Why Eating Fish is Destroying Our Oceans and Crashing World Fish Stocks
Over 90 percent of marine predatory fish are gone and 80 percent of all other commercial fish species have disappeared from overfishing and destructive fisheries. If we continue fishing as we are now, most seafood will be gone by 2048 (FAO / National Geographic)
Fishing and the Depletion of our Oceans
The world’s oceans are experiencing a dramatic decline of global fish populations. A “perfect storm” is occurring depleting fish species and fish stocks caused by overfishing, illegal fishing, population growth, destructive industrialized fishing methods, and a growing middle class throughout the world driving a growing appetite for fish—threatening and driving thousands of species of fish to crash beyond their ability to reproduce. Across the globe, 21 percent or 1,851 species of fish were at risk of extinction by 2010, including more than a third of all sharks and rays. As a result, our oceans are filling up with smaller fish species as the larger species disappear forever. This is a wakeup call for all of us to consume fish more responsibly, ethically and sustainably.
Fish stocks cannot keep up with increasingly sophisticated fishing technology used today to harvest massive numbers of fish daily for the growing demand worldwide. The rise of hungry consumers around the globe eating more and more fish, means greater numbers of fisherman and fishing fleets harvesting an unsustainable number of fish, and with it other forms of marine life called bycatch. Environmentalists and oceanographers believe that the current demand for fish and the methods used to fulfill it are taking an irreparable and possibly irreversible toll on the world’s oceans and marine life, with some speculating that our oceans could be literally fished-out and empty by 2048 if current trends do not radically change.
Leading scientists suggest that if we continue to catch and eat fish at the current rate, our oceans and seas will be empty within 30 years. Over 90 percent of marine predatory fish are gone and 80 percent of all other commercial fish species have disappeared from overfishing and destructive fisheries. Modern fishing techniques using bottom trawlers scrape the floor of the sea using wide nets that kill and destroy everything in its path—leaving nothing behind. Long-line fishing methods used to fish tuna and swordfish, are catching and killing millions of tons of bycatch including endangered sea turtles, porpoises, and sharks that die a slow and painful death from being dragged for miles in the ocean. Bycatch is a terrible waste and nearly all of it is thrown overboard.
Scientists are warning that a catastrophic future awaits us—an ocean devoid of fish in 30 years, if we don’t change our fishing practices and consumption habits.
According to the FAO, 70 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully fished, overfished, depleted or recovering. Overfishing is the greatest threat to ocean ecosystems today because fish are being taken at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Young fish in their reproductive years are being fished before they can reproduce. Before the 1960s, fishing was far more sustainable because boats had limited access, were smaller and had limited space on board to hold fish. But today’s boats have been replaced by giant factory ships that trawl the bottom of the ocean raking in all marine life in its path—causing enormous and vast destruction and death to all forms of marine life. In Newfoundland, cod fishing thrived for centuries, until the 1960s when larger ocean trawlers collapsed fish stocks and caused the crash of the cod industry in just a couple of decades. With the fishing industry fishing 24 hours a day, coupled with the use of giant factory ships, global access to fishing, too little governmental regulation and enforcement, and more boats than ever before—our ocean life is fast disappearing. But the biggest impact is from human demand for fish.
Documentary: The World is Running Out of Fish
Bycatch and Destructive Modern Fishing Techniques
Bottom trawling is the dragging of enormous gillnets along the ocean’s floor, causing irreversible destruction and damage to non-target marine life, the ocean floor, fragile marine habitats and environments, coral reefs and to millions of sea mammals and fish. With this technology, there is no life that escapes alive from bottom trawling. This destructive fishing technique is responsible for the incidental capture of sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, whales, seabirds, cetaceans and young fish too in the nets. Large indiscriminate nets literally pull up everything from the ocean, yet actually use only 50-60 percent of the fish caught. The rest is thrown overboard and wasted. Trawler fishing is deeply destructive and highly unsustainable.
