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Tapped Out
Fish are disappearing at such a clip that most species could be gone within a generation. An intrepid journalist scours the world to find out how it’s happening right under our noses.

The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat
By Charles Clover
The New Press, 400 pages, $26.95

It’s a doomsday scenario that sounds like the plot for a science-fiction movie. Last November a major new study published in the journal Science found that if current patterns of overfishing continue, the world’s oceans could be picked clean by 2048. The study’s authors—marine biologists, not Hollywood scriptwriters—cautioned that without intensive conservation measures there would be virtually no fish to eat in four decades. 

In light of this sobering news and other recent reports projecting marine collapse, The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat is vital reading. British environmental journalist Charles Clover takes this dire outlook as a starting point for a round-the-world tour of commercial fishing and the specific practices and operating principles that are leading to disaster.    

One particularly memorable chapter, written exclusively for the book’s U.S. edition, takes on celebrity chefs who display no qualms about serving endangered marine species. In a cookbook written by Nobu Matsuhisa—whose clients include the same stars driving hybrid cars and swearing by their environmental causes—recipes routinely call for types of fish listed in the “what not to eat” columns of responsible seafood guides. At trendy Manhattan restaurants, including Koi and BLT Fish, diners might be offered Caspian caviar, illegally caught despite prohibitions; red snapper, sometimes fished with dynamite; Chilean sea bass, famously overfished; and bluefin tuna, the seafood equivalent, in terms of scarcity, of eating orangutan.

When Clover asked the origins of some of their seafood, several famous chefs refused to comment—leaving Clover left to guess whether, for instance, Matsuhisa’s Chilean sea bass comes from the world’s only legal and sustainably managed fishery, off South Georgia, or from elsewhere in the southern oceans, where it may very well be plucked from the sea in a free-for-all.

“Why,” asks Clover, “should the leaders of chemical businesses be held responsible for polluting the marine environment with a few grams of effluent . . . while celebrity chefs are turning out dead endangered fish at several dozen tables a night without enduring a syllable of criticism?”  

Then again, some top chefs (including Rick Moonen and Traci Des Jardins), whom Clover mentions, have banded together to ensure that sustainability is “an integral part of the overall quality of the food they serve.” Additionally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute, and several other groups publish regularly updated consumer guides, and Clover includes his own at the back of the book. But while this type of concern is on the rise, it still shrivels in comparison to the vast majority of eateries that serve up any old fish they can get their hands on—and the consumers who buy it, no questions asked.

Some of the reasons for this may be cultural, as Clover astutely points out. “We have an outdated image of fishermen as rugged, principled adventurers, not as overseers in a slaughterhouse for wild animals.” Imagine, he writes, if hunters “strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa”—ensnaring everything in its path, including fauna, flora, rare and endangered animals, pregnant females. It’s an absurd concept, but not all that different from what happens in the oceans every day.

Still, blame cannot rest solely with consumers, or with the renegade fishermen who flout national or international law and haul in illegal catches. Just as culpable, Clover explains, are the governments of countries—France and Spain, for instance—that have the resources, knowledge, and responsibility to behave better but don’t.   

Technology is also a culprit. One example: Boats fishing for orange roughy off New Zealand now have software that allows them to “see into the depths in virtual reality,” reports Clover, meaning they can send down trawls in areas with underwater mountains—fragile, formerly inaccessible ecosystems containing large concentrations of fish. 

High–tech fishing equipment could, Clover maintains, be used just as easily to protect the oceans. For example, software could be used to help guide trawl nets across the ocean floor in a less destructive way. Or satellite monitoring data could be made available online, so consumers could see what fishing boats at sea are up to. But today technology is employed mainly to capture more fish in more remote places. And unlike advances in farming, which tend to improve yields, similar leaps in fishing have the opposite result, prolonging the plundering even as stock numbers increasingly plummet. “Fishermen reap,” writes Clover, “but they do not sow.”

For a book that tackles a fairly grim subject, The End of the Line is a surprisingly good read. It’s filled with fascinating tidbits (the Filet-O-Fish served at McDonald’s actually consists of relatively sustainably caught pollock or hoki, although the company doesn’t bother to publicize this); encounters with zany characters (such as the head of New Zealand’s spiny lobster fishermen’s association, who dresses like a cowboy and slams “no-take zones” as “marine zoos”); and smart analysis of the entwined political, legal, economic, technological, and cultural factors that add up to a global crisis. 

Clover believes the road to reversing this bleak trend can begin with some simple, commonsense actions: creating marine reserves, demanding consumer information, negotiating ethical treaties, catching fewer fish. These solutions sound much easier than they are, of course. But you have to start somewhere. The End of the Line is a well-reported and bracing voyage. Everyone who eats fish, eats at restaurants that serve fish, or shops at stores that sell fish should read this book.

