End of the line | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

End of the line

How commercial fishing is devastating the world’s oceans

State of the Seas / Fishing Methods / Bycatch / Shellfish / Fish Farming / Do fish feel pain? / Fish and Health

State of the Seas

None so deaf as those who don’t want to hear
I’ve spent a great deal of my life around fish. As a kid back in the 40s and 50s, I watched my friends’ mothers earning desperately needed cash by ‘braiding’ (making) fishing nets from sisal yarn in their back yards. And it was commonplace to be awoken in the early hours by the clack of early-morning wooden clogs on paving stones as ‘lumpers’ made their way to the docks. These were the men who unloaded trawlers of their catch.

So much fish was landed that, in the absence of reliable freezing techniques, much of it never found a market and was trundled down the road to the fertiliser factory. It was much the same story in Hull, Fleetwood and Peterhead.

It was a very long time ago and I thought little about the cruelty of fishing or its appalling environmental impact - but I do now and the complacency with which both are treated shocks me. I have watched cod wars come and go, fishing limits extended, quotas introduced along with a common fisheries policy. But the rape continues even more aggressively than it did in my childhood. I wonder how many more warnings we need before meaningful action is taken. As individuals, of course, we can take immediate action and I would urge everyone who reads this guide to do so.

Serene on the surface but in tumult below  

Managed to death
Humankind’s mismanagement of the seven seas is a lesson in stupidity, greed and utter disregard for the natural world - and it’s all done under the pretext of being ‘managed’.

Canada should have taught everyone a lesson. In the 1960s, 800,000 tons of cod were dragged from the sea bottom every year off the east coast of Newfoundland. In 1975, only 300,000 tons could be found and by the 1980s it was down to 250,000 but scientists continued to give the go ahead.

In 1992, devastation struck with a complete collapse of the fishery. Total cod stocks in these once-teeming waters were estimated at just 1,700 tons. (1). Scientists said not to worry because the fish would quickly recover. That was 13 years ago and they show no signs of doing so. Icelandic and European cod stocks are now heading in exactly the same direction. We know that fishing is unsustainable yet the numbers caught have doubled in under 30 years.
In 2003, the UK had 7,283 fishing vessels which landed 631,000 tonnes of fish valued at £521 million - plus about another 200,000 tonnes worth £1,437 million were imported - figures reflected in many other countries so that the total global catch stands at 93.2 million tonnes (2002), with a further 39.8 million tonnes from fish farms (2) (see Fish Farming page 13).

Past the peak
The year 2000 was the high water mark for fish catches when 94.8 million tonnes were caught (3). Despite bigger ships and high tech gear such as fish finding sonar and satellite navigation (4), largely funded with massive subsidies, the global catch is now declining.

It’s not surprising, then, that in 2002, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) declared that 75 per cent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over exploited or significantly depleted (3).

Even the organisation set up to share out the spoils of oceanic plunder, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), issued glum warnings in 2003 that only 18 per cent of the fish stocks were ‘within safe biological limits’ (5) - a way of saying that 82 per cent of all the fish stocks are on the road to extinction.

Deep water fish
So voracious is the appetite for fish that when one species starts to decline, the industry simply moves on to another species. And once they start, no attempt is made to monitor the effects of their plunder.

The orange roughy is the classic example. Most fish are caught in comparatively shallow waters but in the 1980s they began to exploit some of the world’s deepest oceans and proceeded to sweep the sea bed clean. They came up with a range of bizarre-looking animals which no one had seen before - rattails, black scabbards, slackjaw eels, grenadiers, blue hake, sablefish and orange roughy amongst them (6). Most were turned into fish and fake crab sticks.

It was soon discovered that at these extraordinary cold depths, life moves at a different pace. The fish grow and reproduce very slowly and the orange roughy can live to be 150 years old and only begins to reproduce at the age of 30. Predictably, the stocks have now collapsed but the huge investment in new gear means that the fishing continues (7).

