Fish in the balance

Pub date November 7, 2006

When I write about seafood these days, I cringe a little, wondering whether, by describing the eating of fish, I am in effect abetting the collapse of the world’s maritime ecosystem. That I would be doing so in a rather tiny way makes no moral difference; nor does the fact that I personally will not buy or eat any seafood other than what I know to have been taken from sustainably managed (and usually local) populations — and this is a very brief list.
Historians of the future may well regard the 21st century as the interval in which the fate of this planet was decided. If we as a species pursue our present course, our descendants a century hence could well find themselves living on a hellishly steamy globe stripped of much of its wildlife. Elephants have been recklessly endangered — and are angry about it, as a spectacular story in the Oct. 8 New York Times Magazine recently demonstrated — while the heavy majority of the world’s fisheries have been overworked to the verge of irretrievable harm. This is the depressing news brought by the British journalist Charles Clover in The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (New Press, $26.95).
Clover finds his evidence all around us, in the form of drastically reduced catches from once-bountiful seas (a particularly vivid North American example: the Grand Banks) and in once-thriving coastal towns, such as Gloucester, Mass., and Hull, England, that have become ghostly now that there are no more fish to catch and process. The culprit is an all-too-familiar mechanism of industrial technique deployed to satisfy heedless demand in wealthy countries. The French, rather shockingly, have a taste for orange roughy, one of the many deep-sea species whose slow rate of reproduction leaves them especially vulnerable to human rapacity.
Clover’s description of the North Sea gives us a brief glimpse of a glum tomorrow. Today’s sea is muddy, he says, because its once-enormous beds of oysters and mussels — nature’s water filters — have been decimated by overfishing. The cloudiness inhibits plant growth on the bottom, a place he regards as “a devastated ecosystem” that can no longer heal itself. That leaves just a couple of questions for us, the devastators: Can we heal it if we try, and will we try? And when? It’s later than we think.