A word to the wise: don’t attempt to watch The End of the Line while chowing down on spicy tuna rolls or even the seemingly-more-innocent cod fish sticks. You’ll feel guilty and nauseous. This is not to say that The End of the Line is the aquatic equivalent of a PETA-funded slaughterhouse exposé. While the film does depict the gorier and inhumane aspects of the fishing industry, it also calls attention to an environmental crisis on par with global warming. Indeed, the Economist inelegantly called this film “The Inconvenient Truth about the oceans.”
The End of the Line is based on the book of the same name by Charles Clover, Environment Editor at the Daily Telegraph in Britain. Clover appears often in the film, for example riding on his bicycle to upscale restaurants in London to ask them about their sourcing policies for the fish featured on their menus. Clover’s investigations are bolstered by an international team of experts who discuss their research on fishing and the oceans.
The End of the Line sticks to basic environmental documentary format: interviews with scientists and statistics and studies to back up claims interspersed with on-the-ground footage. The film opens with beautiful underwater shots of a healthy ocean: bright coral teeming with fish and other marine life, which serves as a reminder through the rest of the film of exactly what is being systematically destroyed.
Director Rupert Murray does a good job of providing the viewer with context about the fishing industry. Newfoundland’s ‘cod crisis of the ’90s is highlighted as an early example of over-fishing. After centuries of fishermen bringing home boatfuls of cod from the North Sea, the fish vanished seemingly overnight. The film goes on to explain that this phenomenon is hardly unique, and in fact it’s occurring the world over—an inevitable cost of unsustainable fishing practices.
The film also makes the dire consequences of current fishing practices very clear: if current fishing levels continue unchecked, by mid-century many species of fish millions of people eat every day will be gone. The problems with the way the industry currently operates are staggering. There are too many boats fishing for too few fish, and boats often catch more than is legal. Legal allotments are already too high to allow fish populations to recover, and are set by politicians who have obligations to fishing lobbies. Consumers aren’t helping, either, as they continue to purchase fish that is endangered and unsustainably harvested.
Because the issues The End of the Line covers are so vast, it occasionally gets bogged down in trying to tell a global story. The film is at its strongest when it highlights the experiences of ordinary people. There’s Robert Mielgo, former fisherman turned self-appointed enviro-spy. Mielgo caught Blue Fin tuna in the Mediterranean before becoming aware that the species was being fished to the brink of extinction. Now, he skirts the edges of Malta dockyards with a telescopic lens attempting to capture fishermen brining in illegal catch.
There’s Adama, a Senegalese fisherman whose ancestral waters have been over-fished by big boats from overseas. As the film explains, developing countries will often sell their fishing rights to more affluent countries for quick cash, which leaves local fisherman in the lurch.
Some of the statistics in The End of the Line presents are meant to freak out the viewer. A sampling: seven million tons of what is caught each year around the world (1/10the of the total catch) is thrown back. This includes dead fish and other marine life, turtles, dolphins, sea birds. Only 0.6 percent of the ocean’s waters are protected under conservation programs. An estimated 50 percent of cod caught in the North Sea is illegally obtained.
Yet The End of the Line delivers a message that is ultimately hopeful. Even Dr. Boris Worm (a frequent presence throughout the film discussing his ocean research) claims he remains essentially optimistic. He points out that our understanding of ocean systems is increasing. More important, he believes people can change.
Much like its eco predecessor An Inconvenient Truth, The End of the Line makes sure to end with several simple real-world ways viewers can be part of a solution to a global crisis. The film underscores the power of the consumer—after pressure from Clover and patrons, several London restaurants took endangered fish like blue fin off their menu. The film also emphasizes the practice of knowing where one’s food comes from, and buying only sustainably fished seafood, such as that certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
More vaguely, the film points to citizen activism by encouraging views to put pressure on politicians to enact sustainable fishing laws and enforce them. The End of the Line also urges audiences to “join the campaign for marine protected areas and responsible fishing” but again, its suggestion is less concrete than the specific recommendations for consumers. Much more specific information about getting involved can be found online at the official website..
A special bonus for Cheers, Curb Your Enthusiasm and of course, 3 Men and a Baby fans: Ted Danson narrates.
The special features are great for the viewer who wants to understand the issues addressed in the film more completely. Six featurettes contain more than 50-minutes of extra footage, also available on the website.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the special features is a wallet-sized guide to sustainable seafood. The accordion style booklet is produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, The End of the Line and the Marine Stewardship Council. It contains information on best seafood choices, good alternatives, and which seafood is best avoided altogether based on the sustainable fishing practices explained in the film.
Next time you’re headed to Nobu, stick the guide in your pocket. The once mighty blue fin will thank you.