  Trawling is the most common form of fishing and the most damaging

Going down
As well as seeking new species of fish, the fishing industry is constantly descending the marine ladder - fishing lower and lower down the food chain. Catching smaller and smaller fish ensures there will be no recovery of the depleted big fish. A report in the journal Science spelt it out: “If things go unchecked we might end up with a marine junkyard dominated by plankton” (8).

The studies pile one on top of another. One published in 2003 looked at once-common fish such as tuna, cod, halibut and flounder (4) and found that 90 per cent have disappeared since the 1950s. Cod, sturgeon, skate, haddock, swordfish and all species of tuna, except skipjack, are listed as vulnerable or globally endangered by the World Conservation Union (9).

According to the Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR), 40 of the 60 main commercial fish stocks in this huge area risk extinction or are being heavily overfished (10). It’s a similar story in the North and Baltic Seas.

The way in which the sea is raped without any understanding the scale of its enormous diversity or its importance was revealed by an expedition to the Weddell sea in Antarctica between 2002 and 2005.
The Zoological Institute of the University of Hamburg discovered 700 species which were entirely new to science. Even this remarkable discovery will not prevent fishing interests trying to establish which are edible and then ripping the sea bed to shreds in order to catch them (16).

Questioning quotas
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) demolished the myth that quotas were effective when in 2004 it reported that a half of the fish landed by UK ships were from unsustainable sources (11).

Warnings are simply ignored. The EC said in 1995 that the EU fishing fleet was 40 per cent too big for sustainability but little has changed (5).

One of the most admired fish is the Atlantic salmon yet this celebrity status has done little to protect it, numbers collapsing by half in 20 years, according to the Marine Conservation Society (9). This magnificent species is now officially listed as ‘threatened’ by OSPAR (12).

In 2002 and 2003, ICES called for a total ban on cod fishing in the North, Baltic and Irish Seas and an end catching deep water fish such as the orange roughy (5). It didn’t happen. The RCEP called for an end to deep-sea trawling in UK waters in 2004 and the closure of 30 per cent of coastal fishing grounds (11). It didn’t happen. It demanded that the seas be treated similarly to an endangered land habitat. It didn’t happen.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is raking in global catches worth up to £5.15 billion annually, according to the Marine Assessment Research Group, commissioned by a British chaired group of fisheries ministers. It makes a nonsense of existing agreements and so-called voluntary international monitoring and also the new buzz phrase – ‘sustainable sources’. So called sustainable fisheries are impossible to police (15).

I see no ships!

The only people still arguing that there is no crisis, it seems, are politicians and fishermen themselves. For those inclined to believe them, look back to Canada: “Our captains are convinced that northern cod are as plentiful as ever offshore and our vessels have few problems catching their trip allotments throughout the year!” Two years later the fishery collapsed (13).

Fishing Methods

Nothing is overlooked when it comes to killing fish
The four main methods used for sea fishing are seine netting, trawling, gill netting and hook and line fishing. But added to this is an extraordinary variety of different ways of killing fish - from poisoning to explosives, spearing to bamboo traps.

The seine net is used throughout the world to encircle fish. Mostly employed for catching pelagic fish such as mackerel, tuna, pilchard and sprat it is also used in some areas for demersal species such as haddock and cod.

Described by the Marine Conservation Society as “one of the most aggressive methods of fishing” (1), purse seining involves encircling a school of fish such as tuna, mackerel and herring, on or near the surface, with a large wall of net and then drawing the net together underneath like a purse, completely surrounding it.

Trawls are funnel shaped nets with a wide mouth attached to a boat by steel hawsers. When two boats haul one net between them it is known as pair trawling. In otter trawling, the net is towed behind the boat along the sea bed. At the top of the mouth are floats and on the bottom, weights while at either side are large wood and metal otter boards which pull the net’s mouth wide open as they pass through the water. Otter boards do something else - they crush and grind everything in their path as they ply backwards and forwards, day after day, month after month.