Another destructive technology is long-lining used to catch tuna, swordfish and halibut—the largest edible fish. Long-lining uses thousands of large baited hooks that not only catch these large fish, but indiscriminately catch and kill everything else these lines encounter including non-target marine animals. Every year millions of dolphins, endangered loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, sharks and seabirds drown and suffer pulled on long-lines. This incidental bycatch of sea turtles is the single greatest threat to their survival. All of this bycatch is then hauled aboard the fishing vessels, and discarded overboard—already dead or dying. More marine life wasted.
Ghost Gear – How Discarded Fishing Equipment Kills
The single largest mortality rate for small cetaceans (dolphin, porpoises, seals, and small whales) and birds, is from being killed by derelict and abandoned fishing nets and lines that are discarded or lost. “Ghost gear” makes up for approximately 10 percent of all marine litter (FAO), and can remain in the marine environment for tens of years—entangling, strangling, suffocating and killing marine life all over the world. Fisherman often discard their used nets, lines, and broken equipment overboard, instead of bringing it to land and properly disposing of it. Between 2002 and 2010, 870 nets recovered from Washington State alone contained more than 32,000 marine animals. Marine organisms documented in recovered gillnets included 31,278 invertebrates (76 species), 1,036 fishes (22 species), 514 birds (16 species), and 23 mammals (4 species); 56 percent of invertebrates, 93 percent of fish, and 100 percent of birds and mammals were dead when recovered (NCBI, NIM, NIH.gov).
Illegal Fishing, Black Market Fishing and Our Seafood
Because the demand for fish has significantly increased in recent years, especially in the U.S. and Europe, and current laws are not strong enough to enforce where fish are caught and being imported from—there is a huge problem with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood. Illegal fishing is a global epidemic and the entire fish supply chain needs to become fully traceable to legal sources to address and overcome the problem.
In addition, a 2013 study by Oceana, a nonprofit that campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans, concluded that 33 percent of fish in the U.S. is fraudulently labeled to increase profits.
Pollution in the Ocean
Fish today are full of toxins and poisons including dioxins (from the 60s), flame-retardants, mercury, lead, PCBs, DDE (formed when DDT breaks down), and other plastic contaminants. With the enormous plastic waste gyres consuming more and more of our oceans, and now outweighing plankton by 6:1, fish are becoming increasing polluted and sick. The majority of marine trash is plastic and fish are mistaking this plastic waste for food. When people eat fish they are consuming the same toxic chemicals that the fish have eaten. And this is not only happening with wild fish, but with farmed fish as well. Factory farmed fish raised in high-density fish pens in the ocean are fed the flesh of wild caught fish which has been processed into concentrated fish meal. It takes roughly 5 pounds of commercially caught wild fish (not sold for human consumption) to create one pound of farmed fish. Research conducted on farmed salmon, shows that these salmon are far more highly contaminated with toxins than their wild counterparts, especially with higher levels of PCBs. Farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply now. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates on average farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in other seafood. Further analysis conducted by EWG estimates that 800,000 people in the U.S. now face an excess lifetime cancer risk from eating farmed salmon.
Researchers, scientists and animal physiologists studying fish for over 30 years confirm that fish experience fear and pain, and can suffer immensely from it, just like all sentient beings. Numerous studies reveal that fish and all vertebrate animals are capable of suffering. “Anatomical, pharmacological and behavioral data suggest that effective states of pain, fear and stress are likely to be experienced by fish in similar ways as in amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.”
Large-scale industrial fishing causes extreme pain and suffering for fish that are caught on long lines and dragged for 24 hours, and suffocated and crushed in nets used by trawler ships. Fish are considered sentient beings, so fishing, according to scientists, is a very cruel, painful experience for them. The scientific literature is clear. Dr. Donald Broom, Professor of Animal Welfare, Cambridge University, argues, “Anatomically, psychologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals … in animal welfare terms, you have to put fishing in the same category as hunting. Culum Brown, Associate Professor at Macquarie University states, “In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates, including non-human primates. Best of all, given the central place memory plays in intelligence and social structures, fish not only recognize individuals but can also keep track of complex social relationships. They have fantastic learning and memory capabilities and can learn all sorts of things and adjust their behaviour. Each fish is an individual.”
