The End of the Line: how a film changed the way we eat fish


Almost five million people have now heard about the expose of fish industry, The End of the Line

Report highlights the lasting impact of The End of the Line in raising awareness of unsustainable fishing practices - and illustrates how radical new film funding models can work

More than one million people have now watched The End of the Line, a groundbreaking expose of the consequences of overfishing, according to an evaluation of the film’s impact.

The film was the first major documentary to look at the impact of overfishing on the world’s oceans with a quarter of the world’s fish stocks being exploited to extinction and a further half at, or close to, their maximum capacity. It highlighted how many of well-known species, including bluefin tuna and cod, are likely to be extinct by 2048.

Although initially watched by less than 10,000 people in the cinema, the film managed to reach a much wider audience of 4.7 million in the UK through a combination of media coverage, strong campaigning - and later - TV screenings. It also inspired a wave of coverage of unsustainable fishing practices, including the recent TV series ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’.

A new report by the Britdoc Foundation said post-film campaign work around the documentary meant that for each film watcher, a further 510 people had heard about it. A quarter of a million people alone watched the film’s trailer on YouTube.

The team behind the film set up consumer focused websites ‘Seafood Watch Widget’ and ‘Fish to Fork’ to allow people to check on the sustainability of popular supermarket fish species. It also advised on restaurants selling fish species listed as endangered by the Marine Stewardship council (MSC).

Restaurant campaign

A campaign to name and shame London restaurants serving endangered fish was launched by one newspaper and in one of the most successful stunts Greenpeace activists joined Charles Clover, the author of the book on which the film is based, in protesting against top London restaurant ‘Nobu’ serving endangered Bluefin tuna. A number of celebrities, including Stephen Fry and Prince Charles also publicly spoke out in support of the film.

Although its total budget was £1 million, partly funded by WWF and the Marine Conservation Society, the report estimates it achieved four times that amount in press and PR value.

Alternative funding models for serious documentaries - including collaborations with NGOs, so-called crowd funding and increasing support from foundations - have been developed in recent years in response to what campaigning film makers perceive as a lack of commitment to tackling controversial issues by mainstream television executives, as well as decreasing budgets.    

A MORI poll in the Spring of 2010 found more than 9 per cent or 4.7 million adults in the UK were aware of The End of the Line, while surveys conducted before and after film screenings showed commitment to buying sustainable fish had doubled. Even 12 months later this commitment was still ‘significantly higher’ than before the screening. Separately, the report noted, an MSC survey showed people agreeing fish numbers were critically low rose from 43 per cent to 56 per cent between 2008 and 2010.

Supermarket pressure

Supermarkets also responded to the film; Waitrose, a partner of the film, stopped selling swordfish after being unable to find a sustainable source. They also reported a 14 per cent increase in sales following publicity around the film. Sainsburys also reported an increase in sales of sustainable fish. While in the week of the film’s release in the UK, Marks & Spencer announced it would no longer sell endangered species like bluefin tuna, switching instead to more sustainable yellowfin or skipjack species in their tuna products.

‘This one retailer sells 20,000 tuna sandwiches per day and so the announcement was very significant. Whilst not referencing The End of the Line as a reason for the move, the timing of the announcement was unlikely to be coincidental,’ says the Britdoc report.

The film’s executive producer Chris Hird said the film’s success was down to timing and the large number of alliances they made with NGOs such as WWF and the MSC. ‘These films work best when there’s already a tide in your favour, when the public are subconsciously aware of an issue but not concentrating on it,’ he said. Chris said it had also inspired chef Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall to make his successful TV series ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’, which aired earlier this year. The idea for it emerged in Channel 4 during 2010 after they saw the response to The End of the Line.’

Reacting to the report, fish conservationists said one the more lasting benefits of the film had been in connecting fish management and marine conservation issues. ‘Fishing science is very often separated from biodiveristy but the film brought them both together for the first time,’ said MSC spokesperson Richard Harrington.

Useful links
Britdoc Foundation report

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