The damage caused by fish consumption

Fishing and fish farming are damaging the ocean’s ecology. More than a third of the fish stocks around the world are being overfished and the problem is particularly acute in developing countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a recent report. “While developed countries are improving the way they manage their fisheries, developing countries face a worsening situation,” the FAO said. In 2017, 34.2% of the fish stocks of the world’s marine fisheries were classified as overfished, a “continuous increasing trend” since 1974 when it stood at just 10%.

This is not surprising since worldwide per capita fish consumption set a new record of 20.5 kg (45.2 pounds) per year in 2018. This compares with 9kg (20 pounds) per person in 1961. The scope of this problem can partly gauged by the fact that there are now over four million commercial fishing vessels combing the world’s oceans, depleting fish at a rate that’s considered much faster than is sustainable.

Industrial fishing is incredibly wasteful. Let’s take a look at how the fish are actually caught. Long nets often stretching for miles, are used by industrial fishing boats. In addition to the fish they intend to catch, they also catch many non-food species of fish which are then thrown back dead or dying – this is known as by-catch. A shocking 35 percent of global fish catches get thrown overboard or rots before eating. These species, which have been killed for no useful purpose, are removed from the oceanic food chain causing massive ecological disruption. Sensitive sea mammals also get caught in the nets, and often die as a result.

Then there’s the fact that 37 percent, or 31.5 million tons, of all fish taken from the world’s oceans each year go to feed farmed animals. They are ground up into fishmeal and oil for feeding to chicken, pigs and the fish raised in fish farms. These so-called forage fish, small fish such as anchovies that larger fish rely on for their own food, are being removed from the world’s oceans, making it harder for the larger fish, such as tuna, to survive. It is incredibly damaging to the ecology of the oceans to have such large amounts of these forage fish removed, and it’s so unnecessary.

That leaves only 28% of the fish caught available for food to feed people. This is a sobering number, considering the many people suffering from lack of food. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist and professor at University of British Columbia, points out that twenty-five per cent of infants are malnourished in Peru, where half of the world’s fishmeal using anchovies is produced.

Around 40 percent of all fish consumed annually are raised in fish farms, but these are no better for the environment. Fish are held in pens and are fed huge amounts of concentrated protein pellets. The leftover pellets, and the waste from the fish themselves, sink to the bottom of the ocean, generating bacteria which consume the oxygen that shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures need to survive, thus destroying their habitats.

The amount of waste produced by fish farms is staggering. For instance, fish farms off the coast of British Columbia produce as much waste as 680,000 people. Daniel Pauly has termed fish farms as “floating pig farms” because they produce many of the same environmental problems as land-based farms, if not even more.  Fish farms also generate a lot of pollution due to the pesticides used to control algae and antibiotics used to prevent disease from overcrowding.

As if commercial fishing and fish farming weren’t harmful enough to the oceans, land-based animal farms are hurting the oceans as well.  Substances found in animal waste, and fertilizers used to grow animal feed, end up in our rivers and streams where they are washed downstream into the oceans. There they cause algal blooms, which use up oxygen in the water contributing to dead zones, where there’s not enough oxygen to support aquatic life.  For instance, in the Gulf of Mexico the dead zone stretches over 7,700 square miles. This pollution was causing major problems to the biodiversity of the Gulf, long before the big BP oil spill came along. The problem of dead zones has become widespread. The UN reports that there are now 150 such dead zones around the world.

Now for the good news. We don’t need to eat meat or fish to thrive. You can do your part to help save the world’s oceans and the fish that live in them by following a healthy vegetarian diet, thus reducing the amount of pollution in our oceans, improving the ecosystem, and leaving the fish to live out their lives in peace and freedom.