Fish Consumption and By-Catch
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM FOOD FOR THOUGHT - From Compassionate by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
May 30, 2007


Most of us don't think too much about it and the rest of us are unaware that our consumption of fish leads to the demise of other fish, cetaceans (such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises), birds, and ecosystems. Now, for me – like for many people – fish were the last animals I stopped eating. First were land animals (though hoofed animals did come before birds), then aquatic animals and their secretions (ya know fish eggs), then the secretions from land animals – chicken’s eggs and cow’s milk. So, at the time I was still eating fish – and mind you, I was an animal advocate at the time – totally missing the boat on my role in the suffering of aquatic animals – I remember starting a conversation with my now-husband, who joined me on this journey when we met over 12 years ago. I wanted to explore why we – not just us specifically but humans in general – could eat certain animals and be appalled at eating others. Was it the cute factor? Was it size? Was it their similarity to – or lack thereof –humans? Our ability to identify with them? Have relationships with them – or not? What was it?

As David and I talked about this, we tried to come up with a reason we were able to justify eating aquatic animals and not eating land animals - insofar as we were even doing it consciously. Every avenue we went down, we just couldn’t do it. We just couldn’t find a good enough reason. Excuses? Yes. Justifications? Yes. Solid reasons that were good enough to make us feel comfortable eating them? No. And I remember saying – damn, well, we can’t keep eating them. That’s it. I just can’t do it. And so we stopped. That was it. Fish were out.

I mentioned in another episode that one of my blocks – even though I was eating other fish – was lobster, because I could see the whole body and had to break the body myself in order to eat it. Couldn’t do it – I could see it for what it was – ya know a body – a head, eyes, legs. And now, when I think back to eating shrimp – the idea of just biting into their entire body – just breaking the body with my teeth is repulsive to me. I just hate thinking about it. But I did it for a long time. And now I’m glad I don’t do anymore.

So, we have a lot to talk about, and I thought we would start with one of the aspects of fishing that we don’t think about a lot – we don’t hear about a lot, and that’s the inevitable, expected, inherent part of commercial fishing called by-catch.

I had been planning on covering this topic for a long time, but it was an email I received that inspired me to put it at the top of the queue. I’ll just read you a bit of the email – it’s from a gentleman named Karl, who lives in Arizona.

“Since in every podcast you ask about topic suggestions I will mention something that was one of the hardest things for me personally to give up: Sushi. I thought I would never give up fish until I saw a video podcast by Greenpeace, called “Thanks for all the Fish,” which shows a legal fishing boat as they pull up their catch. In the podcast, they show how many endangered animals they legally pull up and kill. This podcast above all other arguments changed my mind about eating fish.”

We often hear the quote: "10 billion animals are killed for human consumption every year in the United States. Worldwide, I believe it’s 45 billion," but it’s more accurate to say that “10 billion LAND animals are killed for human consumption every year in the U.S. Otherwise, we’re just disregarding the billions of aquatic animals killed for the same purpose – human appetites. Although the number of aquatic animals killed for consumption in the United States goes unreported, annual estimates are more than 17 billion in the U.S. alone, and sport fishing and angling kills another 245 million animals annually. So, basically, we’re talking about over 27 billion animals – both land and aquatic – being killed every year in the U.S. so we humans can eat them. We’re not talking about survival – we’re talking about appetite. And these numbers don’t count the millions of aquatic animals killed as incidental catch.

By-catch refers to unintended or unwanted animals caught by the fishing industry. It is estimated that by-catch-related mortality is causing population declines in 13 out of the 44 species of marine mammals that are suffering high death rates from human activities. Commercial fishers use a number of techniques for ensnaring animals, from setting miles of line and baited hooks (called longlines) to catch animals such as sharks, swordfish, and tuna; to using large nets to catch schools of fish. These large nets are towed underwater by what are called trawlers. A trawler is a fishing vessel designed for the purpose of operating a trawl, a type of fishing net that is dragged along the bottom of the sea (or sometimes just above the bottom at a specified depth).

