Exactly how many wild caught fish do we consume (either directly, or as fishmeal) every year? Unlike land animals, there are no such records. A recent groundbreaking study from fishcount.org.uk, titled Worse things happen at sea: the welfare of wild-caught fish, is the first such attempt to put numbers to the great quantities of aquatic animals we eat. Using the reported tonnage of caught species, and dividing by the average weight of each species, author Alison Mood has estimated the annual global capture of wild fish at one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) and possibly as high as 2.7 trillion (2,700,000,000,000).1 This does not even account for the number of fish caught illegally or as bycatch. The number becomes particularly staggering, when compared to the United Nation's estimate of 60 billion land animals killed each year for human consumption.2 [UN stats]
Fish on farms are crammed into progressively smaller spaces until death losses outweigh profits.
People sometimes turn to fish in an attempt to avoid the factory farmed meat of animals like chickens, cows, and pigs. However, farm-raised fish, which has been described as "as much a part of the industrial food chain as a fast-food burger", now accounts for about half of the fish we eat.3 4 A New York Times article, published in June of 2009, describes farmed fish as "the cage-raised chickens of the sea."5
The most commonly farmed fish in Canada is salmon, followed by trout, steelhead, and various shellfish. British Columbia has the greatest number of fish farms in the country, followed by New Brunswick. As of 2010, there are about 700 fish farms in BC, up from just 125 in 2003.6 7
Kept in a series of cages, farmed fish often suffer from overcrowding. In British Columbia, there are no laws specifying how many fish can be in a cage, though the average is 35,000 to 50,000.8 Just as on farms for land animals, this overcrowding results in infestations and disease, problems which are solved through the use of chemicals and antibiotics. Farmed salmon are actually fed more antibiotics per pound of weight than any other livestock in North America9 and this liberal usage has serious consequences for the environment. (Learn more about these dangers in the Environmental Issues section.)
The crowding causes other stresses for the captive fish, who can develop sores on their gills, fins, and tails as a result of rubbing against one another, and the netting of their cages, over and over again. They are also at a risk for experiencing oxygen starvation, which can be fatal. Farmed fish even develop stereotypic, abnormal behaviour similar to that found in overcrowded populations of farm animals.10 11
As the fish grow, they are periodically sorted by size in an attempt to keep larger fish from eating the smaller ones before they can be slaughtered and sold. The process is called "grading" and requires the fish to be pumped or netted out of their tanks and dropped onto a series of grates with progressively smaller gaps; in this way they are sorted into differently sized enclosures. This is a stressful process that often results in scrapes, loss of scales, and even death.12
Because there are not enough fish in the sea to satisfy our demand, the global farmed fish industry has been expanding fast; it has grown about 8% per year since the mid-1980s.13 Between 1995 and 2007, it nearly tripled, in part because of the rising consumer demand for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.14 However, fish do not actually synthesize omega-3 fatty acids—they obtain them from the foods they eat, such as plankton and algae.15 (Vegetarian sources of omega-3 include flax seeds, hemp oil, kelp and algae, walnuts, and soybean and canola oils. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that vegetarians and vegans actually have more omega-3 than people who eat fish.)16 17
The body of an eider duck, a protected species, cut from the anti-predator nets surrounding salmon farm cages. (Photo: British Divers Marine Life Rescue/Marine Photobank)
What's particularly surprising is that wild fish are killed in great numbers to feed farmed fish; for example, it takes 3 to 4 kilograms of wild fish to produce 1 kilogram of salmon, and some species require even more.18 In 2006, aquaculture production was 51.7 million metric tons, and about 20 million metric tons of wild fish were caught and turned into fishmeal.19 In 2009, researchers at Stanford University concluded that the aquaculture industry "is also putting a significant strain on marine resources by consuming large amounts of feed made from wild fish harvested from the sea."20
At present there is no established method of humane slaughter for fish—whether wild or farmed—and most common methods have been described as "appalling from an animal welfare point of view" by experts.21 Traditional methods of slaughter were chosen purely on the basis of cost and ease; simply removing fish from water, for example, causes them to suffocate. They struggle desperately, showing "violent escape behaviours"22 as their gills collapse. One study on rainbow trout demonstrated that depending on the outside temperature, it can take up to 10 minutes for them to die.23 Another study, which focused on several species of wild fish, including cod, herring, and sole, found that it took anywhere from 55 minutes to over four hours for the fish to die once removed from water.24 According to one account, it can take much longer:
