In 1985, my friends and I ventured in my little 18-foot outboard boat 15 miles south of Montauk, New York, at the easternmost tip of Long Island, to an area called Butterfish Hole, and anchored in 150 feet of water. When I was sure the anchor had caught, I secured the line and glanced at my watch. Six a.m.
My friend John started throwing pieces of baitfish into the tide. I put a piece on a hook and instructed John's wife, Nancy, to strip 16 arm-lengths of line from the reel, letting the bait drift out of sight, before engaging her reel's brake. The instant I heard her click the brake into position, the rod bent double and the line started shrieking off the reel while Nancy gamely hung on. We all looked wild-eyed into one another's youthful faces. Could there really be that many fish here? Yes, there could. By 8 a.m., nine tuna ranging from 30 to 100 pounds jammed our big coolers. Other tuna were coursing awesomely through the blue water behind the boat, eating every piece of fish we threw. We were now just hand-feeding wild yellowfins, albacore, and adolescent bluefins. Having caught enough to make -- as I now realize -- a lifetime memory, we decided to haul anchor hours early, getting back to the dock in time for a late breakfast. By late afternoon my kitchen table was piled high with tuna steaks. Friends' cars were pulling up to the house as my outdoor grill was getting hot. We ate seared yellowfin and raw bluefin until we couldn't pop one more bite.
My little boat was inadequate for open-ocean fishing, and we -- not quite out of our twenties -- were pretty new at catching tuna. No matter. Back then it never occurred to us we'd ever need to go more than 15 miles from shore. We had no way to foresee what would happen to the oceans.
A year or two later, Japanese buyers arrived on the docks at Montauk. The globalized market hit home hard. One morning, amid a dense fleet of boats slaughtering large numbers of bluefin, someone got on the radio and suggested that we leave a few for tomorrow. Crackling through the speaker came this reply: "Hey, nobody left any buffalo for me."
By 1990 it was obvious to me, as a fisherman, that many species were being depleted. Digging around, I found that the declines in fish populations were documented, but the information was scattered in fishery agencies' arcane technical reports. None of my colleagues in the conservation community knew of them. I went to the big environmental groups, saying that a hidden wildlife catastrophe was happening just off our beaches. The plundering of the oceans had turned into the last buffalo hunt, and, by our indiscriminate love of seafood, we were all commissioning it.
In 1995, with a new and more seaworthy boat, I anchored not 15 but 50 miles from Montauk. Bluefin had become scarce, but there was talk of large numbers of yellowfin. We eased in at the edge of a wide group of boats, and I set out two baited lines while, again, my friends started throwing handfuls of small fish into the sea. As I was setting out a third line, we suddenly hooked three tuna. Again I stacked my table with delicious tuna steaks, friends converged, and the grill worked overtime. But there's a big difference between having to go 50 miles offshore and going 15.
Soon the fish -- smaller, scarcer -- were out of my new boat's range; not worth investing in yet a bigger boat to chase them. And so a thing that I loved became a memory of my youth, the heart-pounding adrenaline highs relegated to the past. In the billion-year-plus history of life in the seas, two decades are a millisecond, but wow, how the world has changed.
In The End of the Line, British journalist Charles Clover describes ordering a mere five ounces of bluefin in Tokyo, where tuna caught around the world are flown in for auction at the world's largest fish market. "The taste was delicious and has remained memorable, as has the guilt," he writes. "That, I resolved, was enough bluefin tuna for a lifetime, or until bluefin numbers miraculously increase."
I pity him. I pity anyone who never experienced a world of plenty, where taking a little piece of nature into one's personal life felt authentic, and did not engender guilt. I'm okay with using what's in the sea -- but not with using it up. Nowadays there's little fun setting lines into a seemingly empty ocean, or eating a fish so beleaguered and rare. The thrill vanished along with the fish, because their abundance was the source of our exhilaration. According to the journal Nature, catch rates for large fish have declined throughout most of the world by an average of 90 percent, but for me the analysis merely pins a number on the obvious.
