The Silent Ark
7: A Tale of The Sea
Campaigning was at the heart of my new youth strategy when I began
work at the Vegetarian Society and it was paying off. Junior membership
rose from less than 200 to 6,000 in the three years from 1987 to
1990. I had a committed and enthusiastic team and we were influencing
tens of thousands of young people, helping them to become vegetarian,
helping to save animals.
To begin with, in the days before word processors, we tried to
reply to every letter by hand on the day it was received, because
it kills the enthusiasm of young people to wait weeks for a standard,
typed reply. When it got that I was still in the office at 10p.m.
or later, writing away, and the post was bringing 900 new letters
every day, it was obvious the team would have to grow. It did and
I became Youth Education Manager.
We were conducting school talks with a purpose-made video, Food
without Fear, which was a winner at the New York Film and TV Festival.
As a result of a campaign called 'SCREAM!!', which showed the reality
of factory farming, interest in vegetarianism amongst young people
blossomed and the number of school projects on the subject increased
Despite this, school caterers were not responding and were still
largely offering meat and two veg. as school lunch. That led me
to launch the campaign called 'CHOICE!’ aimed at increasing
the number of schools offering a vegetarian alternative for lunch.
It was a huge success, increasing the numbers from around 13 per
cent of all secondary schools to 65 per cent. We all felt delighted
that we were now influencing the nation as a whole.
As the membership grew so did the need for our own magazine and
there was a real sense of achievement when Greenscene was launched,
a 40-page magazine for young people. Eventually, when it was necessary
to pass this on to someone else in the department to run, it was
a sad day for me.
At the same time I was expanding my knowledge of the issues and
this tempered any temptation there might have been to become complacent.
Whatever success we were having it seemed as little compared with
the overall world-wide trends and the universal mass slaughter of
animals. As the 1980s progressed, developing countries began to
adopt the West's appalling intensification methods and were encouraged
to model themselves on us. Environmental destruction accelerated
and I could feel, ever more firmly, the reverberations of human
footprints, metaphorically stamping across the creatures and habitats
of the world. A little was getting better, but an awful lot was
Along with many concerned environmental scientists, I felt the
globe was approaching a watershed when it would be too late to reverse
the devastation and misery which humankind was increasingly spreading.
It was as though our touch was poisoned by some virus and everywhere
we went, everything we handled, we left in a worse condition than
when we found it. Governments took research and found ways of belittling
it; they were given information and warnings and ignored them; they
had the knowledge and resources to change people’s destructive
habits but used those resources to increase the destruction. That’s
how it was then, that’s how I felt then and nothing has changed.
The rape of our oceans typifies the relentless progress towards
greater destruction of creatures and ecosystems. We have the knowledge
to predict the outcome of this onslaught and yet we do nothing to
In March 1994, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(UNFAO) published a paper, State of the World: Fisheries and Aquaculture,
which should have sent a shudder running around the world. It stated
that of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds, nine were facing
potentially catastrophic declines in some species, while the remaining
areas were already being exploited to the limits of their capacity.
When a sober and restrained organization like UNFAO uses the word
‘catastrophe’, it probably means that the four horsemen
of the apocalypse have already been seen taking tea at the Ritz.
However, instead of outrage, the reaction was jingoistic nationalism
and the ensuing debate was not about corrective measures but about
rights and quotas.
The main cause of the crisis is overfishing, but the stocks are
under pressure for other reasons, not least industrial and agricultural
pollution, tourist and fish farm developments and the gradual poisoning
of the entire marine ecosystem by highly toxic chemicals, with heavy
metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, (PCBs) at the top of the list.
To understand the scale and speed of the destruction it’s
important to look at the rate of decline in fish stocks. In 1950,
the known catches of fish around the world amounted to 22 million
tons. By 1989 they had risen to 100 million tons. For the following
three years they dropped to a maximum figure of 97 million tons
despite huge investment in new ships, expensive satellite navigation
systems and fish finders and the purchasing of rights to exploit
the coastal waters of developing countries. Inherent in this decline
is a warning which seems to go unheeded - the seas cannot sustain
the onslaught for much longer.