A single pass of a trawl removes up to 20% of the seafloor fauna and flora. And the fisheries with the highest levels of by-catch are shrimp fisheries: 80%-90% of a catch may consist of marine species other than the shrimp being targeted. I just wanna make sure you heard that: 80%-90% of the animals caught in these nets that are targeting shrimp and prawns are actually non-target animals – they’re by-catch.

Shrimp are bottom-dwellers, which is why trawling nets are used to – remove them from the ocean. Since even jumbo shrimp are really small, the nets used to catch the shrimp are very fine, which means these nets scoop up all the animals – all the life – found on the ocean’s floor. According to a 2003 U.S. News and World Report article on fishing and its detrimental affects on the oceans of the world, every pound of shrimp that’s caught results in the killing of ten pounds of other marine life. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, in the Gulf of Thailand it can be 14 pounds of by-catch per pound of shrimp.

Now, a lot of the dead by-catch is made up of tiny animals that people don’t have emotional attachments to – you know, they may not be cute like baby seals or dolphins – but they contribute to the oceans’ biodiversity and they have a right to be there – to live.

The other thing to consider is that the dredging along the ocean floor also breaks up coral and the habitats of bottom-dwellers. And because the same areas are dredged again and again, it’s not like these habitats and inhabitants have time to recover before being destroyed again. So, if you consider yourself an “environmentalist,” and most people do - it’s something to consider. Fish populations, communities, and ecosystems are being destroyed so we can have shrimp cocktail – and I used to eat that. I used to eat shrimp cocktail.

Now - by-catch is often discarded back into the ocean already dead or dying. Many are half-alive and die slow, unnecessary deaths. Trawl nets in general, and shrimp trawls in particular where the discard may be 90% of the catch, have been identified as sources of mortality for many species of concern, including endangered animals and cetaceans, such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. Sea turtles, already endangered, have been killed by the thousands in shrimp trawl nets.

Another way to put this is anywhere between 6.8 million and 27 million tons of fish could be being discarded each year. It’s hard to get exact numbers, but part of the problem is that we tend to have pretty myopic vision. We may be looking at the one fish on our plate or the 5 shrimp in our seafood salad, but countless numbers of animals were dredged up and killed for the individuals we see on our own plates.

Now, we’ve been talking primarily about the by-catch caused by trawling nets and shrimp nets, but there are other commercial fishing methods that also result in by-catch. Nets tend to kill cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales), and longline fishing kills birds, for instance. As for the first group, an estimated 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) die as by-catch each year, because they are unable to escape when caught in nets. So, you may not think cod fish are particularly cute, but most people get pretty emotional about whales, dolphins, and porpoises. So, if we don’t consider the cod, perhaps we can consider the animals for whom we do have sympathy.

It has been estimated that a staggering 100 million sharks and rays are caught and discarded each year. Tuna fisheries, which in the past had high dolphin by-catch levels, are still responsible for the death of many sharks.

Again, sharks don’t inspire warm cuddly feelings and they’re perceived as a great menace to humans. In reality, sharks typically attack fewer than 100 people per year, killing fewer than 20, and it’s not because they’re evil; it’s because they think we’re prey, because, as noted by the International Shark Attack File, human population growth means more people in the water every year. And, continued human pollution means less habitable water for sharks. In addition to the millions of sharks we kill each year as by-catch, we kill between 26 to 73 million sharks for their fins alone. It’s common practice to catch the sharks, cut off their fins, then throw their dismembered bodies back into the ocean. Just the thought of that is so, so disturbing to me. So, even if you might not want to cuddle up next to a shark, it doesn’t mean they deserve what we do to them. They’re victims of our appetites as well.

I mentioned birds being killed in long lines, and I just wanted to follow up on that. Birds dive for the bait planted on long fishing lines, they swallow the bait along with the hook, are pulled under the water, and drown. Around 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longline fisheries every year, particularly where tuna are fished, and because of this, many species are facing extinction. This is very prevalent in the waters off Chile, where sea bass is aggressively hunted by boats towing fifty-mile longlines. 50 miles long!

