The End of the Line

Despite the glitz, this is a shocking documentary

I have a new hero. His name is Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, and he is a fisherman-turned-whistleblower. I am not entirely sure where Bregazzi is from; his name suggests that he is Italian, but he looks (and sounds) Swedish. Think Wallander before Kenneth Branagh got his sticky hands on him, and you're halfway there: fair-haired, portly, possibly a little gloomy, probably likes a drink. Also, a touch noble.

Bregazzi is certainly a touch noble. He spends his days flying around the world, desperately trying to police fishing quotas for the imperilled bluefin tuna.

Give him a pair of binoculars, and he can spot an illegal catch at 500 yards. At a nameless port somewhere in Europe, he considered some suspiciously bounteous fish that he could see being loaded into a container. "One of those containers holds more bluefin than a country like Taiwan declares [having landed] at the end of a whole season," he said. What he failed to add is that in Taiwan, the people love bluefin even more than they do a Burberry trench.

Bregazzi was one of the stars of The End of the Line (20 October, 10pm), a film based on the book of the same name by the journalist Charles Clover. As a piece of entertainment, The End of the Line had several faults. It was too long; it had a soundtrack so overblown that it was verging on the hysterical; and it was cursed with an ickily sombre narration by Ted Danson, late of Cheers - I guess because its producers plan on flogging it to nature channels across the Atlantic, where tastes are glitzy even when it comes to marine biology. But never mind. It did its work, all the same, the terrifying statistics piling up like lobster claws on the side of a New England dinner plate.

Our fishing capacity is now so great that it could, in theory, catch the world's catastro­phically depleted fish stocks four times over. The long-lining industry sets more than a billion hooks each year on enough line to encircle the globe 550 times. Inside the ravenous maw of the world's biggest trawlers, you can fit 13 Boeing 747s. Marine reserves, where fishing is now forbidden, comprise just 0.6 per cent of the world's oceans. Some 50 per cent of North Sea cod is illegally fished. It takes five kilos of dead anchovies to produce just one kilo of farmed salmon. Fish is an important part of the diet of roughly 1.2 billion people. On and on it went, a catalogue of woe as unimaginably vast as the sea itself.

How close are we to the last fish? Very. If things go on as they are, there is every chance that by 2048, a fish supper will consist of plankton pressed into a delightful fishlike shape.

I read Clover's book some years ago, but this film worked on me in a way his prose failed to do. It was the sadness in people's faces: the sweet-faced scientists, trying desperately to be optimistic, and the even sweeter-faced Senegalese fishermen, pushed out of their own waters by international vessels with which they can never hope to compete. Also, the sight of shoals of bluefin cutting through a turquoise sea, like miniature Zeppelins crossing a summer sky. Why, I wonder, must people go on eating bluefin tuna? We are less than a decade away from this fish's extinction, yet still it remains on menus at restaurants such as Nobu, and still people choose to eat their dinner there.

Not that there aren't plenty of other baddies. Mitsubishi, the Japanese electronics and car giant, now controls 60 per cent of bluefin tuna production worldwide. This film expressed the fear that the company cares not a fig about the fish's demise. Is it already freezing supplies so that it can cash in when the last bluefin is pulled from the sea and prices climb even higher? This was the suggestion, horrifying as it seemed.

Bregazzi looked fearless and determined; he pulled on his cigarette in a way that caused me to believe that he could not be bought, or easily made afraid. But still, I do not think that we should leave the job to him. There are certain brand names I won't be buying in the future, and at least one swanky restaurant I would not visit even if it was your shout.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London