Charles Clovers book, The End of the Line, screams for attention to the crisis of diminishing global fish stocks and is now a powerful and thought provoking movie, currently showing in the West End of London. Footprint met with him to discuss the very clear implications to the foodservice industry.
Q. Charles, as one of the first mainstream broadsheet commentators on the environment, you have championed a sustainable world since the mid-Eighties. What was it that triggered your initial interest?
Well, I started off as a reporter mostly, not a commentator, so it was really what sparked the interest of the editor, Max Hastings, who hired me to write about these things. At that time in the 1980s there were a trinity of events abroad, Chernobyl, Bhopal and Sandoz, plus a lot happening in food, farming and transport at home. I happened to be a farmers son who spent a lot of time fly fishing so I suppose I had a head start in understanding the issues.
Q. What are the main changes to global attitude and direction you have witnessed since you started campaigning for a sustainable future?
Climate change has become a huge circus of an issue and the science on it seems to have polarised and become ideological in not terribly helpful ways. I think commentators who can actually understand the science behind the issue are needed more than ever. While climate and carbon saving have become such vast subjects, other important things such as biodiversity loss, overfishing and human population growth have tended not to get the attention they deserve.
Q. Your book, The End of the Line, has been made into a highly acclaimed movie. As a journalist writing about environmental issues, there will have been many disturbing causes you could have chosen to put your weight behind. What was it about the plight of the fishing industry that inspired you to focus on that, above all others, and write End of the Line?
Nobody was writing about it. Nobody seemed to see it as a big issue. In fact we are talking about the health of 70 per cent of the planets surface and about the other great global commons in which fishing is currently the most destructive activity. I had been curious about what was happening in the sea. And when I walked into a presentation about the effects of beam trawling on the sea bed and on the fish there – beam trawling kills 16 lbs of marine creatures to harvest a pound of edible sole – that set me off down the road to writing the book.
Q. Al Gores film An Inconvenient Truth created quite a stir when it was launched, but has since become, not so much discredited, as a target for contradictory opinions as to the realities of global warming. Whilst it could be suggested that the jury is still out on that particular issue, one thing for sure is that we live on a planet with diminishing natural resources and too many people. The End of the Line is about the sustainability of global fish stocks and the public at large is still confusing global warming and sustainability. Do you think that some of the more cynical media coverage that the Gore film has received in recent times might in some way be detrimental to the message of The End of The Line?
It is a different argument. We have deniers, too, but one of them, Ray Hilborn, is actually in the film and he accepts that things are pretty bad in most of the sea. It is an argument about how many places are managed properly. Ray actually teamed up with Boris Worm, his opponent, and some other scientists in the film, such as Jeff Hutchings, to ask how bad things are and they just came out with their findings in Science. The big picture is pretty sobering but that hasnt stopped the industry in America spinning it as Boris Worm was wrong. In fact he was largely right and has done the world a favour by drawing overfishing to public attention.
Q. It is estimated that UK commercial restaurants serve 548 million fish meals a year. Do you feel the out of home sector is doing enough to support sustainable fishing and what more do you think should be done? Absolutely not. I think we all need to sharpen up, but we are at the bottom of a learning curve on what can be done.
People who source their fish in Europe need to be aware that many fisheries they take their fish from would be regarded as disaster areas in America. Cod and herring on the west coast of Scotland, for example, cod in the North Sea, though there has been a small improvement, plaice just about everywhere. In the US there would be closed areas and fishing with much more selective gears. If
European regulators wont make these things happen, then it is going to be consumers and the big players in the food industry who have to make them happen. I think retailers like Waitrose and Marks and Spencer have shown the way by taking control over how their fish is caught and making sure that haddock and tuna, for instance, is caught more selectively.
Q.A number of foodservice groups have taken heed of The End of the Line and reassessed their purchasing habits. You must take a great deal of pride in this?
Yes, I dont think Pret a Manger is going to be the last. We have been having conversations throughout the industry. Now we are putting together a sustainable restaurant guide called fish2fork which will be out on the web soon and once we have done that we will
start looking at what to do about chains and mass catering.
Q. From Footprints point of view there seemed to be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the film in the industry. Your work needs to have a legacy. How do you intend to perpetuate interest and awareness?
I think you have to expect the fishing industry to react in a hostile way. But some of them have been running down a public resource for a long time and shouldnt expect to get away with it. I felt a glow of satisfaction when they described the film as simplistic. That meant they couldnt find anything factually wrong with it. And we had managed to put it in a way that got the publics attention.
Q. How can we educate the industry to become more sustainable?
Make them aware of the examples of good practice from around the world. Europe is extremely backward when it comes to the sea.
Q. You have written about environmental issues for many years. Will there be a follow-up to The End of the Line, as surely there is work to do in a plethora of other industries?
Well, I think we have set ourselves a big enough task for now rating restaurants in UK and around the world and campaigning for some of the goals in the film, such as protecting the bluefin tuna. I think you may be interested in the findings. But I do have a follow-up project to The End of the Line, but I cant say what it is yet.
Q. Will we ever live in a sustainable world?
I think it will always be a struggle, but these issues are much more to the fore than they were and are increasingly seen as a matter of personal responsibility. I think if we can persuade more people to exercise personal choice whether it comes to low-carbon living or buying sustainable fish then we can break the logjam of governments not doing anything because they are afraid of the publics reaction. If we can do that, Id be more optimistic about the future.