There have been numerous previous warnings but international fishing
is uncontrollable, and amounts to little more than anarchy. When
restraint has worked for one species it has been at the expense
of others. Once, along the north-east coast of Britain, there were
seemingly endless shoals of herring. By the 1950s the first signs
of decline were obvious, but uncontrolled fishing continued. In
1978 a halt was called, by which time the shoals had been virtually
destroyed. Only now are east-coast herring making something of a
comeback. But such powers of recovery can’t be relied upon.
The 1970s cod war, in which Iceland unilaterally extended its
fishing grounds by imposing a 200-mile (322-km) limit around its
shores, was a sign of things to come. It was brought about by the
profligacy of the British fleets, largely from Grimsby, Hull and
Fleetwood, at that time the largest fishing ports in the world.
Fish was a cheap, plentiful and little-valued commodity and much
of it wasn’t even eaten but finished up in fertilizer factories.
The fish fertilizer factories are still in existence, along with
dozens of other ‘industrial’ users of fish for products
such as catering oils, feed for farmed fish and other animals, and
even oil for candles, and as much as 50 per cent of all fish caught
in the northern hemisphere may end up not on someone’s plate
but in the polish they use to shine their shoes. Some species, such
as sand eels and ling, are caught in their millions of tonnes for
just these purposes.
The Icelandic action to exclude British trawlers was presented
as an action to preserve fish stocks and placed them on the moral
high ground. It was a deceit. In 1985 Icelandic trawlers took 400,000
tonnes of cod from their waters, but even without the predations
of the British fleet, stocks continued to shrink. By 1993 the allowed
catches were reduced by almost a half to 220,000 tonnes. Still stocks
declined. For 1995, allowed catches have been cut to 163,000 tonnes
in the fading hope that numbers will recover.
Part of the problem is the method of fishing used to catch cod
- trawling. Nets like a huge sock are used and the mouth of the
sock can be 70 metres wide. The top is kept open with buoyancy devices
and along the bottom are tickler chains, designed to drive fish
from their hiding places on the bottom and up into the mouth. To
keep the net open, huge, metal-bound, wooden ‘otter’
boards are fixed on either side of the opening at an angle so that
as they are dragged through the water they naturally pull the mouth
of the net open. They can weigh tonnes and crush and grind to destruction
anything in their path. They effectively plough the sea-bed to a
depth of several centimetres, destroying all life in their path.
And they do it day after day in their thousands, to and fro across
the same fishing grounds.
The most recently publicised battles for fish have been between
Spain and Canada off Newfoundland, and between Spain and Britain’s
Cornish fishermen off the Bay of Biscay. The Canadian experience
is even more frightening than Iceland’s and again involves
cod. In 1990, catches totalled 400,000 tonnes and yet a year later
they were down by almost a half. In 1992, they amounted to just
70,000 tonnes and in the following year, they were just a few thousand
tonnes. The environmental costs are incalculable and will affect
a myriad of other creatures who form part of what was once a finely-balanced
All across the world, countries are at each other’s throats
over the right to exploit particular stretches of water. A dispute
over resources is the classic ingredient of warfare and we are seeing
this develop around the globe.
In the summer of 1994 I sailed on a trawler to see the fishing
process - not a deep-sea vessel but one of the smaller, English
south-coast fishing fleet. The method is identical, it is just the
scale which is different. Once the otter boards and nets have been
‘shot’ (lowered), all that serves as a reminder of what’s
happening on the sea-bed are the taut wire hawsers which drag the
net behind the slowly moving vessel. The stench of diesel fuel and
putrefied fish slime is a constant accompaniment.
Once fish enter the net, they are tunnelled down it into a narrow
sleeve known as the ‘cod end’. The first fish in are
dragged along for hours and may 'drown' because in the crush, as
other fish pile on top of them, their gills are unable to extract
oxygen from the water. Then, as they are hauled up through hundreds
of metres of water, the difference in pressure can cause their eyes
to balloon out or their swim bladders to burst.
A common grouse amongst the deckhands and the skipper was ‘fish
quotas’. These were introduced under the EC's Common Fisheries
Policy (CFP) on advice from the International Council for the Exploration
of the Sea (ICES) and are known as Total Allowable Catches (TACs).
Under this scheme, fisher-men are told how many of each species
they may catch, but once they have reached their limit for one type
of fish they are allowed to carry on fishing for other types. Often
different species swim together, such as cod and haddock, so even
though the quota for haddock has been reached they are still caught
together with the cod. There have been numerous press and TV reports
of trawlers with secret holds in which these illegal catches are
hidden, but the more usual course is to return them to the sea.
