Should I Eat This? Part 5: Fish

By Jane Mountain | September 1, 2012

Thousands of Dead Fish

It is almost as if we use our military to fight the animals of the ocean. We are gradually winning the war and exterminating them.

Dr. Daniel Pauly, Professor and Director of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre

When we think of fishing, we might picture a friendly guy out on his tin boat in the middle of a serene lake, sinking his line into the water, catching a few fish over the course of a day. Sadly, that’s not where your fish sticks come from (or your sushi, tuna sandwich, shrimp cocktail…).

For the most part, your fish comes from industrial-scale commercial fisheries (Click to Tweet)

Commercial fishing involves tens of thousands of boats, armed with highly technical equipment and satellite link-ups, seeking and destroying as many fish as they can, as quickly as they can.

Fish is an industry, just like coal or steel or farming. There is nothing serene about it.

What’s On Your Plate

Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.

From Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

When you order a plate of tuna sashimi, you’re getting a couple of tender slices from a truly massive fish. You’re also getting a heaping serving of all the other sea life that was killed when that fish was caught.

This dead and wasted sea life is referred to as bycatch. WWF makes a “conservative estimate” that bycatch represents 40.4% of global marine catches. So, on average, for every 10 pounds of fish caught, almost half is thrown back into the sea, dead or dying.

Here are just a few consequences of fishing in this way, taken from this WWF article:

  • Over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year, making bycatch the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans and pushing several species to the verge of extinction.
  • Over 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles are caught annually on longlines set for tuna, swordfish, and other fish, with thousands more killed in shrimp trawls.
  • 26 species of seabird, including 23 albatross species, are threatened with extinction because of longlining, which kills more than 300,000 seabirds each year.
  • 89 per cent of hammerhead sharks and 80 per cent of thresher and white sharks have disappeared from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean in the last 18 years, largely due to bycatch.

Knowing about bycatch, every time I start drooling at the thought of sushi, I can’t help but picture an entire table filled with dead turtles, whales, dolphins, and all sorts of other sea creatures.

I still drool, but I just can’t stomach causing that kind of needless destruction.

Where Have All The Fishes Gone?

While our industrial fishing methods are killing off the sea creatures we don’t eat, they are also quickly destroying the ones we do.

National Geographic reports that “a study of catch data published in 2006 in the journal Science grimly predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048.”

A UN publication, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2010 says that:

  • 53% of world fisheries are fully exploited (meaning they cannot take any increase in production)
  • 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion (meaning that the fish stocks there need to be rebuilt or they will not survive)

However, these numbers only refer to about 10% of the world’s fisheries, because, the report says, “for the large majority of the exploited fish stocks there is no or little information on their status”.

That means that 90% of the fisheries in the world are not carefully monitored.

If the data from our well-managed fisheries tells us that our fish are in grave danger, what are the chance that the less-managed fisheries are any better?

What About Farmed Fish?

Large scale farming of salmon, even under even the best current practices, creates large scale problems.

Dr. John Volpe, professor and leader of the Restoration and Conservation Lab at the University of Victoria

Problems? What problems?

  • Farmed salmon eat fish. It takes from 1 to 3 pounds of wild fish, like anchovies, herring, and sardines, to create 1 pound of farmed salmon. So at best, we are breaking even, at worst, we’re wasting 200% more fish than we gain.
  • Some farmed salmon are fed antibiotics on a regular basis. This can create resistant strains of bacteria that can harm or destroy wild salmon populations.
  • Sea lice, which thrives in the crowded conditions of a salmon farm, can destroy wild salmon populations swimming nearby.
  • A study by Scotland’s WWF calculated that each metric tonne of salmon produced in Scottish salmon farms (in 1996) resulted in the waste equivalent to that from 9 to 20 people. That’s a lot of pollution for a little fish.
  • The pollution problems can be even worse in countries such as China, where the industry is much less hampered by regulation. Much of this fish makes its way onto North American grocery shelves.

Some enterprising souls are taking this data to heart and re-imagining fish farming as a clean and productive activity. This project in Germany proposes moving fish farms to rooftops, creating a closed system where waste is used to feed plants.

Should I Eat Fish?

I’m not going to lie. Fish is (mostly) good for you. It’s a low cal source of protein and it contains omega-3s, vitamin D and B2, and minerals. It can combat heart disease and make you smarter.

However, as our oceans become dirtier, so do our fish. Some fish contain high levels of mercury, while others contain cancer-causing agents such as dioxins, pesticides, and PCBs.

There are lots of resources available for deciding which fish is “OK” to eat, and which fish is most harmful to the environment. So, if you don’t really care about dolphins, whales, and sea turtles, here are two good guides.

The Sustainable Seafood Guide

What Can I Eat Instead?

For Omega-3s, eat flax seeds, basil, walnuts, broccoli, soybeans, spinach, cantaloupe, and kidney beans.

Low-calorie protein sources include legumes (beans, lentils etc), whole grains, tofu, tempeh, and seitan.

Sources and Further Reading

Great guide to farmed seafood by WWF
UN Report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010


Should I Eat This? The Complete Series


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Hi, I’m Jane, founder and chief blogger on My Five Acres. I’ve lived in six countries and have camped, biked, trekked, kayaked, and explored in 50! At My Five Acres, our mission is to inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully.


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  2. Comment by Mary Finelli

    Mary Finelli Reply April 25, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Science has also shown that fish suffer fear and pain. They are also very obviously distressed by capture and from the immensely cruel ways they are killed. With the bounty of alternatives that are available to us and better for us, there is no valid reason to use fish -or any other animals- as food. This includes vegan seafood alternatives. Recipes, products and more, including information about these sensitive and admirable animals can be found at Fish Feel dot org.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane April 29, 2014 at 7:47 am

      I completely agree – if there are alternatives available, there’s no good reason not to use them! Thanks for the link.

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