To find out about fishing I once sailed on a trawler...worst of all was what happened to a big orange-speckled flat fish—a plaice. It was tossed into a bin with other flat fish and four hours later I literally heard it croaking. I pointed out to one of the deckhands who, without even thinking about it, clubbed the fish... Six hours later I noticed that its mouth and gill covers were still opening and closing as it struggled for oxygen. Its misery had lasted ten hours.25
Another common method for both wild fish and farmed fish entailing removing the fish from the water, manually restraining them, and inserting a knife under the gill covers to slice the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the gills. This method, known as gill-cutting, is sometimes replaced by simply piercing the heart, slitting the isthmus (the throat), or severing the blood vessels in the tail. A study published in the Veterinary Record reported that fish struggle for an average of 4 minutes during this process.26 They don't die immediately, either. Catfish, for example, were observed responding to outside stimuli for up to 15 minutes27
Gutting is another method of killing wild and farmed fish. One study demonstrated that depending on the species, it takes a gutted fish anywhere from 25-65 minutes to die.28
Sometimes the wild or farmed fish are simply packed, still alive, into ice flakes.
Most of the fish and invertebrates caught in this trawl net were bycatch, as is common with bottom trawling. (Photo: Roger Grace, Greenpeace)
A common method for farmed fish is live chilling, which entails putting fish in a slurry mixture of ice and water in an attempt to stun them before they are slaughtered. However, a study perfomed by the University of Bergen, in Norway, observed fish as they exited the chilling tank, and reported that though some of the fish were more stunned than others, all of them showed signs of consciousness and writhed and thrashed violently when removed for gill-cutting. The study concluded that this method of slaughter should not be practiced, as it is highly stressful to the improperly stunned fish.
Wild fish suffer in an additional way. For example, long-line fishing uses hundreds or thousands of hooks on a fishing line that can be anywhere from 50 to 100 kilometers in length. Fish who take the bait are likely to remain caught and dragged along for hours before the line is hauled in.29
Can fish feel pain? To quote Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol, "The claim that fish 'do not have the right sort of brain' to feel pain can no longer be called scientific."30 The pain system of fish is very similar to that of birds and mammals,31 and in fact, fish respond to pain in the same manner as birds and mammals do: they behave in ways suggestive of pain, act differently for hours afterwards, and even learn to avoid places or situations that have caused them pain in the past. (It is a myth that fish have particularly short memories.)32 33 Dosing the fish with painkillers, however, reduces these pain responses!34 They have pain receptor cells like we do, and even experience the same electrophysiological responses when it comes to receiving wounds, bruises, and electrical shocks35 A 2004 academic report on the topic concluded that "...currently available evidence indicates that fish do have the capacity for pain perception and suffering. We suggest there is an urgent need for the development of fish welfare guidelines."36
In a series of studies requested by the European Commission, the Animal Health and Welfare panel reported that the stress response in fish is "directly comparable to that of higher vertebrates" and that "responses of fish... suggest that they are able to experience fear." These studies, which measured physiological variables such as cortisol, a steroid hormone naturally released in response to stress, demonstrated that fish do experience stress and fear when caught and when killed.37
Despite this growing scientific evidence, there exist zero requirements when it comes to the humane treatment of fish. Farm Forward, an organization "which promotes conscientious food choices," states that "As consumers, we can be fairly certain that any fish we buy had a painful and, often, protracted death."38
Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates, including nonhuman primates.(Culum Brown, University of Edinburgh biologist)
Scientists estimate that 90% of the big fish in the ocean have been eaten by human beings, and predict a global crash of fisheries by 2050.39 40 University of British Columbia scientist Daniel Pauly explains that we've begun to "fish down marine food webs." This means that our overfishing of alpha-predators such as salmon and tuna causes a temporary population explosion in species further down the chain, which we immediately begin overfishing. This phenomenon, he suggests, will result in a future of nothing but “jellyfish sandwiches.”41
Many dolphins and whales become tangled in fishing lines or caught in trawl nets. Some fisheries simply keep them—event the live ones—because they are useful as fishmeal or as bait.