None of them survive. The official EC figure for discarded haddock
is over 40 per cent of all those caught, but other, independent
estimates, put the figure at 60 per cent.
Those that are still alive when they are thrown back present a
particularly sad spectacle. They form a silver trail astern of the
boat, thrashing their tails spasmodically as they try to dive below
the waves, only to float back up again. Gulls swarm above them,
snatching an easy meal. Some research puts the global proportion
of caught fish returned to the sea as high as 30 per cent. Also
shovelled back with the debris from the net is a selection of every
crawling, creeping and swimming creature which goes to make up the
complex environment of the seabed. They, too, are dead or dying.
The introduction of fish quotas had little to do with conservation
in the first place, but was rather an attempt to ration out the
spoils in order to avoid conflict. It seems to have, if anything,
made matters worse all round.
Fish don’t feel pain! Who could ever have conceived of such
a lame excuse to justify a total absence of controls over how fish
live and die? And who would have believed that so many people could
be taken in by it? Fish have a complex central nervous system and
part of its function is to send messages of pain to the brain. It
is part of a survival mechanism without which fish could not have
One of the fish which cascaded on to the deck of the trawler I
sailed on was a shiny, darkly-mottled plaice the size of a tea tray,
its bright orange spots gleaming in the sunlight. It wasn’t
gutted but tossed into a tray with other flat fish. After two or
three hours I heard it literally croaking. A deckhand, witnessing
my distress, nonchalantly clubbed it, presumably to death. Some
eight hours later I looked down at the pathetic dead creature in
an alien environment and was horrified to see its mouth and its
gill covers opening and closing. Such is the tenacity of life and
the survival abilities of plaice that it was still alive, enduring
a suffocation which had already lasted over 10 hours.
As northern waters are fished out, species such as the plaice
are giving way on the fishmonger’s slab to more exotic types
from all over the world, such as the parrot fish. In fact over 40
per cent of European fish sales are now ‘exotics’.
Diving on the Malindi reef in Kenya and on the largest reef in
the northern hemisphere off Belize, I’ve seen the undersea
world from which these exotics are snatched. I have offered tasty
tit bits and patiently waited while beautifully coloured parrot
fish have found the courage to approach me and accept them. I have
seen the tell-tale puffs of sand which betray the perfectly camouflaged
hiding-place of rays and I have startled schools of dashing yellowtails
into flight. It is a wonderfully colourful and fragile world.
But rather than learn from those practices which have devastated
our home waters, Governments and corporations are exporting the
same ethos to these delicately balanced ecosystems in the developing
world. In the open seas, where no permission is needed, there is
a bonanza of totally uncontrolled fishing where net size, fish size
and catches are without limits. Humankind has never been short of
ingenuity when it comes to killing, and the methods of catching
and killing fish are no exception. They even extend to dynamite
and poison. And a new, even more damaging phenomenon has suddenly
appeared called 'biomass fishing’. Nets of the tiniest gauge
scoop up all living creatures in one destructive haul.
Where fishing grounds fall inside territorial waters, the rights
to exploit them are bought cheaply from Governments desperate for
hard currency with which to service their loans from Western banks.
Those buying the fishing rights are often the same ones who made
the loans in the first place and so the financial merry-go-round
of dependency and impoverishment continues, as it has for decades.
One of the most damaging methods of fishing is the drift net.
Constructed from thin but strong monofilament nylon, these nets
hang down from the surface in what has become known as ‘walls
of death’ and can stretch up to 50 kilometres in length. They
trap squid, tuna and salmon, but also bring death to dolphins, small
whales, turtles, seals, rays and sharks. Traditionally the favoured
method of the Japanese and Taiwanese in the Pacific, they have now
spread to the Atlantic and have been eagerly taken up by European
fishermen as they start the search for new species. The posturing
between Spanish and British West Country fisherman was over precisely
this issue. Jingoism obscured the fact that these nets are responsible
for the death of at least one million small whales and dolphins
Another of the most obscene and rapidly increasing forms of fishing
is ‘finning', carried out by several Asian countries. Sharks
have largely escaped being eaten up to now because their flesh tastes
strongly of ammonia. Unfortunately their fins don’t. So they
are now caught in large numbers - estimates as high as 100 million
annually are given by the Shark Protection League and killed solely
to provide the raw materials for shark’s fin soup. They are
dragged from the water, their fins are cut from them and they are
dropped back into the sea to die from shock and drowning. These
are creatures which have evolved for so long and so perfectly that
they are almost free from disease. Their evolutionary success within
their own environment is in sharp contrast to our own.