In his globe-trotting account of the world's collapsing fisheries, Clover investigates the negligent handling of cod in the North Sea, tuna in the Mediterranean, salmon in the Atlantic, and many other debacles. Along the way he talks with fishery managers more concerned with avoiding criticism than with shouldering any responsibility for the long-term viability of our natural resources and coastal communities. As new technologies have made fishing safer for humans and deadlier for fish, the political will to manage the industry effectively has not kept pace. Finding the continental shelves plucked clean, Clover follows fishermen out into the deepest ocean, where trawlers are now being used to rake submerged mountaintops called seamounts, some of which lie deep beneath the surface. International protections for seamounts, home to unique arrays of sea life barely known to science, are nonexistent, and conservationists are scrambling to preserve them before yet another empty barn is left with its doors swinging.
Clover is especially scathing in his criticism of cod management in the North Sea, where scientific advice is ignored as routinely as trawls sweep the seabed for ever-smaller catches of ever-smaller fish. He finds few examples of model management to point to. Of New England's cod fishery he writes, "If this is how one of the best-run fisheries in the developed world is managed, it is not fanciful to suggest that eventually we will be left with only plankton."
Managerial missteps, all ostensibly made to avoid economic pain, inevitably lead to economic collapses anyway. Often the rules are already lax, yet Clover still discovers everyday cheating by many boats whose operators play cat and mouse with authorities, and world-class cheating by outlaw vessels flying "flags of convenience" (registered in countries where enforcement of international agreements is essentially nonexistent) and illegally taking more than their share. Where catches have fallen to the point at which fishing has turned unprofitable, as is the case throughout both the developed and the developing world, perverse subsidies continue to float more boats than the fish can possibly bear. Fish farming is a promising partial alternative but is by no means a panacea, especially where natural habitats are destroyed to make ponds and, too often, more fish are taken from the sea to make feed than are eventually harvested from the pens and ponds.
Clover has calculated that in Great Britain about as many people catch fish as work in the lawn mower industry. He uses this bit of trivia to highlight what he calls "the tyranny of the fisherman's point of view" -- the notion that the immediate needs of the industry should dictate the law of the sea. Here he is not only at his most insightful but also at his most entertaining. "No one would dream of allowing the lawn mower industry alone to dictate the policies of a sovereign state," he writes. "Where this happens the lunatics have truly taken over the asylum." The belief that fishing should be allowed in every last stretch of ocean "breeds a culture that is corrosive. It leads to a clutch of absurd notions that would not be tolerated in any other food business or in agriculture: the belief that scientists are the enemy, that you can cheat biology...that you can set up a regulatory system but (wink) rig it to fail and everyone will be happy."
The appropriate response is not despair, Clover notes, but anger. I agree. These problems have solutions, and the book offers glimpses of them: managers who listen to and implement scientific advice; more protected areas where no fishing is allowed, not just to produce more fish to catch outside the reserves but, perhaps more important, to establish baselines so we can understand the effects of fishing by comparing fished areas with unfished wildlife communities.
I've seen how a problem can be reversed when people work honestly at it. One of the reasons I started venturing offshore for tuna was the decline of near-shore fishing. In 1985, the same year we caught all those tuna in my little boat, I fished all night during the October full moon in one of the very best striped bass haunts on the East Coast, but I could not find a fish. During that mid-eighties nadir, fishery managers finally got tough, closing the fishery temporarily, instituting quotas, and raising minimum sizes to allow females to lay more eggs. It worked. When I went for striped bass recently, we started fishing when the sun went down and began catching 20-pound fish within minutes. It made for a short night: After less than two hours of satisfying fishing, with two fat bass on ice, we headed in.
As offshore fishing has collapsed, some of the near-shore fishing -- on the Atlantic Coast of the United States, anyway -- has been recovering due to better laws, watchdog lawsuits, and science-based management. Problems abound, true. But the plunge of tuna populations caused by negligent managers, juxtaposed with a resounding success story -- the turnaround of the striped bass -- illustrates the two options. "We have on offer two futures," Clover writes. "One requires difficult, active choices starting now. If we don't take those choices, the other future will happen." An empty ocean is not much of an offer.