Click on an image below to learn about the environmental impact of your food choices.
We usually don't think of fish as requiring fossil fuel to get to our plates, but today's large fishing boats are larger, more powerful and travel further to catch fish. The U.N.'s Food and Agrigulture Organization (FAO) estimates that up to 70% of fish species are depleted. These large fishing vessels have to use more and more fossil fuel to get to places in the ocean which still have some fish left. Commercially extinct areas (such as the Great Banks near Newfoundland and the Georges Banks off New England) were not so far away. The fuel needed to get to these far-off areas are subsdized by taxpayers to the tune of $6 billion per year (see the book "Comfortably Unaware" by Richard Oppenlander, p. 106)! Once these areas are overfished, the fishing fleets simply move to another area until that place is depleted, too.
About half the fish you eat comes from fish farms in the ocean. Fish farms concentrate large amounts of fish into a single area, with all the corresponding waste and disease that comes along with land-based concentrated animal feeding operations. Ironically, the growth in fish farms is increasing the demand for global fishing because of the need for fishmeal and fish oil to feed all of these fish in captivity.
Fish feces from the thousands of fish confined in tiny enclosed areas pollute nearby waters with uneaten food, dead fish in the enclosures, antibiotics, bodily waste, and feed additives. This creates large dead zones in the world's oceans. China is now producing over 70% of farmed fish to feed demand for fish as food for people and other animals. You make a difference each time you choose not to eat fish.
Fish look so different from us and live in such exotic environments that it is difficult to imagine that humans and fish share up to 85% of genes. There is a myth that fish do not feel pain, but research from 2003 showed that fish feel and react to pain. Cullen Brown, a University of Edinburgh biologist says, "Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates, including non-human primates." Fish know complex social relationships and they create mental maps to guide themselves underwater, keeping the memory of escape routes for up to a year.Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Over 100 million tons of fish are caught each year for food, not including bycatch (animals caught and thrown back, dead, estimated at 5 - 20 times the amount caught for food). Despite the depletion of most fishing areas, one-third of the fish caught world-wide is used to feed livestock in the form of fishmeal. This overfishing for food is destroying precious ocean ecosystems and no one knows their long term effects. Can you take this much biomass from the world's oceans with no impact on the health of the earth?
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 80% of the world's fish stocks are overfished, meaning more fish are caught than can be replaced and sustained. For large species, like bluefish tuna, are over 90% overfished. As a result, it takes more vessels using fossil fuel to seach for the remaining fish. The web site Overfishing.org explains it this way:
... globally fishing fleets are at least two to three times as large as needed to take present day catches of fish and other marine species. To explain why overfishing is a problem we first have to get an idea on the scale of the problem. This is best done by looking at some figures published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 1 The FAO scientists publish a two yearly report (SOFIA) on the state of the world's fisheries and aquaculture. 2 The report is generally rather conservative regarding the acknowledging of problems but does show the key issue and trends. Due to the difficulty of aggregating and combining the data it can be stated that the SOFIA report is a number of years behind of the real situation.
The above shows that over 25% of all the world's fish stocks are either overexploited or depleted. Another 52% is fully exploited, these are in imminent danger of overexploitation (maximum sustainable production level) and collapse. Thus a total of almost 80% of the world's fisheries are fully- to over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. Worldwide about 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish stocks are already gone. In the real world all this comes down to two serious problems.
The single best example of the ecological and economical dangers of overfishing is found in Newfoundland, Canada. In 1992 the once thriving cod fishing industry came to a sudden and full stop when at the start of the fishing season no cod appeared. Overfishing allowed by decades of fisheries mismanagement was the main cause for this disaster that resulted in almost 40.000 people losing their livelihood and an ecosystem in complete state of decay. Now, fifteen years after the collapse, many fishermen are still waiting for the cod to return and communities still haven't recovered from the sudden removal of the regions single most important economical driver. The only people thriving in this region are the ones fishing for crab, a species once considered a nuisance by the Newfoundland fishermen.
It's not only the fish that is affected by fishing. As we are fishing down the food web 3 the increasing effort needed to catch something of commercial value marine mammals, sharks, sea birds, and non commercially viable fish species in the web of marine biodiversity are overexploited, killed as bycatch and discarded (up to 80% of the catch for certain fisheries), and threatened by the industrialized fisheries. 4 Scientists agree that at current exploitation rates many important fish stocks will be removed from the system within 25 years.
Think of all the fishing fleets chasing after fewer and fewer fish the next time you sit down for a dinner of fish.