Meanwhile, as some species of animal are destroyed wholesale,
others which depend upon them are reduced to hunger. Is it any wonder
that more than 30,000 sea birds were washed up on the shores of
the Shetland Islands in 1994, dead from starvation, and for the
first time ever there are recorded accounts of dolphins off the
British coast attacking seals? It is thought they are so desperate
for food that they have turned on other mammals with whom they have
lived in harmony for millions of years.
As the numbers of fish decline, the demands by the fishing industry
to eliminate the ‘causes’ of declining fish stocks grow
louder. In 1991, the Russians shot 51,000 seals in order to ‘protect’
their fisheries and there are demands for similar culls in Britain.
In 1995 the Canadian Government sanctioned the slaughter of 250,000
seals because of their predation on fish stocks.
In the meantime the overfishing continues. In the North Sea, only
one third of all cod and haddock survive longer than 12 months.
Fish which would normally live for 10 years are being caught before
they have even had time to breed.
The practice of catching immature fish has hit skate so badly
that they have been exterminated from the Irish Sea. Their long
life of 70 years or more and consequent late maturity has been their
In June 1995 the International Council for the Exploration of
the Sea spoke out at a North Sea Protection Conference in Denmark.
This is not a small fringe group without resources to check its
science, but a body which comprises the world’s official scientific
advisers. ICES’s conclusion is that the once teeming shoals
of mackerel are now commercially extinct (i.e. too few to fish)
and unless something dramatic is done, cod will become actually
extinct (non-existent) within five years.
The cost of all this destruction is another problem. According
to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the value of the world’s
total fish catch is reckoned to be around US$ 70 billion, and yet
the costs involved in running the fleets and marketing the fish
is put at $124 billion. The huge discrepancy between the two is
largely covered by subsidies. Not only are the oceans being devastated,
but every one of us is paying for it to happen.
Unfortunately this isn’t the only problem. As a consequence
of dumping sewage, heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs, mostly in
northern waters, Dutch and German surveys have both found that around
40 per cent of flatfish are riddled with cancerous growths, ulcerations
or skin diseases. Researchers have also established that PCBs, amongst
the most toxic of all substances, are now distributed throughout
the food chain of the world’s oceans. They are believed to
have found their way into the fatty tissues of virtually every sea
creature known to us. One of the effects of PCBs is to attack the
immune system and permit diseases such as cancer to prosper.
In a separate piece of research by Greenpeace International, it
was established that almost one third of fish eggs in the North
Sea’s main spawning grounds are malformed and more than half
show abnormalities in their genetic structure.
We are not separate from the world’s food chain but integral
to it. The billions of pounds spent on quilted lavatory paper and
underarm deodorants cannot alter our status as just another animal.
The PCBs which lurk in fatty tissues elsewhere also lurk in our
own and the problem is more acute for meat eaters than vegetarians
and particularly vegans.
The current answer to the overfishing problem is aquaculture fish
farming. But these intensified methods of production are no less
damaging than the rape of the wild - and in many ways are dependent
One of the first species to be farmed was the salmon, a fish which
has thrilled and excited us with its amazing migrations from ocean
to stream and back again, so powerful and determined that it will
leap over or swim vertically up waterfalls. What have we done with
this wonder of nature? We have tried to breed out of it its amazing
homing instincts and suspended it in netted containers in lochs
and fjords. It is like caging swallows.
Dense population makes fish, like people, more vulnerable to the
spread of disease. Sea lice have thrived in fish farms and have
spread out through the surrounding water to infect wild fish. In
some areas, stocks of wild sea trout have dropped by 80 per cent
because of them. The toxic pesticide Dichlorvos, used to counteract
the lice, is on the UK Government’s Department of the Environment’s
'red list’ as one of the 24 most toxic substances used in
Britain. Effective down to concentrations as 0.1 part per million,
it also wipes out crustaceans, shellfish and other marine life.
It can cause cataracts in and the penned fish and 55 per cent of
wild salmon are also developing them. A partially-sighted or blind
salmon is not likely to fare too well in the survival stakes.