Fish are not the only animals that suffer as a result of our greed. Fishing techniques like bottom trawling, in which large nets are dragged thousands of miles along the ocean floor, and longlining, in which hundreds or even thousands of hooks are distributed evenly along an extending fishing line, catch all types of sealife indiscriminately. Many endangered species, including dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, whales, and seabirds, die as a result of an encounter with these fishing methods.42 43 For example, longline fishing is the main threat to many species of albatross, most of which are considered endangered or threatened by the ICUN.44 100,000 get caught in these longlines every year, become tangled and drown. Meanwhile, shrimp trawling is a major cause of death for many species of sea turtles, and estimates indicate that thousands of these critically endangered creatures are caught annually.45 One sea turtle in New York was found to have ingested 560 feet of heavy duty fishing line. 46
Most people remember the heated discussions over "dolphin-safe tuna" in the 1980's. However, many don't realize that dolphins and other cetaceans still continue to be caught as bycatch, and in fact, those numbers are increasing.47 Many of these animals become tangled in fishing lines or caught in trawl nets, only to drown. Some fisheries simply keep the cetaceans they catch—even the live ones—because they are useful as food or as bait.48
Farmed fish are another culprit when it comes to the destruction of our oceans.
Longline fishing is the main threat to many species of albatross, most of which are endangered or threatened. 100,000 get caught in these longlines every year, become tangles, and drown.
There exists a great deal of concern in regards to the possibility that escaped farmed fish will compete with wild fish, interbreed with them, eat them, or even infect them with sea lice.49 The spread of sea lice, incidentally, is one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon in British Columbia, and it's a result of the rise in fish farms.50
Because fish farms utilize so many antibiotics to combat the inevitable spread of disease that occurs as a result of overcrowding, 74 to 100% of wild fish caught near these farms end up containing antibiotics. 51 The salmon industry maintains that this is not an issue of concern, while a study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue has described this liberal usage of antibiotics as "excessive and prophylactic", the result of "shortcomings in rearing methods and hygienic conditions that favor animal stress, and opportunistic infections and their dissemination.” The report also discusses how these farming practices will affect the environment as a whole, stating “antibiotic-resistant organisms in the marine environment will, in turn, pass their antibiotic resistance genes to other bacteria, including human and animal pathogens.” 52
For a very long time, it was believed that the ocean was "self-healing" and basically unaffected by our appetite for sealife.53 We now know that this is not the case, and so many people have turned towards what is known as "sustainable fishing", attempting to eat only those species which are considered "resilent to fishing pressures". A popular "sustainable" choice in British Columbia is the wild Pacific salmon, which has a managed fishery. The numbers of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, however, change drastically from one year to the next, and as of 2006, 13.5% of B.C. and Yukon native salmon populations are either extinct or moving towards extinction.54 55 Keith Pahlke, a researcher with the Alaskan state department, has stated that, "The runs are looking pretty poor... the managers are stressing out over this. We thought we knew what we were doing here."56 Meanwhile, the halibut, another popular example of a "sustainable species" is actually struggling with overfishing, due in part to a lack of cooperation on the part of sportfishers.57.