The public became aware of the problems of by-catch in the 1980s when campaigns were led against tuna companies for harming and killing dolphins when tuna were the targets. The relationship between dolphins and tuna is that yellowfin tuna follow and school beneath dolphins, so fishing fleets would look for dolphins on the surface, herd them and encircle them and set out the nets to catch the tuna – ensnaring the dolphins at the same time. An estimated 7 million dolphins have been killed by this fishing method over the past four decades, the largest marine mammal kill in history.

In 1986, the International Marine Mammal Project organized a campaign, including a consumer boycott of tuna, in order to urge U.S. tuna companies to end the practice of intentionally chasing and netting dolphins and to adopt "Dolphin Safe" fishing practices to prevent the drowning of dolphins in tuna nets. Dolphins are mammals and don’t have gills, so they drown while stuck in the nets underwater. There are other standards that a company must adhere to in order to label their tuna “dolphin-safe,” but it’s worth noting that just because it says “dolphin-safe” or “dolphin-friendly,” its doesn’t mean that dolphins were not killed in the production of a particular tin of tuna. It means that the fleet which caught the tuna did not specifically target a pod of dolphins.

Though the numbers are down since new techniques are used to catch tuna (400,000 dolphins killed annually in the 1960s and 100,000 in the 1980s), several thousand dolphins are still killed each year to satisfy our appetites for tuna. Dolphins, social, playful, intelligent animals, are also killed as by-catch in nets targeting trout. According to a 2003 BBC story by Alex Kirby called “Nets Kill 800 Cetaceans a Day,” more than 800 dolphins, porpoises, and whales die every day as they get tangled in fishing nets – that’s 300,000 every year.

Turtles are also common victims. Sea turtles are killed by the thousands. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 sea turtles die each year after getting hooked on longlines. Six of the seven species of marine turtles are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered, and the outlook is increasingly grim. In the Pacific, leatherbacks are heading for extinction, fast, and in the Mediterranean, green turtle numbers have plummeted. Though pollution and disease contribute to this, the nets and long-lines of fishing fleets play a major role in their demise.

According to Duke University who recently conducted a global assessment of the problem, more than 250,000 loggerhead and 60,000 leatherback turtles are snared each year by commercial longline fishing, and tens of thousands die. The authors estimated that longline fleets from 40 different countries set about 1.4 billion hooks in the studied year of 2000 the equivalent of about 3.8 million hooks each day.

Again, longlines are fishing lines that can stretch for 40 miles and dangle thousands of individually baited hooks. They are set at optimal depths and times to catch tuna and swordfish, shark, and other fish, and according to the data studied, the turtles most often die – not by drowning by some kind of injury related to hooking or entangling.

Another by-product of the fishing industry is the brutal death of baby seals. Because of the Overfishing of cod by the Canadian fishing industry in eastern Canada – in the Atlantic Ocean for Newfoundland’s northeast coast, the cod population declined to such a degree that the government stepped in the late 1980s and imposed severe restrictions on commercial fishing. But it was too late. Because of overfishing, the fishery collapsed, never recovered (and never will), and the ecosystem changed such that it was no longer able to support cod fish.

What does all this have to do with the seals, you ask? Scapegoating the seals for the collapse of the cod fisheries, fishermen demanded a kill. In 2003, the Canadian government bowed to pressure from the fishing industry and ordered the massacre of hundreds of thousands of seals, declaring war on the seals in hopes that massive seal kills will bring back the cod and keep their disgruntled fishermen working. In fact, cod is not a major food source of the harp and hood seal diet.

Further, recent evidence suggests that killing seals contributes to bacterial infestation on the ocean floor which leads to hypoxia, a condition in which patches of ocean lose all the dissolved oxygen and are unable to sustain cod or fish or marine life of any kind. However, these facts seem to have been brushed aside by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in their efforts to justify and continue the slaughter. During the 3-year period of 2003-2005, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) allowed a kill quota of 975,000 baby and adult harp seals and 30,000 adult hood seals. When the "struck and lost" seals are included (these are the animals who’ve been hit but lost in the icy waters), the total killed exceeds one million, making this the largest marine mammal slaughter in the world.