Of course, the lice have started to show a resistance to Dichlorvos,
so salmon farmers are switching to another chemical called Invermectin,
the effects of which are unknown.
The sea-beds beneath the cages of fish farms and the surrounding
areas are environmental black spots - literally. Faeces and uneaten
food pellets form a sludge on which algae thrives. This can result
in toxic ‘blooms’. It is necessary to move the cages
regularly - and subsequently spread the problem elsewhere.
The awful irony of farmed fish production is their diet - from
fish food pellets derived from the slaughterhouse but also caught
in the wild specifically for the purpose. Try and work out the sense
The finest indication we have of lack of concern for fish is the
absence of regulations governing how they’re killed. With
farmed fish that is a huge number - over 50 million each year in
Britain. The proliferation of ways in which stunning and death are
dispensed shows imagination, if nothing else. Some are hit over
the head with a piece of wood called a ‘priest’, a word
and a method borrowed from ‘sport’ fishermen. Others
are cut behind the gills so they bleed to death. Increasingly, fish
are passed through a tank containing water saturated with carbon
dioxide. One of the most popular methods is to take salmon from
the water and immediately immerse them in crushed ice, where they
slowly suffocate. This, apparently, is the best way of maintaining
flesh quality. It also prolongs the consciousness distress and suffering
of the fish.
A study carried out by Bristol University’s Department of
Meat Science examined all these methods and found them wanting.
It discovered that fish were often fully aware of what was happening
to them even when they were lying still, supposedly unconscious
or dead from one or other of these methods. Perhaps if we imagine
how we would feel being immersed in an alien world, where we can’t
even breathe, we can begin to empathize with the plight of these
creatures who are so often dismissed as cold and unfeeling.
Across the world aquaculture is largely used to produce expensive
species for which people will pay plenty of money - prawns, shrimps,
trout, salmon, yellowtails. And the coastal areas chosen for the
farms are usually the mangrove swamps, seen as useless areas ripe
for exploitation. In fact they provide the most productive and important
habitat in the oceans. Ninety per cent of marine fish rely upon
the amazing diversity provided by mangroves, particularly for spawning,
and over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants thrive there.
They prevent flooding, stop erosion, are the nursery of ocean life
and are being ripped up faster than anyone can count. Indonesia,
the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Panama wherever you
look, clearance is rampant. The sub-tropical regions of the world
have lost 70 per cent of all mangrove forests since 1960, largely
to fish farming. After a few years, farms have to move on, leaving
As if all this wasn’t enough, the reducing levels of ozone
in the stratosphere may also have a dramatic impact on the oceans.
The loss of ozone is one of the most worrying of many current environmental
disasters. The Antarctic hole has been joined by a new one over
the Arctic and smaller holes are appearing elsewhere. Not accidentally,
I believe, people are encouraged to think that at worst all it will
result in is a few extra skin cancers and cataracts. If only!
It is the greater concentrations of ultraviolet light which are
penetrating to the Earth’s surface which are the problem.
It is known that increases of 10 per cent can kill anchovy fry down
to a depth of one metre, but for some periods of the year the figure
is already 40 per cent. The real fear is that the increasing levels
of ultraviolet will not only kill fish fry but also attack and destroy
phytoplankton - the oceans’ pastures, the vegetable base of
its entire food chain and the producer of 80 per cent of the world’s
oxygen. The consequences are almost unimaginable.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, used in refrigeration and foam manufacture)
play a major role in ozone depletion but the enormous scale of livestock
production world-wide also makes a contribution. Methane emissions
from cattle and nitrous oxide from fertilizers, largely used to
grow animal fodder, both produce ozone-destroying chemicals.
Even if there were concerted world action tomorrow, it would be
decades before the effects were felt. There are now restrictions
on the use of CFCs and PCBS, but in both cases they will continue
to be released into the environment for possibly a further 70 years.
There are no proposals to curb the number of animals. It is these
delayed effects which ensure that we will have stepped over the
threshold of no return long before we realize it.
If we as a species can create such a devastating impact in so
few years, what on Earth does the future hold? Fortunately, individuals
can influence the outcome and the easiest step you can take to distance
yourself from this global nervous breakdown is to stop eating fish
and other creatures from the sea. Simple really!
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