Some people who give up eating meat and poultry continue to eat fish
in the belief that it is a healthy food and that fishing is less
cruel and environmentally destructive than farming. Nothing could be
from the truth.
There is no question that fish caught for food suffer. Numerous
scientific reports have examined the question of whether fish feel
pain and all recent
investigations have supported the conclusion that they do. In July
2004 the European Food Safety Authority issued a report on slaughter
they examined the killing of farmed fish. They concluded that “many
existing commercial killing methods expose fish to substantial suffering
over a long period of time.” They also noted that “asphyxia/asphyxia
in ice . . . and bleeding out/exsanguination are not humane methods for
killing fish.” Asphyxia – being starved of oxygen - is the
method by which wild, trawled fish are killed. It is a horrible death – far
worse, indeed, than that faced by most land animals.
Commercial fishing of the oceans has decimated both fish stocks
and the aquatic environment. Herring, cod, hake, redfish and mackerel
are the fish species that are most commonly exploited commercially
across the world - some of which are close to becoming extinct as
a result of overfishing. There are several methods used for commercial
Trawlers, some the size of football fields, work non-stop across the oceans'
fishing grounds, backwards and forwards in a never-ending process which scoops
up huge quantities of fish and destroys the sea bed and the creatures that
live there. Nets like huge tapering bags are used, and the mouth of the bag
can be 224 ft. wide! It is kept open by huge, metal-bound trawl (otter) boards
that can weigh tons. They are dragged across the ocean floor and crush and
grind to destruction anything in their path.
A variant is the beam trawl, where a long metal beam is fixed to
the underside of the net's opening. Floatation devices keep the mouth
of the net open and dangling from the beam are 'tickler' chains,
which drag along the bottom forcing almost every creature from its
hiding place into the mouth of the net.
Between 60 and 80 million tons of fish are caught from the seas
of the world each year by trawling. The total for all methods is
about 100 million tons. Fish that are too small, non-target species
or species with no commercial value are discarded. This can include
almost every creature from the sea or sea bed - sea urchins, brittle
stars, crabs, dolphins, seals and sea-birds.
As shrimp nets are dragged through the water, they catch every living
creature in their path - trapping both shrimp and unwanted fish and
sea turtles. Sea turtles caught in shrimp nets are held under water
until they drown. Thousands of endangered sea turtles are killed
in this way every year.
The ecological balance of the oceans is disturbed when the catch
rate exceeds the natural reproduction rate. This is overfishing.
All 17 of the world's major fisheries have either reached or exceeded
their limits. The North Sea is cleared of a quarter of its fish every
Drift nets hang like curtains from the surface of the sea. Constructed from
thin but strong monofilament nylon, they are virtually invisible to all sea
life. They can be up to an incredible 30 miles long. The target fish are
often tuna, but as dolphins tend to congregate where tuna swim, they too
die in large numbers. Rays, sharks, sea birds and small whales all become
entangled in these ghostly nets.
It is not uncommon for nets to become detached in rough weather
and float away to kill large numbers of animals and birds. When weighed
down with dead bodies they sink to the bottom but once the carcasses
have rotted, they float back to the surface and continue their destruction.
Thousands of dolphins, porpoises, small whales, sea lions and walruses
are killed by drift nets each year.
After years of campaigning, drift nets were banned by the EU from
1 January 2002 in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Sadly, the Baltic
Sea was exempted after lobbying by Demmark, Sweden and Finland who
continue to use this destructive fishing technique with their 350
Purse Seine Netting
A purse seine net is suspended from the surface, the bottom of it many fathoms
below the surface. The boat pays out the net in a complete circle so the
effect is like that of a tube of netting hanging down, surrounding the target
shoal of fish. A kind of drawstring at the bottom of the net is pulled tight
so the net represents a purse with an open top but a closed bottom. The top
is then also closed and the net hauled inboard. Again, tuna are the main
target, but again, dolphins also get trapped and drown.
Many birds, including razor-bills, cormorants, and puffins, feed mainly on
sand eels, sprats and small herrings, all of which are heavily exploited
by fishermen. In 1994, overfishing in the North Sea was believed to have
caused about 100,000 birds to starve and the problem seems to be worsening.
Commercial fishermen often blame the low numbers of fish on local
wildlife and demand ‘culling’ to solve the problem. As
a result, seals have been killed in their thousands - 51,000 in Russia
and 250,000 in Canada in 1996 and there are similar demands being
made in Britain. In February 1999, a proposal was presented to the
US Congress by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fishermen
and ‘resource’ managers to shoot Pacific harbour seals
and Californian sea lions along the coasts of California, Oregon
and Washington to protect the dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead
and to reduce competition for fish between these pinnipeds and humans.