To find as many avenues as possible to profit from the annual, government-subsidized slaughter, Canada exports sealskins (furskins/pelts and leather), seal oil, and seal meat. Unfortunately, the demand for seal pelts has sky-rocketed, especially in Europe. Though seal meat isn’t doing so well, the Canadian government is trying to find markets for the bodies of the skinned seals.

The kill continues to this day; even as I write this. The quota for the 2007 massacre is 270,000, and as I write this, 213,000 have been killed this year. Visit for more information about this horrific annual slaughter.

[Editor's Note: see the protect seals action alert for March 20, 2008 for updated details and information on how to help end this barbaric industry.]

Finally, while we’re talking about by-products/effects (not just by-catch), there is another by-product of consuming aquatic animals that went under the radar screen when an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in southeast Asia destroyed lives and communities at the end of 2004. Over 200,000 human lives were lost and uncounted non-human lives. Experts agree that the destruction of coral reefs and mangrove trees played a significant role in the destruction caused by the tsunami. In many countries across Asia, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, mangroves stood all along the coasts in shallow waters. They offered protection against things like tsunamis. Over the last 20-30 years, they were cleared for shrimp or prawn farms. The shrimps and prawns are sold to Europeans and other foreigners at a price that does not take into account the environmental cost. The destruction of the coasts was also due to the building of large resorts where they should never have been built.

Of course, there are efforts to rebuild the shrimp farms, and we’ll see if we learn anything from the disaster. I’m a little skeptical, considering the fact that worldwide, shrimp farming has grown at an annual average of over 18% since 1970, and is the single most valuable internationally traded seafood product worldwide, valued at an estimated $50-60 billion at the point of retail.

So the cost of our consumption of aquatic animals is extremely high. Not just to the target species who were living perfectly lovely lives before we come along and snatch them out of their homes but also to the non-target species and entire ecosystems. And this is just one aspect of this issue. We have yet to talk about all the others, including factory-farm raising fish, the pollution in the ocean, the fishing of smaller fish to feed to the larger fish we raise to eat, the toxins, such as mercury, in the fish that we consume when we eat their bodies, the research that supports the fact that fish feel pain, the human health concerns of eating fish, the problems with “catch and release sport fishing,” and more. I can do an entire podcast on salmon alone and the many problems with consuming it – from the problems with farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which is probably one of the worst choices we could make: The fish are raise in cramped pens in the ocean; their waste pollutes the surrounding water and spreads disease to wild fish. In the Pacific, escaped farm-raised salmon also compete with wild fish for food and interfere with spawning. Furthermore, salmon are fed a diet of fish meal (tinted to give their flesh that characteristic "salmon pink" color) which further depletes the ocean food chain. Wild Washington or Oregon salmon is a poor choice since overfishing and habitat destruction have endangered many species.

Anyway, just some food for thought before we return to this topic. And do re-visit the podcast called "Skip the Middle Man" to answer your questions about the importance of Omega 3 fatty acids – not from fish but from plant sources. Because don’t forget: the fish have to consume the fatty acids from the phytoplankton, from the algae. If they don’t consume it, they don’t have it in their flesh.

Until next time, consider this: A recent issue of Fish and Fisheries Magazine cited more than 500 research papers on fish intelligence, proving that fish are smart, that they can use tools, and that they have impressive long-term memories and sophisticated social structures. The introductory chapter said that fish are "steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation … exhibiting stable cultural traditions and cooperating to inspect predators and catch food." With that in mind, my hope is that each of us questions what criteria we use to determine the value of an animal’s life. To determine who deserves to be spared pain, to determine who has a right to live free from harm, free from suffering, free from premature and unnecessary death.

May our hearts be large enough to include not only those with whom we can identify, with whom we can communicate. May our compassion be unbiased enough to embrace those who don’t look us, those who don’t sound like us. May we be as fascinated by our differences as we are consoled by our similarities. We don’t need to travel to other planets to find interesting, exotic, different life forms. They exist right here, right now, on the earth and in the sea. We would recognize them - if we could just get the way long enough to look through a different lens, a broader lens.

- Colleen Patrick-Goudreau -

See Also:

Return to Animal Rights Articles