~The ethical and environmental implications of fish farms against a backdrop of depleting wild fish stocks~

Written by Lauren Wills

The ethics behind our meal choices are more poignant than ever before. As mass media takes heed of the environmental and animal welfare implications of land-based animal agriculture, more people are considering the wider impact of their diets. But, as is often the case in deliberations about animal sentience and intelligence, fish are largely absolved from consideration, leaving an expanse of unanswered questions about the most ethical way to eat fish – and whether seafood consumption can be deemed ethical at all. 

The Issue with Ocean Fishing

Humans are ditching plastic straws in a bid to protect turtles and other marine animals; meanwhile, the fact that buying seafood poses a far greater threat goes largely amiss.

For every pound of fish caught, roughly five pounds of other animals are caught, killed, and discarded as by-catch; marine creatures from turtles and seals to dolphins, whales, and sharks are the ‘by-kill’ of ocean fishing. Every year, up to 50 million sharks alone are killed in fishing lines and nets, while scientists formerly warned that 650,000 seals, dolphins, and whales are killed by fishing vessels. It has become a widely discussed scientific belief that we could face fishless oceans by 2048.

An example of by catch occouring in our Oceans

Extremely inefficient, commercial fishing is simply not a sustainable practice. Each year, almost 30 million tonnes – 40 per cent – of fish caught is discarded as waste, killed for zero purpose. This occurs amongst a backdrop in which, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 80 per cent of global fish stocks are “fully-to-over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse.” Even this troubling estimation may understate the issue. A study released in the Nature Communications Journal noted that across the world, catches are on average 30 to 50 per cent higher than the figures put forth by the FAO. Their estimations may also exclude the impact of illegal fishing, which the World Ocean Review estimates may total between 11 million and 28 million tonnes of catch.

Examination of bluefin tuna highlights the devastation of fish stocks across the Pacific. As demand for the fish soared, in 2016 only 2.6 per cent of bluefin caught were old enough to reproduce. Toshio Katsukawa of the University of Tokyo’s Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute affirms that “Nearly all tuna… are caught before they are five years old…which means they only spawn once or twice in their lifetimes.” In other words, fishing not only removes life from the oceans, but obstructs new life from coming into existence. Despite the undeniable impact of fishing on marine animal lifespans and the wider eco-system, Kazue Komatsubara, a Greenpeace Japan ocean campaigner, laments that “People have a hard time accepting that it’s a threatened species, especially as every supermarket sells tuna fillets.” The demand for the fish remains, despite the fact that Pacific bluefin tuna is classed as “vulnerable” and the Atlantic species are officially “endangered.”

Nonetheless, the ethics of pillaging our oceans for human consumption is increasingly questioned by influential figures, including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Last year, the philanthropist met with the Belize prime minister, Dean Barrow, to discuss a ban on gillnet fishing. Branson dubbed the practice a “horrendous way of killing many, many, many species under the sea that should not be killed.”

And Branson is not the only big-name taking action against the detrimental consequences of fishing. In November, Nestlé, the world’s biggest food and beverage corporation, and major UK supermarket Tesco joined the Canadian government and a hoard of other supporters in backing the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), in a bid to help remove the 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear abandoned in our oceans yearly. Ghost gear – abandoned fishing nets, lines, and traps – can remain in the ocean for 600 years, and according to World Animal Protection, “when lost…continues to fish.” Researchers believe that almost one third of the decline in fish stocks is caused by ghost gear. A further 71 per cent of marine animal entanglements – often leading to death – involve fishing equipment. Again, it is not plastic straws or even microbeads posing the greatest threat to our oceans, but fishing equipment. According to the Ocean Cleanup Campaign, fishing nets comprise almost 50 per cent of the world’s plastic ocean pollution; other fishing materials are the second biggest contributor. 

Is Farmed Fish the Solution?

“The aquaculture industry is like a whale on steroids, growing faster than any other animal agriculture segment and now accounting for half the fish eaten in the U.S,” says Mind Body Green. To many, farmed fishing is the obvious solution to several issues resulting from ocean fishing. 

The ethics of farmed fish, however, is not easily defended. A study by the University of Melbourne found that intensively-farmed salmon, forced to grow at unnatural rates in the interests of economic yield and efficiency, frequently suffer inner-ear deformities and deafness. The condition affects over 95 per cent of fully-grown factory-farmed fish globally. The study’s co-author, Dr Tim Dempster, said“These results raise serious questions about the welfare of farmed fish.” A further study by the Royal Society Open Science found that significant numbers of farmed salmon suffer from severe depression. The fish experience high levels of the stress-response hormone cortisol as well as increased activity in the serotonergic system – a fundamental regulator of mood; these physiological changes are also found in humans living in extreme poverty. Understandably, more and more accusations of fish welfare failures hit media headlines last year.

Salmon Fish Farms in a Scottish Loch

When it comes to slaughter time, many farmed fish across the globe are removed from water, transported on long journeys, and killed without stunning, sometimes thrown into ice to freeze the animals to death. Vicky Bond, the Managing Director of The Humane League UK, advocates for the need to tackle fish farming, urging humans to prioritise the sentience and ecological value of fish above taste preferences. She stresses, “There are over 300,000 individual species of fish, and each differ massively from one to another. We… know they have long-term memories, have emotionally complex social relationships, they plan and have the ability to problem-solve. Some have even shown to use tools.” 

Tanks, utterly unsuitable to accommodate their inhabitants’ intelligence and capacity to feel, offer no quality of life to fish. Instead, ill-hygiene results in frequent parasite outbreaks. Half of Scottish salmon farms are believed to be infested with sea lice, while in 2016 an outbreak occurred across Sweden, Norway, and Chile. In 2016, The Telegraph reported that over 175,000 fish were “poached alive” in Scotland when a device intended to remove sea lice malfunctioned.

And, despite common belief, fish farming does not even protect other marine life from death. Farmed fish are known to escape, spreading parasites and disease to local marine life. Contamination from fish farms is a serious and costly issue;a study in the Journal of Environmental Managementdescribed Sweden’s aquaculture as “not only ecologically but also economically unsustainable,” while a study in China found that lake-based fish farming offered an “economically irrational choice from the perspective of the whole society, with an unequal trade-off between environmental costs and economic benefits.” To maximise yield, chemicals are often used to treat the water in tanks and remove lice. These chemicals have been found to change the genetic expression of wild shrimp in the ocean surrounding fish farms. Even when farms tried to decrease their reliance on chemical lice treatments, they implemented the use of smaller, “cleaner” fish – usually Wrasse – to eat the lice living on the salmon. These fish have an almost 100 per cent mortality rate. Meanwhile, wild fish continue to be caught for the purposes of feeding farmed fish, as well as other factory-raised animals.  

On top of this, natural predators like seals can legally be slaughtered if deemed ‘too near’ to fish farms. Hundreds of seals are killed every year by farmers, and a study by Scotland’s Rural College and the universities of Bristol and Edinburgh found that more than one third of the dead seals sent for analysis were pregnant.

According to Bond, when it comes to fishing – in the sea and on farms – “All the signs are telling us that what we’re doing is wrong.” She adds, “it is our duty to protect those animals on factory farms from the worst kinds of suffering.” Though it may incite irritation among seafood lovers, the solution to protecting our oceans, minimising animal suffering, and most ethically consuming seafood, is simply to not. 

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