Hillary Rosner is a science writer in Boulder, Colorado.
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Editors’ Choice

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity
By James Lovelock
Basic Books, 177 pages, $25

Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that inundated parts of Southeast Asia in 2004 were devastating natural disasters, but they can’t compare to the one that may soon arrive: global warming, which holds the distinct potential of destroying human civilization as we know it. In The Revenge of Gaia, British scientist James Lovelock uses Gaia theory (the concept that the earth behaves as if it were alive, regulating its climate and chemistry to accommodate its inhabitants) to argue that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and destroying land, have pushed the planet to a state of crisis. “We are taking so much that [Gaia] is no longer able to sustain the familiar and comfortable world we have taken for granted,” writes Lovelock. “Now it is changing to a state where we are no longer welcome.” His ominous message is a cry for action: We must dramatically alter our approach to planetary living, and soon. After weighing the benefits and disadvantages of alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, hydrogen, and wind power, Lovelock comes down on the side of nuclear power as the most viable interim energy solution. Burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly, he argues, while the equivalent amount of energy generated from nuclear fission reactions would yield 2 million times less waste. Lovelock downplays the comparative health risks of nuclear power if used properly, pointing to all the wildlife around radioactive sites like Chernobyl and even going so far as to offer his own yard as a repository for waste. Some readers will find plenty besides this to challenge. He calls the notion that humans are “stewards of the Earth” “hubristic,” and holds the first world’s “green-thinking politicians” in contempt for their feeble stabs at sustainable development. But those unsettling ideas are exactly what may compel readers to take Lovelock’s warning more seriously.—Julie Leibach

Unbowed: A Memoir
By Wangari Maathai
Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $24.95

In 1977, after years of watching her beloved country’s natural resources plundered, Wangari Maathai created the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots consortium of mostly rural Kenyan women that has now planted more than 30 million trees throughout Kenya. But her success was anything but assured. As Maathai details In Unbowed: A Memoir, she has been arrested several times and beaten unconscious by government police for her outspoken views on the environment, democracy, and human rights. “I have seen time and again that if you stay with a challenge, if you are convinced that you are right to do so, and if you give it everything you have, it is amazing what can happen,” she writes in Unbowed. True enough. Today Maathai is a sitting member of Kenya’s parliament and has served as the country’s assistant minister for environment and natural resources. Her storied path eventually led all the way to Oslo, Norway, where she received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever awarded to an African woman. Anyone seeking inspiration in a world that seems beset with human misery and environmental degradation (the two often go hand in hand in the developing world) should read this book.—Bob Grant

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask
By Mike O’Connor
Beacon Press, 224 pages, $9.95

Maybe this has happened to you: After buying a bag of mixed birdseed, you pour it into your new feeder, and . . . nothing. It sits there. The birds barely touch it. Why? Mike O’Connor has the answer to that question, and many others, in this humorous and informative compilation of letters taken from his Cape Cod newspaper column, “Ask the Bird Folks.” (In case you’re curious, birds prefer one type of seed; mixed seed doesn’t appeal to them.) Touching on topics as diverse as bird migration, birding equipment, and methods to attract birds to your yard, Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? covers the birdwatching gamut. And while O’Connor’s detailed responses are full of ornithological facts, it’s their humor and irreverence that make the book so entertaining. After noting that brown creepers are more common than most people realize, he quips, “Creepers are like people who drive Plymouths; they are all around us, but we rarely notice them.” And after poking fun at the notion that throwing rice at weddings will make birds “inflate to roughly the size of the Hindenburg,” he sets the record straight: Rice is harmless to our feathered friends. But they’d still prefer seeds as a party favor. —J.L.

Q. So why don't woodpeckers get headaches?
A. "You'd think they would get headaches from the way they pound on trees but, luckily for them, they have evolved a rather tough head. Much like a soccer player or a tall coal miner. Woodpeckers are among our most common backyard birds, yet they have features that are totally different than other feeder birds.

Woodpeckers have developed a much larger brain case, which prevents the birds from getting a concussion every time they have to chop out lunch. They also have a different muscle and bone structure at the base of the bill, which acts like a shock absorber to help cushion the blows. And the woodpecker's stiff, strong tail serves as a kickstand to prop ther bird up, allowing it to lean back and smack the tree. Even woodpeckers' feet are different. Most feeder birds have three toes in the front and one in the back; however, most woodpeckers have two in front and two in the back, giving the birds a better grip on the trunk of the tree. They even have special feathers that cover their nostrils to keep out flying woodchips and other assorted debris."



Art of the Wild

In Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet (Walker and Company, 40 pages, $16.95), David McLimans takes youngsters on an alphabet safari where the letters resemble endangered species. For example, the two peaks of an “H” transform into the ears of a Bushman hare, and the serpentine curves of a “B” morph into the body of a Madagascar tree boa. Each letter, in bold black and white, shares a page with brief facts describing the creature represented, often including the habitat in which it lives and the threats to its survival. A glossary at the back of the book provides greater detail on the animals featured, many of which might seem strange and exotic. The glossary also underscores McLimans’s observation that “the earth is an amazing, beautiful, wondrous, diverse, and fragile planet” that demands protection before it’s too late.—J.L.

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