Humans kill a lot of animals as food, but none more so than fish. We measure them by thousands of tons. That translates to somewhere between a few hundred billion to over a trillion individual fish per year.
Despite the steady rise of fish farming, which now accounts for over 40 percent of all fish killed and eaten by us, most fish are still wild-caught, falling victim mainly to purse seines, long-lines, or bottom trawlers.
These fishing methods were designed for efficiency, not humaneness. The predominant causes of death for commercially caught fishes are suffocation, crushing, decompression and evisceration/bleeding - none of which would rank high anyone's list of ways to go. Nor would having one's limbs severed and being cast overboard to die, a fate that meets tens of millions of sharks per year.
If there's any consolation, it is that the fish hauled from an ocean, lake or river lived free before they died. Not so the billions of fish reared and slaughtered in captive operations.
The factory farming of fish, commonly known as aquaculture, presents a whole host of challenges to these animals. Perhaps foremost among them is the crowding. On trout farms, densities can be as high as 27 foot-long individuals per bathtub size of water, leading to chronic frustration of natural behaviors such as foraging, migration, mate-finding, courtship, and breeding.
Fish farming is fraught with problems. Prolonged confinement is exacerbated by fierce competition for food, the stress of transportation and rough handling, diseases and parasites, pesticides and other chemical treatments, water polluted by their own waste, and sometimes weeks of food deprivation prior to slaughter. A Norwegian study of salmon farming documented high rates of what the industry calls 'drop outs', fish unable to cope with the unrelenting hardships. Their blood levels of stress hormones max out, they stop eating, and they waste away. The researchers conclude that drop outs are suffering from severe depression.
These realities point to a stark conclusion: there is nothing high-welfare about either wild-caught or captive-raised fish.
Fish farming - sustainable?
At least captive rearing of fish for human consumption takes pressure off targeted wild populations, right? Actually, it doesn't. The fish flesh favored by consumers in the developed world comes from predatory species near the top of the food chain: the most consumed fish in EU in 2015 were tuna, cod and salmon, according to Eumofa, The EU fish market, 2017 edition. All three species are farmed.
To feed them in captivity requires large amounts of 'feed fish'. Think anchovies, herring, menhaden, and sardines. Nearly all are ocean caught, and most are fed to farmed fish, with nearly all the rest going to pigs and chickens. The top 10 farmed fish species consume two pounds of wild fish for every pound they weigh at slaughter; that ratio is higher for strictly carnivorous fish like salmon and tuna: five pounds to one. The industry takes more from the oceans by weight than it can produce.
It's time to Rethink Fish
Ecological destruction of fish farms
Unsustainability aside, the ecological picture isn't any brighter. Fish farming in coastal sea pens contaminates surrounding ecosystems with concentrated waste, chemicals, and parasite blooms. 40 farmed salmon produce as much sewage as a human does.
A subtler concern is the risk of genetic contamination of wild fish populations by escaped captives - a common occurrence. According to the Center for Food Safety, at least 35 farmed fish species are currently being genetically engineered around the world, including trout, catfish, tilapia, striped bass, flounder, and many species of salmon.
Out on the oceans, drift nets and hooks trailing from miles of long-lines don't discriminate target fish from other ocean wanderers. Sea birds, marine mammals, sharks and other non-target fish get snared, and if they don't die in the sea, the process of hauling them onto the boat can finish them off.
Trawling, almost always in pursuit of shrimp, is the most destructive fishing method of all. Trawling is the marine equivalent of clear-cutting rain forest. The most common type of modern shrimp trawler sweeps an area roughly twenty-five to thirty meters wide.
The trawl is pulled along the ocean bottom at 4.5 to 6.5 kph for several hours, sweeping shrimp - and everything else - into the far end of a funnel-shaped net. So destructive is trawling that the United Nations and the European Union have considered banning it, but time and again vested interests and political corruption have blocked passage.
In a typical haul, trawlers sweep up about a hundred different kinds of unwanted 'bycatch' - fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops, etc. Virtually all die. A 2009 study estimated global bycatch at 90,718,474kg per day. Shrimping is especially notorious for high bycatch rates that can exceed 90 percent of the haul. Something to bear in mind when planning one's next barbecue.
No wonder fish populations are in dire shape. A 2012 study by the California Environmental Associates estimates that over 40 percent of fisheries have crashed or are overfished.This analysis includes estimates of unmonitored fish species, which account for 80 percent of the world's take.
It is a tragic function of supply-and-demand that as a 'resource' declines, its relative value increases, with the common result that efforts to obtain the resource are intensified. Part of the problem, the report notes, is that people are spending more effort - traveling farther, sinking more hooks, staying on the water longer - to catch fewer and fewer fish.
Compassion in World Farming's Rethink.Fish campaign is drawing much-needed attention to the plight of fish and steps we can take to help them.
The take-home message from all forms of fish production is that swapping out other meat for fish is not a good alternative on an ethical or sustainable level. When we buy a product, we fund the methods used to procure it. The best way for individuals to help fish is to refrain from eating them.
Find out more about the Rethink Fish Campaign here
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