Wastefulness – Fish Oil and Fish Feed
Globally we are catching 100 million tons of fish annually. Approximately 30-40 million tons, or 30-40 percent of this catch becomes fish meal to feed factory farmed fish, factory farmed pigs, chickens, cows and even our pets.
The fish oil industry is another extremely wasteful resource especially considering that only 3 percent of fish are composed of fish oil, so it takes an exponential number of fish to produce fish oil capsules. Couple that with the majority of fish oil claims that have been medically and scientifically found to be completely untrue, and unnecessary, coupled with the fact that there are better alternatives and sources of Omega 3 fatty acids that are plant-based and far less destructive to the planet and our ecosystems.
Each of us can take greater responsibility by making choices that don’t contribute to the further depletion of our oceans. Our seas are dying and need your help. Here are some steps to take to help save our oceans today.
Film: Troubled Waters: Documentary About The Impacts of Overfishing
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- Stop Eating Fish Altogether – Our greatest weapon is the fork—adopt a plant-based, animal-free diet that doesn’t cause harm. Plant protein is equally healthy, contains less fat, cholesterol and doesn’t destroy our oceans
- 2nd Best is to Consume Fish More Responsibly, Ethically and Sustainably – By eating less of it and only the fish listed below
- Replace Fish Oil – With vegan plant-based alternatives such as flaxseed oil
- *Don’t Order, Buy or Eat These Fish Ever – Atlantic Halibut (wild), Bluefin Tuna, Deepwater Fish (ALL), Eel, Prawns (wild or farm raised), Marlin, Orange Roughy, Sea bass, Shark, Skate, Spurdog (Spiny Dogfish), Sturgeon Caviar (wild), Swordfish, and Whitebait. *These fish are disappearing and being depleted beyond reproduction and replacement.
- *Avoid These Fish – Pollock, Anchovy from Portugal, Flounder, Haddock, Hake, Halibut (Atlantic, farmed, open net), Herring, Mackerel, Monkfish, Pangasius, Pollack, Red Mullet, Atlantic Salmon (wild), Scampi or Lobsters (wild), Sea bass, Skate and Rays, Shark & Dogfish, Sole, Trout (only farmed), Tuna (all sources). *All are being overfished.
- If You Do Buy Fish, ONLY Purchase These Fish (Mostly Farmed) – Arctic Char (farmed), bass (farmed, US), catfish, clams, oysters, cod (Pacific only), crab (Alaska), freshwater Prawn (US & Canada), Rockfish (Pacific Coast), Black Cod (AK & Canada), Salmon (AK only), Sand dabs (Pacific Coast), Sardines (Pacific Coast), Scallops (farmed), Shrimp (farmed only) Tilapia (Canada & US), and Trout (US farmed only).
- See Fish2Fork’s List – Fish to eat, fish to avoid and sustainable restaurant guide
- Download and Follow – This FREE Good Fish Guide Mobile App
- Download and Print – This pocket-sized Good Fish Guide
- Look at the Labels – The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood eco-label recognizes and rewards sustainable fishing and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certifies responsibly farmed seafood. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) recognizes MSC and ASC certified as a better environmental choice for many seafood products. Get the Good Fish Guide or download the Good Fish Guide Mobile App.
- Shop at the Most Responsible Supermarkets – Buy your seafood from supermarkets that do not buy non-sustainable fish (see above list), and only sell sustainable and farmed fish.
- Choose Organic When Buying Farmed Seafood – Organic farms tend to have lower stocking densities, higher environmental standards and use feed sourced sustainably, so look for the organic label.