Once fish enter the net they are funnelled down into a narrow sleeve known as the ‘cod end’. The first fish in are dragged along for hours and may ‘drown’ as other fish pile in on top of them, making it impossible for their gills to extract oxygen from the water. Others, as they are hauled up from the depths, experience a massive drop in pressure which can cause their eyes to balloon out and their swim bladders to burst. So huge are some modern nets that they can measure 224ft across (2).

A variation of otter trawling is beam trawling, where a metal beam runs along the top of the net supported on skids while at the bottom are ‘tickler’ chains, designed to drive every fish out of its hiding place and into the mouth of the net. They also effectively plough the sea bed to a depth of several centimetres over and over again.

Trawls pick up every conceivable type of sea creature that happens to be in their path (see Bycatch page 7).

There are also static methods of fishing which include nets, lines and pots, the latter two being baited with dead fish.

The main static nets used are gill nets and drift nets. Gill nets are walls of netting which can be set anywhere between the surface and the sea bottom. The mesh entangles fish by their gills.

Tangle nets are more loosely constructed than gill nets and tangle fish in their cords and trammel nets are a variation of this.

Drift nets are gill nets that are allowed to drift through the oceans, capturing a variety of fish.

Hook and line
Longlines are used to catch both demersal and pelagic fishes and consist of a length of fishing line which can be anything up 100km (62 miles) long with short lines hanging down from it, attached to which are baited hooks. The lines are set for a period of 12 to 24 hours. Unfortunately, not just fish are caught; thousands of sea turtles and albatrosses perish by taking the bait (see Bycatch page 7).

Several of these lines may be towed slowly through the water to catch predatory fish such as cod who are attracted by a moving bait. Hand held or mechanically operated rods with baited hooks or lures may also be used. Jigging is one method, where a grapnel of sharp hooks is jerked into the fish’s body by an automated rod or by hand, a method often used to catch squid at night after they have been attracted to the surface with lights.

Pots are a form of trap used to capture some fish and molluscs but mainly crustaceans. They are baited, weighted down and lowered to the sea bed. Once inside, captives are unable to escape and are collected when the pots are hauled in. If lost at sea, these traps can continue to capture creatures for years (3) (see Shellfish page 10).

Dredgers are used for collecting molluscs such as mussels, scallops and oysters. There are two types of dredgers, mechanical and hydraulic. A mechanical dredge is a metal-framed mouth attached to a mesh bag made from metal chain-link. The dredge is dragged across the sea bed and metal teeth fixed to the mouth rake shellfish into the bag. Up to eight dredges may be towed at the same time.

An hydraulic dredge has nozzles attached to its mouth which pump sea water at high pressure on to the sea bed in front of the dredge to flush the shellfish out (4).

Dynamite fishing
Explosives tend to be used in poorer countries such as the Philippines in shallow waters around reefs. They are devastating and as well as killing fish, destroy the reefs themselves. It is a method prohibited in EU waters and many other regions (5).

Cyanide is used by fishermen in many areas of South East Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, to stun reef fish which are then exported for the live fish food market or aquarium trade. Although prohibited, it still continues for the so-called gourmet delicacies trade (5). The poison damages the reef and kills many plants and animals.

Harpooning is done on the surface for large, high-value fish such as basking sharks and bluefin tuna. The harpoon has fiercely-barbed shafts of metal attached to a handle and may be thrown by hand or fired from a gun. It does not kill the animal immediately but allows them to be hauled in. It is a barbaric method which causes immense suffering.

Whales are supposedly killed by explosive harpoons which are detonated inside the whale’s body, causing horrendous damage but not necessarily death.