The Food and Waterwatch web site wrote some sobering words about fish on your plate:
Many fish-lovers would be horrified to learn that huge quantities of fish and shrimp are now being grown in giant nets, cages, and ponds where antibiotics, hormones and pesticides mingle with disease and waste. These industrialized aquaculture facilities are rapidly replacing natural methods of fishing that have been used to catch fresh, wild seafood for millennia.
From all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp at chain restaurants, to bite-sized maki rolls at trendy sushi bars, to salmon steaks on the backyard barbecue – Americans eat 25 percent more seafood than they did 20 years ago, an average of 16 pounds a year.
Just as multinational corporations have forever changed the way food is grown on land to the detriment of public health, the environment, local communities and food quality itself, they are poised to do the same at sea. The identical factory-farm model is being adopted for aquaculture: growing food as cheaply as possible using toxic chemicals and other harmful techniques, packaging it in enormous bulk, and shipping it to distant grocery stores and restaurants all around the world.
China is a leader in aquaculture and perhaps we can learn from that experience. In an article in the New York Times in 2007, David Barboza wrote:
More than half of the rivers in China are too polluted to serve as a source of drinking water. The biggest lakes in the country regularly succumb to harmful algal blooms. Seafood producers are part of the problem, environmental experts say. Enormous aquaculture farms concentrate fish waste, pesticides and veterinary drugs in their ponds and discharge the contaminated water into rivers, streams and coastal areas, often with no treatment.
Industrial fish farming has destroyed mangrove forests in Thailand, Vietnam and China, heavily polluted waterways and radically altered the ecological balance of coastal areas, mostly through the discharge of wastewater. Aquaculture waste contains fish feces, rotting fish feed and residues of pesticides and veterinary drugs as well as other pollutants that were already mixed into the poor quality water supplied to farmers.
Besides algal blooms, some of the biggest lakes in China, like Lake Tai, are suffering from eutrophication nutrient bombs, brought on partly by aquaculture, that can kill fish by depleting the water’s oxygen. The government is forcing aquaculture out of these lakes, and also away from the Long River in Fuqing.
If most of us ever think of fish at all, we usually think of them as non-feeling and not too bright. We glorify fishing, despite the fact that a fish flopping about on dry land is slowly suffocating. The variety of fish in the ocean is amazing, yet because we unthinkingly deplete fish stocks through overfishing, we have set off unknown consequences affecting the entire ocean food chain.
Popular Science had a recent article titled, "Are Fish As Intelligent As Crows, Chimps ... or People?" by Emily Gertz. Here is what she said:
The science shows that fish use tools, feel pain, have long memories, and deserve better treatment from us.
... the welfare of fish—which are vertebrates just like cows, pigs, and chickens, and possessing evolutionary lineages as long as those of homo sapiens—has been barely discussed. As a result “the potential amount of cruelty we're inflicting is mind-boggling,” says fish biologist Culum Brown, an assistant professor at Macquarie University in Australia. “People need to have a greater appreciation of how smart fish are,” he says. “Just because we're ignorant is no excuse to treat another animal poorly. All the evidence suggests that they're just as sophisticated as other vertebrates.”
Brown makes a scientific case for reform in “Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics,” a paper published in the June 2014 issue of Animal Cognition. The work was partially funded by the organization Farm Sanctuary, under its "Someone, Not Something" project.
Brown reviewed nearly 200 research papers on fish sensory perception, natural cognitive abilities (including “numerality,” or an ability to assess quantity), and abilities to perceive and experience pain, and found ample evidence that fish are intelligent on all counts.
For instance, some fish species use tools. Brown cites research showing that certain types ofwrasse use rocks to crush sea urchins in order to eat their softer insides, while cichlids and catfish have been observed gluing their eggs to leaves and small rocks, which they carry around when their nests are disrupted.
Tool use was long considered unique to human beings, but has become well-acknowledged in species such as chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows.
Fish can also learn quickly and can keep memories long-term. Brown's own research found it took only five trial runs for rainbowfish to learn how to swim out of a net via a single hole, and that they remembered the escape route after not seeing the net for nearly a year. “This is remarkable for a fish that only lives for 2 years in the wild,” writes Brown. “Moreover, the more fish present in the group the faster they learn,” just one example he cites of fish displaying “social learning.”
Fish also show “Machiavellian intelligence,” the ability to manipulate the behavior of others via deception, or by reconciling with them. Cleaner fish of the Great Barrier Reef, which eat away the dead skin and parasites on other fish, utilize a “fantastic reconciliation process” when they bite their food carriers by mistake, says Brown. “It turns out, and I think this is very cool, they often give a back rub to their clients.”