Evidence is mounting in favour of the argument that even sustainable fishing is not nearly sustainable enough. Sealife populations around the world are dropping mostly in response to overfishing, but they have additional pressures: climate change, watershed destruction, interbreeding between wild and farmed fish, and sea lice, (the last of which are of particular concern for British Columbia salmon stocks.)58
Some fish farms label themselves as sustainable and eco-friendly, but the environmental issues raised above—sea lice, local pollutants, and the risk of escaping fish—are inevitable aspects of the aquaculture industry, with few exceptions.59 The fact that fish on these farms are generally fed a diet of other fish should be of serious concern when it comes to issues of sustainability.60 An additional concern lies in the cages on the farms, which have been observed changing the local ecology. In 2005, Kona Blue Water Farms, which describes itself as "sustainable from hatch to harvest," killed a 16-foot tiger shark who had been attracted to the dead fish at the bottom of the cages and was stalking one of the company's divers. Dolphins and whales also occasionally swim through and around the farm, raising concerns about the possibility that predator species are altering their natural patterns to adapt to the cages, as well as the waste and fish feed that inevitably filters through these farms.61
Even in the best of circumstances, explains Mark Bittman, author of Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking, making a sustainable choice is a complicated task:
Paradoxically, some of the most abundant fish—herring, for example—are nearly impossible to find. And even when you encounter a fish you believe to be in plentiful supply, nomenclature can throw you for a loop. So when Seafood Watch names "black sea bass" a "good" alternative, it also points out that several other species are called by the same or similar names (including grouper, mostly endangered). They also say that it's important to avoid black sea bass caught in the South Atlantic. Or any caught by trawling. Similarly, Atlantic cod is on the "avoid" list; Pacific cod, however, is fine.
Say you're considering a halibut steak. The fishmonger or waiter has no clue where it's from (or may lie about it). Yet according to Seafood Watch, it could be one of six varieties, all wild. Of these, four are to be avoided under some circumstances, though all six are fine under others. Your mission—should you decide to accept it—is to find out whether a "set gillnet" has been used in the fish's capture, or if the hirame (one type of halibut) is from the Atlantic (avoid) or Pacific (just
"...[p]retty much every type of water or shorebird can get caught up in fishing line...We find dead cormorants, anhingas, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills...you name it."—Audubon biologist Mark Rachel (Photo: Peter Clark)
When it comes to overfishing, commercial fishing ships aren't the only culprits. A Florida State University study reported that sport fishers are responsible for killing close to 25 percent of overfished saltwater species.63 Some trout streams are so overfished that they require that all fish caught be released—and catch-and-release is not so innocuous as we might expect. "The physiological stress is enormous... even if they swim off, a lot of those fish will be easy prey because they're in a stunned condition when they're released," stated Felicia Coleman, author or the study.64 Fish experience sharp changes in pressure as they are reeled to the surface, causing their swim bladders to rupture. Once removed, they cannot breathe and begin to "drown" almost immediately. And lactic acid, which builds up in muscles as a response to exercise, can increase to dangerous amounts. Additionally, protective scale coating can be lost, and the delicate skin of the mouth, throat, and fins can be permanently damaged by hooks or fishing line.65 66 67 Nesting fish may be unable to defend their nests, or they may abandon them entirely.68 All of these factors combine to make these fish more vulnerable to predators and disease, and in fact, researchers at the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that as many as 43% of fish who are released after being caught die within 6 days.69 All in all, the simple action of catching and releasing a fish can have a great deal of negative impact.
Sport fishing is also a notorious culprit when it comes to environmental damage. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that "[M]ore than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to ingestion of, and entanglement in marine debris." And according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, discarded monofilament line is the number one killer of Brown Pelicans—a vulnerable species which is already at additional risk as a result of the British Petroleum oil spill of April of 2010. Audubon biologist Mark Rachel stated that "[p]retty much every type of water or shore bird can get caught up in fishing line.... We find dead cormorants, anhingas, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills—you name it."70 Ann Paul, manager of Audubon's Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries states that "Hundreds of birds die ensnarled in monofilament line every year in the Tampa Bay area alone."71
In a February 2010 article in Vancouver Island's Oceanside Star, Sylvia Campbell of the the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre discussed a bald eagle who had been caught in fishing line and then fortunately rescued. "...many small birds become entangled in the mesh of net covering ponds. We have had many cases of birds arriving with discarded fishing line wrapped around their legs until circulation was cut off. In one case, the entire leg was severed."72