The eyes of every fish bulge from their heads in an alien environment  


Living ‘trash’ of the fishing industry
‘Bycatch’ is one of those euphemistic words used to disguise unpleasant happenings - like ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. It is the annual toll of millions of creatures who are caught up in fishing nets along with the target prey. Included are not just many different species of fish but dolphins, porpoises, sharks, turtles, seals and even sea birds and most of these are dead or dying when shovelled back into the sea.

An estimated 27 million metric tonnes of living detritus - equal to 35 per cent of the total global fisheries catch - is thrown back every year as unwanted trash. And even this is a likely underestimate (1). The fisheries with the highest levels of bycatch are those catching shrimps and often over 80 per cent of any catch is made up of species other than shrimp (2). Not surprisingly, shrimping accounts for over 30 per cent of the world’s discarded catch while producing less than two per cent of its seafood (3).

Almost everything that is hauled out of the sea as bycatch is returned dead, due to crushing, drowning, suffocation and changes in pressure. It destroys intricate ecosystems and is driving some species to extinction (4).

The fact that EU fishing policies are doing more harm than good was laid bare by EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg in 2007. He revealed that every year, billions of dead fish are dumped back into the sea – 500,000 to 800,000 tonnes – because they are too small or are in excess of the allowed quota. The worst offenders are sole fishermen in the Southern North Sea whose small mesh nets capture almost everything. Up to 90 per cent of the entire catch is routinely thrown back (20).

Just to ensure that fishing companies are adequately rewarded for their vandalism, between 2000 and 2006, the EU gave 4.1 billion euros in subsidies to them. Individual countries provided a further two billion euros (20).

  Many shark species are facing extinction

Whales and sharks
Probably the best known example of bycatch is that of dolphins caught in tuna nets. While making sympathetic noises about the destruction of dolphins, fishing fleets pursue and net pods of dolphins because they know that where there are dolphins there are likely to be schools of yellow fin tuna, on which they feed. There has been some reduction in dolphin deaths over the last decade but still at least 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are killed globally every year (5) and their long-term survival is threatened (6). It is made worse by an increase in UK cetacean strandings - doubling in the last 10 years as a result of increased fishing activity (7).

The Convention on Migratory Species has listed many causes of cetacean death, including deliberate catching, ‘culling’ and accidental killing, which together account for 56.2 per cent of all deaths. When pollution and habitat destruction are also included, humans are responsible for 93 per cent of all small cetacean deaths. Not a proud record! (8)

The biggest threat to cetaceans comes from gill nets and pair trawls (9) but almost any kind of fishing gear can and does produce bycatch (4).

Gill nets (see Fishing Methods page 5) are walls of netting set at any depth with mesh size dependent upon which fish is being targeted. They are caught by their gills as they attempt to swim through the net (10). Many mammals are also caught and drown through lack of air. Bottom-set gill nets are a particular problem for harbour porpoises (11).

The most widely used type of fishing in northwest Europe is trawling (see Fishing Methods page 5), which catches more fish than any other method (10). Trawls target a wide range of shoaling fish (12) but also catch a variety of organisms such as worms and starfish.
It’s thought that cetaceans might purposely enter the nets, attracted by the mass of fish life trapped in them (12). Unable to escape, they die from asphyxiation. Large whales may be able to break free but can die a lingering death because of their injuries (13). Greenpeace estimates that around 10,000 dolphins and porpoises die annually around the UK and French coasts (14).

Banning trawling up to 12 miles from shore failed to reduce the number of casualties so the Government called for a ban on fishing for sea bass in these areas. The European Commission rejected it on the grounds that the scientific data did not justify an immediate ban (15).

Of course, some cetaceans are hauled in alive with the nets (16) and what happens to them is anyone’s guess as some fishermen see them as competition for dwindling fish stocks.

At least one third of these creatures will be bycatch - dead bycatch  

Sharks are equally at risk as cetaceans but are not newsworthy, despite being under huge pressure. An estimated 100 million are killed each year, either accidentally or for the rapidly growing shark’s fin soup trade. With late maturity and slow gestation, they may never recover form this onslaught and some species are facing imminent extinction.