Fish - a healthy option?
Fish is often claimed to be a healthy food but the flesh of fish often stores
dangerous contaminants, such as PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals and even radioactive
materials. PCBs and dioxins are suspected of causing cancer, nervous system
disorders and foetal damage. Toxic metals in fish like cadmium, mercury,
lead and arsenic can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and
mental retardation to cancer. They can be especially dangerous to unborn
children. Fortunately, the healthful substances found in fish can be obtained
from plant sources which contain no risk of contamination. For more information
Overfishing and the subsequent collapse of many commercial
fisheries has led to an increase in fish farming. The increase
in the number
of fish farms has adversely affected wild fish populations. Many
fish farms are found in coastal regions of the world. In the
Scottish lochs, where many of the UK’s fish farms are found,
there is a slow exchange rate of water, lochs containing fish
have unnaturally higher nutrient levels and eutrophic conditions
which inevitably lead to more frequent algal blooms.
There has been a dramatic rise in the amount of factory farmed
salmon produced in Scotland. There are 340 salmon farms in Scotland,
in 1980 the amount of salmon produced was 800 tonnes, in 2000 it
was 127,000 tonnes. Salmon are carnivorous, a large proportion of
the oceanic catch is caught to feed them - it takes 5 tons of fish
caught from the sea to produce one ton of factory farmed salmon.
Inland factory-farmed fish are kept in shallow concrete troughs.
The intensive crowding – as many as five fish per square foot – spreads
infection and parasites, so factory fish farmers use antibiotics
to get more fish fatter faster.
Parasites commonly found on factory farmed fish are also infecting
wild populations - wild fish would never come into contact with more
than a few lice during their lifetime. Increasing numbers of fish
farms has led to increasing numbers of lice in waters which effectively
eat fish alive.
Besides antibiotics, growth promoting drugs and disinfectants,
other chemicals used in fish farming include the pigment Canthaxanthin,
used to turn the fish's flesh from its natural grey to pink. Canthaxanthin
is banned as an additive in food but fed to fish which are bred to
be eaten. It is banned in the USA because it is believed to be carcinogenic.
According to the executive director of the Marine Aquatic Association,
farmed salmon are pale because they are denied their natural carotenoid-rich
As well as altering the natural balance of coastal waters, fish farms attract
fish-eating wildlife. So the fish farmers often try to protect their stocks
by killing the wildlife, including seals, otters, guillemots, herons, dolphins,
porpoises and basking sharks.
On March 4, 1998, a federal law in the US took effect that allows
fish farmers in 13 states to kill unlimited numbers of cormorants
to protect their profits. The US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates
that 92,000 of these birds will be killed by fish farmers each year—about
5 to 10 per cent of the North American population.
Seabird numbers plummet as a result of overfishing, while the catch
is fed to carnivorous fish and herbivorous livestock as high protein
Northern Hemisphere fish farms are commonly found in the same coastal areas
as those polluted by industry, human sewage and agriculture. It is inevitable
that fish will take in some of the toxins and concentrate them.
Fish farms also cause their own pollution. One ton of farmed trout
produces pollution equal to the untreated sewage of 200-300 people.
It has been estimated that the amount of pollution in Scotland due
to ammonia output from fish farming is comparable to sewage produced
by 9.4 million people. Faeces and food pellets are concentrated around
the netted underwater cage, but the bulk accumulates beneath the
cages. This toxic build-up causes de-oxygenation and can adversely
affect local wildlife communities. Eutrophication can occur as the
water is enriched with nitrates, phosphates and nitrogenous waste
Unfortunately, fish farming is now a global phenomenon for expensive
creatures such as prawns and yellow tails. The coastal areas chosen
for the farms are usually 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 the mangroves, particularly
for spawning. Over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants
Mangroves act as buffers, they prevent flooding, stop erosion and
are the nursery of ocean life - and they are being ripped up faster
than anyone can count. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand,
Ecuador, Panama - clearance is rampant everywhere. The subtropical
regions of the world have lost 70 per cent of all mangrove swamps
since 1960, largely to fish farming. The construction of fish farms
has led to the decline in wild populations of fish and shell fish
in particular. Mangroves are destroyed as more farms are built, however
farms rely upon wild larvae to stock them, but numbers are dwindling
because they are destroying the very habitat from which they originate.
After a few years the farms have to be moved, cutting down yet more
mangroves. Desolation is left behind.