“Empty Oceans, Empty Nets” is a disturbing documentary on the effects of the reckless overfishing on the world’s marine population. Spanning New England to Africa to the Mediterranean to the Pacific, the film details how the global fisheries are plundering the oceans with such brutal carelessness that aquatic life is vanishing at record levels.

Serial depletion of fish populations is not new – it can be traced back to the 19th century. But in the past two decades, the situation has become increasingly alarming as industrialized fishing operations have depleted local off-shore fish populations and need to go further out to sea to locate their deep sea catches. Using sonar technology to locate the fish, these fleets employ long line hook fishing and industrial trawling sweeps up massive amount of fish. They also sweep up massive amounts of other species not intended for capture. In fact, an annual 20 million metric tons of so-called marine waste (including sharks and sea turtles which die horribly in these nets and on the fishing hooks) are killed and dumped back in the oceans.

“Empty Oceans, Empty Nets” was originally made for PBS, but unlike many public television documentaries it doesn’t mince words about who is to blame here. The film clearly notes the fishing industry is not serious about self-policing itself regarding overfishing and the ecological (let alone economic) problems it creates. It also notes that the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which was designed to halt overfishing, has never been seriously enforced thanks in large part to the fishing industry.

But this is not to say all is lost. The film notes how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska was able to reverse declining trout and salmon populations brought about by years of overfishing, yet this was done with more than a little reluctance by the local fishermen. The film also echoes that a solution involving fishermen and conservationists is possible, although the conservationists seem more eager to pursue it than the fishermen.

Director Steve Cowan keeps this film focused and offers a wealth of expert commentary to detail the problems at hand and their possible solutions. Some of the footage is not pleasant, especially the poor sea turtle whose mouth is snagged on a long line fishing hook. But the message which the film delivers is cogent and compelling, and anyone planning to broil a salmon or open a can of tuna should pause to hear what “Empty Oceans, Empty Nets” has to say.

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