To try and understand why, a fish biologist devised an experiment: Install a rotating brush at the surface of an aquarium, and see if fish come up and self-administer back rubs. When they did, the question changed to why they did it. “There doesn't seem to be any physical benefit,” said Brown, “but they looked at their hormones, and it turns out it's reducing stress levels, like some remedial massage. It's bizarre!”
Whether fishes feel pain is a controversial question, Brown acknowledges, in part because the answer has ramifications for the fishing industry, as well as scientific lab practices. He takes the position that fish have all the neurological hardware they need to sense pain, just like other vertebrate species; they respond to analgesics by displaying fewer symptoms of pain; and appear distracted when in pain. These are all signs that fish experience pain in ways that that humans can relate to, much as we can feel empathy for pain experienced by pet dogs or cats, or cows and chickens raised for food.
Fish, with their vast variety, underestimated intelligence, and social structures are treated shamefully in aquaagriculture. On their web site, PETA has written about the life of farmed fish:
More than 40 percent of all the fish consumed each year are now raised on land-based or ocean-based aquafarms where fish spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures and where many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the aquaculture industry is growing three times faster than land-based animal agriculture, and aquafarms will surely become even more prevalent as our natural fisheries become exhausted.
On aquafarms, high-volume systems control food, light (on indoor farms), and growth stimulation. Drugs and genetic engineering are used to accelerate growth and change reproductive behaviors.
In intensively crowded aquafarms, small fish are bullied and killed by larger fish, so fish are continually sorted to make sure that faster-growing individuals are moved to the appropriate size grouping.
At each sorting, they are netted or pumped out of their tanks and dumped onto a series of bars and grates with varying space gaps to divide them by size and redistribute them into different netted cages or tanks; small fish slip through the small grates while larger fish fall through the larger gaps. This practice, called “grading,” is very stressful and results in painful scrapes and a loss of protective scales, leaving the animals vulnerable to disease.
High mortality rates, disease, and parasite infestations are common. Deformities and stress-related injuries are also a regular occurrence; on some farms, as many as 40 percent of the fish are blind—a problem that is not addressed because blind fish net the same profit for farmers.
Because they are designed to navigate vast oceans and use all their senses to do so, many fish go insane from the cramped conditions and lack of space on fish farms. The tight enclosures inhibit their ability to navigate properly and cause them to knock against each other and the sides of the enclosures. This jostling causes sores and damage to their fins.
To increase profits, fish farmers cram as many fish as possible into the smallest spaces possible. Salmon farms are so crowded—with as many as 50,000 individuals in each enclosure—that a 2.5-foot fish spends his or her entire life in a space the size of a bathtub. Trout farms are even more crowded, with as many as 27 full-grown fish in a bathtub-sized space.
Many species of farmed fish are carnivorous, which means that fish must be caught from our already-exhausted oceans to feed the fish on aquafarms. It can take more than 5 pounds of fish from the ocean to produce just 1 pound of farmed salmon or sea bass. Aquafarmers have even begun to feed fish oil and fish meal to fish who naturally eat only plants in an effort to make them grow faster.
What’s more, fish farmers lace fish feed with powerful chemicals and antibiotics to help fish survive the deadly diseases caused by the crowding and filth. It’s likely that these fish pellets are the cause of the higher PCB and dioxin contamination levels found in farmed fish, which are seven times higher than the already-dangerous levels found in their wild counterparts.
Contaminants from ocean-based aquafarms (fish excrement, uneaten chemical-laden food, and swarms of parasites) spread to the surrounding ocean, and the rampant disease inside the cages is passed on to ocean fish in the area, in some cases increasing the incidence of sea lice a thousandfold.
These parasites eat at the fish, causing their scales to fall off and creating large sores. In severely crowded conditions, lice often eat down to the bone on fish’s faces. This is so common that fish farmers have taken to calling it the “death crown.”
In the United States, there are no regulations to ensure the humane treatment of fish.
As many as 40 percent of farmed fish die before the aquafarm operator is ready to slaughter them. Fish who survive are starved before they are sent to slaughter in order to reduce waste contamination of the water during transport. Salmon, for example, are starved for 10 full days.
Fish slaughter plants in the U.S. make no effort to stun the fish, who are completely conscious when they start down the slaughter line. Their gills are cut, and they are left to bleed to death, convulsing in pain.
Large fish, such as salmon, are sometimes bashed on the head with a wooden bat called a “priest,” and many are seriously injured but still alive and suffering when they are cut open. Smaller fish, such as trout, are often killed by simply draining water away and leaving them to slowly suffocate or by packing them in ice while they are still completely conscious.
Because fish are coldblooded, allowing them to suffocate on ice prolongs their suffering, leaving them to experience excruciating pain for as long as 15 minutes before they die.