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Film: The End of the Line

Whether you live near the coast or far from any shore, if you—say—breathe, your well-being depends on a healthy ocean.

Friends of the sea gathered last night at Nat Geo headquarters to commemorate World Ocean Day with a preview of the new film The End of the Line. A panel discussion with the director, marine scientists, and a chef and restaurateur who’s also an outspoken advocate for marine conservation followed the screening.

The film, based on investigative journalist Charles Clover’s book of the same name, chronicles the dramatic decline of numerous marine species in the face of global industrial fishing fleets and a seafood-hungry public. Major fisheries—such as that for the Atlantic cod—have collapsed, and show little sign of recovery despite severe fishing restrictions applied after the fact.

Some trendy eateries still serve critically endangered fish. “There would be riots in the streets,” declares Clover during the film, if restaurants put orangutans, cheetahs, lions, and other endangered land predators on their menus. What’s more, fully a tenth of the sea life killed by many fishing vessels is bycatch—dolphins, turtles, and other species not even intended for consumption. “The signs of destruction brought up on deck from these trawls would make an angel weep,” says marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts of the carnage.

“We need to tell people what happens when you take fish from the sea,” said National Geographic Fellow Enric Sala during the panel discussion. “The sharks that the film Jaws portrayed as horrible things are good for the ecosystem. They’re very good. More than a century ago, Jules Verne wrote that if you took sharks from the sea, all you’d be left with in time would be squid and jellyfish. Well, he was right. And I’d rather swim with sharks than with jellyfish.”

Enric spoke of his recent expedition to the relatively pristine, seldom-visited reefs of the southern Line Islands in the South Pacific. “As soon as we jumped in the water, we realized what’s been lost. The biomass was ten times greater than we see in Hawaii, 100 times greater than in Jamaica. These last jewels show us what we could have more of in the future, or what we stand to lose.”

Chef Barton Seaver encouraged the audience to learn where the food they eat comes from, to seek out sustainable sources, and then to do that one better. “What’s sustainable? Ten percent of the ocean’s megafauna is left. Should we pat ourselves on the back?” He went on to urge regenerative and restorative approaches to fisheries management.

“Fish are an essential part of the ocean,” remarked National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle. “An orange roughy can be 100 years old, perhaps even 200 years old. We don’t eat 200-year-old animals from the land. And we don’t eat carnivores at the top of the food chain—not if they live on land.

“People need to think of fish as wildlife. Our ancestors, hunter-gatherers, did in many species of wildlife. Think of marine wildlife swimming in the seas, not just swimming in lemon slices and butter, which is the only way many people see it.”