Birdlife International claims that longline fishing (see Fishing Methods page 5) is the single greatest threat to the world’s seabirds (17), with an estimated 300,000 being killed every year, including 100,000 albatrosses. The problem arises when birds dive to grab the fish with which the hooks are baited, impaling themselves on the sharp barbs (18). As the lines are paid out, the birds are dragged down below the surface and drown. As a direct result of longlining, some species of bird have declined by as much as 90 per cent since the 1940s (19).

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that 40,000 sea turtles across the world are also killed in this way every year and it is feared that the once abundant Leatherback turtle will be extinct within five years.

There is an almost complete absence of policy on reducing bycatch at both a national or EU level. It’s the same old story, that nothing must be allowed to impact on fishermen’s profitability. It is always economics that wins in the end.

A solution?
The world’s oceans and all the creatures who depend upon them are under such pressure that there is only one cure to these massive problems and that is to stop buying anything which comes from the sea.

  Lobster are one of the most valued of all species


The fastest growing animal industry
Shellfish are big business - very, very big business. In 2003, UK fishing vessels landed 137,600 tonnes in the UK and abroad - and this is almost certainly a significant underestimate. They make up 29 per cent of the total UK fish catch and account for 44 per cent of its value (1).

The types of fish classified as shellfish aren’t always obvious. As well as those with a hard outer shell such as oysters, mussels and whelks (molluscs) are octopus, squid and cuttlefish (cephalopods), crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters and prawns (nephrops) and starfish, urchins and sea cucumbers (echinoderms). Most live on the sea bed and all are under threat from humans.

The main target for shellfish catchers in the UK are crabs and nephrops but as their numbers collapse across the world, they are increasingly being factory farmed, with all the problems this entails. Worldwide, 28,048,137 tons of crustaceans and molluscs, both wild and factory farmed, were landed in 2002 (2).

Dredges are used to capture wild molluscs from the sea bed, including scallops, oysters and mussels (See Fishing Methods page 5). In the UK, crayfish and molluscs are also farmed and there are now over 500 farms (4).

Oysters are bred in hatcheries and then grown on in the sea, usually in plastic mesh bags supported by steel trestles. Mussels are induced to settle on hanging or floating ropes or in suspended cages hung from rafts. Another method is called ‘bottom culture’, where young mussels are removed from their natural beds and placed in ‘lays’ in sheltered, protected areas to grow.

Intensive farming of these kinds increases competition for food with wild animals, produces large amounts of faecal waste and causes diseases to spread rapidly. Natural predators such as starfish and eider ducks are attracted to the beds and are often killed by fish farmers (3) and the liberal use of drugs may lead to antibiotic resistance, with its threat to human health (5).

The species most threatened are edible crabs and lobsters which are classified as ‘non-pressure’ stocks, so there is no kill quota and they have inevitably become vulnerable to overfishing (6).

Edible crabs are common around the British Isles and are caught in pot traps or creels and sometimes in nets. Pots are small traps baited with dead fish and with an entrance large enough to allow the animals in but designed so they cannot find their way back out. Deposited on the sea bed in strings, they are later retrieved by the fishing vessel.

For lobsters, parlour, creel or inkwell pots are used but they all work in similar ways. Pots are sometimes lost at sea and but will continue to trap animals through what is termed ‘ghost fishing’. The result is death from hunger or cannibalism (7). Most modern pots are made from plastic-coated or galvanised wire and nylon netting, making them virtually indestructible.

Shrimp are also known as prawns and in 2001, more than four million tons were produced globally - about three quarters wild-caught, the rest from shrimp farms. China is the biggest player and in 2000 caught 1.2 million tons - twice as much as any of its nearest competitors, India, Thailand and Indonesia (8). Annual global sales are about US$50-60 billion, and grow by nine per cent every year (9).

