"End of the Line".

Guest Column CFN July 2009

Flawed Science and Certification Bad Mix

The media has been flooded with doom and gloom stories of fish stock
wipeouts since last fall when Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival
previewed the controversial “End of the Line” movie. The negative
coverage has intensified tremendously leading to the premier of the
film in England coinciding with June 8th-World Oceans Day. The movie
is based on a Charles Clover book and is largely based on a paper
prepared in 2003 by Ransom Myers and Boris Worm published in Nature
Magazine and claiming a critical 90% reduction in the biomass of large
pelagic in the oceans of the world.  The paper produced a wave of
criticism of Nature for allowing such poor science and environmental
advocacy disguised as science to see the light of day.

The criticism included comments by noted Pacific large pelagic
scientist Dr. John Silbert who labeled Worm’s paper “fundamentally
flawed” and that the authors “do the fisheries community a disservice
by applying a simplistic analysis…which exaggerates declines in
abundance and implies unrealistic rebuilding benchmarks”. Dr. Gary
Sharp commented that their paper “is not good science” and the “most
recent nonsense”.  Dr. Mike Sissenwine, a world leading authority on
large pelagics, commented that most of the decline cited by the
authors occurred more than 50 years ago before establishment of
international regional fisheries management authorities to tackle
problem fisheries. He also commented that “humanity cannot harvest the
oceans and expect to leave behind a pristine environment”.

In the face of the overwhelming criticism even Myers ultimately agreed
that “when fisheries management is used…there is not a concern about
the biomass reducing by 50 or 60 or even 70%”.  But the Myers/Worm
damage had already been done.  Charles Clover got his easy sensational
book and Executive Film Producer Christopher Hird got his sexy,
environmentally obscene but sure to be financially successful film.
He is now asking top of the line seafood retailers to run the film in
their outlets.  Movie stars are waiting in line for someone to listen
to their criticism of first class Nobu’s Restuarants (partly owned by
actor Robert DeNiro) decision for keeping bluefin tuna on the menu
even with a disclaimer that overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea is

And this problem is getting worse.  Only last month Nils Stolpe noted
that Worm’s even more outrageous recent claim that the world will run
out seafood by 2048 (labeled “just mind-boggling stupid” by eminent
fish scientist Dr. Ray Hillborn and fortunately also rejected by new
NOAA Administrator Dr. Lubchenko) has likely been picked up by more
than 17,000 Google searches.  I have seen several hundred worldwide
stories of the “2048 empty seas” nonsense come across the TunaNews
search engine in recent months.

But the “End of the Line” fable and Worm’s “2048 empty seas” under the
high seas is far from the reality in light of the latest assessments
from ICCAT.  The assessments show many success stories: for swordfish
a complete success with the finding that the stock has been rebuilt
beyond the biomass necessary to produce maximum sustainable yield
(BSMY), yellowfin tuna is near or at BMSY, bigeye is at 92% of BMSY,
skipjack tuna east and west are above BMSY, northern albacore has
recently rebuilt to levels near BMSY and south Atlantic albacore is
about 91% of BMSY.  Problems of overfishing remain with east and west
bluefin, billfishes and some sharks and clearly more needs to be done.

As far as our coastal fisheries, the latest 2009 report from Dr. Jim
Balsiger to Congress notes that “the majority of our domestic assessed
fish stocks are not subject to overfishing (84%) or not overfished
(77%)”.  And since the Sustainable Fish Act changes to
Magnuson-Stevens the NOAA Fish Stock Sustainable Index (FSSI –
measuring the performance of key stocks) has risen from 357.5 in 2000
to 555.5 in 2008!  Doesn’t sound like we are heading for empty seas
here at home either.

So how should the seafood producing industry and knowledgeable public
respond long term to damaging and flawed environmental advocacy
science stories.  Here is my two cents worth.

First, boycott movies like “End of the Line” and do not contribute to
lining the pockets of doomsday profit mongers willing to distort
reality and frighten people away from consuming healthy seafood.  The
true success stories and information on remaining problems need to get
out to the general public but this will not happen with a few of us
preaching only in our own trade magazines.

We need to use programs like NOAA’s Fish Watch which has the
scientific competency and objectivity to certify the facts on a fish
resource status, or at least, add credibility to industry promotions
where accurate.  “Certification” is a government or Regional Fishery
Management Organization ( the scientific arm not political “plenary”
committees) responsibility. Over 30,000 NOAA Fish Watch logo brochures
(jointly produce by NOAA’s Partnership and Communications Office and
BWFA) are being distributed in the Northeast to set the record
straight on swordfish.  It’s a starting point.

NOAA, the Secretary of Commerce and President have already been given
the authority to identify/certify countries and products resulting
from illegal fishing and bad fishing practices and ban their
importation.  They only need do what they have been empowered to do.
If Japan, European Community and a few more of the largest seafood
producers and importers implement their longstanding government
responsibility the problem will be effectively eliminated in an
efficient fashion.

There are dangers in supporting any of the private “certification”
entities seemingly popping up every day.  One should be suspicious of
private groups taking over governments fish and human health
responsibility, especially suspicious that environmental advocacy will
ultimate takeover the certification process.  If the market place is
the suggested solution to stopping over fishing isn’t it perverse to
suggest that a whole new private business sector has to be developed
to exert the influence and control over the markets when governments
have been doing so (just maybe not as well as they could be) for

Private certification and labels suggest that every corner fish market
must police its source to make sure certification labels are not
counterfeited or other steps taken to conceal continued illegal
product.  How, where and when does private certification process move
into the enforcement arena?  Will retail chains be responsible for
punishing store managers and clerks failing to insure the exclusive
sale of certified products?  What about small regional fisheries
unable to pay the costs for the private certification enterprise
label?  Do they simply get disadvantaged out of the market?

One final issue for thought about private certification and possible
human health and longevity implications.  Does anyone really think
that most consumers entering a high end fish market or restaurant,
checking out terrific looking swordfish and tuna steaks, will pull out
their wallet size “certified fish choice card” and select the
sustainable sardines or tilapia instead and as recommended?  Of course
not, they will be enticed to the meat counter and fillet mignon.

Nobu’s, other restaurants and fish retailers should not be in the
business of scaring people away from seafood over sustainability
issues.  It’s the government’s job to produce sustainability.  “End of
the Line” fear mongers and certification advocates bear responsibility
for denying the overwhelming health benefits of increased seafood
consumption, omega-3 and selenium benefits for healthy hearts and
neurological and developmental skills especially for young children
every time the choice for seafood is not made.