thinking, and I'm very encouraged by that. But if people don't do the three 'asks' at the end, then in five or 10 years' time I will be saying 'Don't eat fish.'” Full stop? “Full stop. At the moment I say 'Eat sustainable fish stocks.'”

Further hope comes in the way retailers have heard the message - partly because of his book and partly down to Greenpeace campaigning - and worked hard to put their house in order on fish sourcing.

Waitrose is backing the documentary, “which is amazing, because we say some incredibly tough things that go further than they are currently able to deal with. But because they're a very high-grade retailer, doing the best they can, they've decided to support the film. Some of the questions they're asking, very few restaurants ask. 'Is your fish in danger or threatened in the area of ocean it is sourced?'”

One of the newer segments in the “European” version of the film expounds on the relationship between the oceans and climate change.

Charles hadn't really asked himself the question “Is there a link?” While he was in Utah, a paper appeared in an American publication on this issue - “only one paper, and it hasn't been tested, but . . . What's putting the alkalinity back into the oceans? It's bony fish, who turn calcium carbonate from plankton into bone structure, and what they don't need is excreted, which dissolves in water and helps turn it alkaline.

“The seas are the planet's number-one carbon sink. So there's probably a link between global warming and over-fishing, to some degree. We are thus beginning to understand that the sea is much more important to us than we ever understood before. That is the amazing journey I've come on since the book - which I'd suspected but not put in the premiered version of the film at Sundance. I've put it in now!

“We should be managing the fish population back up again, because they're obviously an index of the health of the sea, the health of the atmosphere, the health of the planet. We need to manage populations of fish for recovery, and not for just bumping along the bottom in a depressed, crashed industry that isn't making very much money but is also probably being subsidised to the very same extent as the profits. This is insane.

“That puts it in a different scale of priority to having a little fisheries minister who toddles off to Brussels and divvies up quotas. So we need to reorganise politics to protect the health of the oceans, and we need to do that by marine reserves and proper fish policies with quotas set along scientific lines for the recovery of fish populations, which we haven't got in the UK and the EU.”

There must be “a big scientific argument” about how many fish can safely be taken; and then the methods used must catch only that type of fish - and not indiscriminately take other sea-creatures and/or damage habitats.

Charles adds: “We must stop thinking of our oceans as a food factory and realise that they thrive as a huge and complex marine environment. We must act now to protect the sea from rampant over-fishing so that there will be fish in the sea for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

And he warns: “If the fishing industry thinks this message is too strong or wrong . . . all we are saying is that consumers should buy sustainable fish. And all the punters in Europe are saying is that you should buy sustainable fish. And if this film makes more people buy sustainable fish and clamour for sustainable fish, then reform will come to fisheries; and the fishermen should bloody well listen because it is their customers speaking!

“I remember a time when the farmers wouldn't listen - and look what happened to them.”

The End of the Line campaign

The End of the Line is not against fishing. It is not against eating fish. But it is for a responsible attitude towards the oceans.

The film has three messages -

Ask before you buy: eat only sustainable seafood.

Tell politicians “Respect the science; cut the fishing fleet”

Join the campaign for marine protected areas and responsible fishing

Web link: http://endoftheline.com

The End of the Line campaign claims that . . .

Globally, some 75% of wild marine fish are now said to be either fully-exploited or over-fished, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. These species require conservation and management in order to survive in their present numbers, which they rarely receive.

The species in the worst shape include oceanic sharks, the larger tunas, the Patagonian toothfish and Chilean sea bass.

In European waters, some 80% of stocks are recorded as over-fished, according to the European Commission.

In UK waters, stocks of palatable fish, such as cod, have been reduced to less than 10% of what they were 100 years ago.

In Europe, some 50% of the quotas set by politicians are higher than scientists say are sustainable.

The EU was instrumental in arguing for a quota of 22,000 tons of bluefin tuna for next year, even though scientists recommended only 15,000 tons.

In the Firth of Clyde, near Glasgow, cod, haddock, saithe, brill and whiting have all been over-fished. All that remains for fishermen to catch is Norway lobster, also known as langoustine or scampi.

UNTIL last year, Charles Clover was environment editor of a national newspaper. Philosophical differences led to a parting of the ways. Now, he's effectively freelance.

“Losing a steady income is something I've never before done,” says the man thrice made national journalist of the year in the British Environment and Media Awards. “Whether or not the film is ever able to pay me back the work I've put into it, I don't know.”

He was born and raised in a village on the Essex/Suffolk border and returned there from London, with his young family, about 12 years ago.

THE End of the Line has screenings at more than 50 cinemas on Monday, June 8 - World Oceans Day - including the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge and two venues in Norwich: Cinema City and the Vue.

There are two nights at Harwich Electric Palace Cinema. On Wednesday, June 10 there's a reception at 7pm and an introduction at 7.30pm, with the film starting at 7.40pm. Afterwards, there's a question-and-answer session with Charles Clover.

The film is also on the following evening - Thursday, June 11 - though without the reception and Q&A.

Electric Palace: 01255 553 333. www.electricpalace.com boxoffice@electricpalace.com


THE End of the Line team received a big boost when actor Ted Danson, best known for his role as Sam in Cheers, agreed to narrate the documentary. Ted's involvement came at the 11th hour but transformed the film, reckoned executive producer Christopher Hird.

“Ted has a long and distinguished record campaigning for the oceans and he told us that when he saw the film he was thrilled. He felt it told the complete story of over-fishing in a dramatic and accessible way.”

The actor took a day out of his filming schedule for a new HBO series to record the narration at a studio in New York's Greenwich Village in April.