- Avoid Eating Sharks and ALL Deepwater Fish – Slow growing, long-lived species such as Redfish and Orange Roughy, breed slowly and are therefore vulnerable to over-exploitation. Fishing for deep-sea fish can harm other sensitive species like cold water coral that may never recover.
- At Grocery Stores and Restaurants – Choose not to order fish at all, or only order from this list: Arctic Char (farmed), bass (farmed, US), catfish, clams, oysters, cod (Pacific only), crab (Alaska), freshwater Prawn (US & Canada), Rockfish (Pacific Coast), Black Cod (AK & Canada), Salmon (AK only), Sand dabs (Pacific Coast), Sardines (Pacific Coast), Scallops (farmed), Shrimp (farmed only) Tilapia (Canada & US), and Trout (US farmed only).
- VOTE for Federal / State Representatives – That will protect our oceans, marine life and environment and support a sustainable way of living and sustainable practices. Vote for legislators that will enact stricter government regulations and agreement to severely limit fishing quotas.
- Go Green – Choose fish caught using methods with lower environmental impact, such as hand lined or pot caught.
- Oppose Fishing, Fishing Contests and Youth Fishing Programs – Suggest more humane alternatives, and non-animal alternatives, speak out against these practices
- Learn More About the Plight of Fish – Learn and advocate for fish by commenting online, signing petitions, informing friends and family, and sharing on social media. For more about Fishes and Fishing, see Fish Feel’s PDF.
Alternatives to Fish and Seafood
- Seaweed – Get healthy fats and DHA from seaweed and sea vegetables. Go directly to the source, where fish get it.
- Sushi – Order vegan California rolls, veggie rolls and teriyaki tofu sushi with lots of avocado, carrot and cucumber and tofu! Or order vegetable tempura or anything with tofu. Or have a Japanese restaurant specially create a veggie roll for you.
- Vegan Seafood – Checkout the many brands producing vegan seafood including Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Seafood, Gardein’s Golden Fishless Filets and Gardein’s Mini Crab-less Cakes, available in Whole Foods and health stores.
- Tofu – Tofu is rich in protein, contains omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acids (ALA) and is a great substitute for fish. Season tofu with garlic powder, onion powder, kelp powder and paprika and coat with light olive oil, and bake or fry.
- Tempeh – Tempeh is rich in protein like tofu, is made from soy, and is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and ALA. Season with garlic powder, kelp flakes and old bay seasoning, then coat with light safflower or olive oil and bake or fry.
- Plant-Based Omega-3 Acids – There are many excellent ways to get omega-3 acids from plant-based sources including from: Flaxseeds, mixed greens, Canola oil, walnuts, soybeans and tofu, chia seeds and algae Spirulina.
Books to Read
- Saved by the Sea: A Love Story with Fish by David Helvarg
- Do Fish Feel Pain? By Victoria Braithwaite
- What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe
- The Empty Ocean by Richard Ellis
- Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse by Dean Bavington
- Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg
- Vegan Seafood: Beyond the Fish Shtick for Vegetarians by Chef Nancy Berkoff
Films About Fish and Seafood
Watch Sea The Truth
Watch The End of the Line
Watch The Ghost Fleet
With Marine Campaigns
- World Wildlife Federation, worldwildlife.org
- Greenpeace, greenpeace.org
- Defenders of Wildlife, defenders.org
Protecting the Ocean
- The Ocean Conservancy, oceanconservancy.org
- Marine Conservation Biology Institute, marine-conservation.org
- Global Coral Reef Alliance, globalcoral.org
- SeaWeb, seaweb.org
Protecting Whales and Marine Life
- American Cetacean Society, acsonline.org
- International Marine Mammal Project, savedolphins.eii.org
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, us.whales.org
Promoting Sustainable Fishing and Protecting Fish
- Wild Oceans (Previously was National Coalition for Marine Conservation), wildoceans.org
More About Fish
Fish Feel, www.fishfeel.org