Wild shrimp are caught in trawls with all the damage this entails - likened to the clear-felling of forests (10). It is mostly coastal waters which are fished, the places which also act as a nursery for a wide variety of fish and these juveniles are routinely caught and die. This has implications for future fish stocks (11).

Shrimping accounts for one-third of the world’s bycatch while producing less than two per cent of global seafood (8). Almost all the world’s shrimp stocks are fully or over-exploited (12), one reason why shrimp farming is growing so rapidly.

Shrimp are farmed mainly in Asia and Latin America but also in Africa, Australia, India and the Hebrides. It is the usual saga of destruction (see Fish Farming page 13). From 1985 to 1995, the world’s shrimp farmers used 36 million tons of wild fish to produce just 7.2 million tons of shrimp (14) and some 50 per cent of this was imported into the US. Other western countries account for almost all the rest (16). The Worldwatch Institute describes shrimp farming as: “One of the most lucrative and ecologically destructive fisheries in the world” (13).

With 7,283 vessels operating from the UK alone, pressure on fish stocks is remorseless  

Mangrove forests are extraordinary places which fringe much of the world’s coastline and provide the most productive and important habitat in all the oceans. Ninety per cent of marine fish rely upon them for spawning and over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants thrive there but they are being trashed faster than anyone can count (15).
Mangroves once covered three-quarters of the coastlines of tropical and sub-tropical countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador, Panama and others. Today, less than 50 per cent remains and more than half this remnant is degraded. Nearly one quarter has been destroyed in the last two decades primarily to make way for shrimp farms (8).

Intensive shrimp farms are productive for just five to 10 years before being abandoned - usually moving elsewhere and destroying more mangroves and more communities. The land left behind is effectively dead - too saline for agriculture or for the mangrove forests to regenerate.

Food poisoning risk
Many shellfish are plankton feeders who filter large quantities of sea water through their bodies to find food. To protect against contamination from pollutants, it follows that the water they filter should be clean. With toxic residues now in all sea water, combined with drug residues and faecal waste, clean water is a rare commodity and is why shellfish carry high food poisoning risks.

  A typical fish farm can cover several hectares

Fish Farming

Not a solution but part of the problem
Fish farming is called ‘aquaculture’, a benign-sounding little word which gives no indication of its extraordinarily damaging and unsustainable nature. It is the cultivation of fish and shellfish by humans and mirrors almost exactly intensive farming of livestock on land, including the overuse of drugs, antibiotics and pesticides and appalling animal welfare.

In 2002, fish farming accounted for 39.8 million tonnes of global fish production (1). As wild fish stocks decline, farming fish is where the profits now lie and it is the fastest growing sector of the world food economy (2). In the UK, it is the second largest livestock sector after broiler chickens with almost all the fish being intensively reared (3). Almost every supermarket salmon is factory farmed as increasingly are trout and cod (4).

Like caging swallows
The salmon has thrilled and excited humans for centuries with it sheer strength, its incredible homing instinct and its mysterious life, returning from the sea to spawn in the rivers where it was spawned. Captive versions have now been bred and are imprisoned in overcrowded, filthy cages. It is like caging swallows!

Far from aquaculture being the answer to falling wild stocks of fish, as is claimed, it helps to accelerate that decline.

Endemic disease
Intensive fish farms are rife with similar problems to factory farms on land - overcrowding, use of drugs, widespread disease, bad welfare, barbaric slaughter and a threat to human health (see Fish and Health page 20).

The two main types of fish farming are coastal and inland. Inland farms use water pens, tanks, fast-flowing raceways or earth ponds, depending upon the species and stage of development.

Salmon and trout eggs may be stripped from the parent fish and start life in freshwater hatcheries before being transferred to sea farms. A single farm can cover many hectares and rear up to one million fish (5). Fish and shellfish may also be taken from the wild and moved into farms to grow.

In sea farms, faeces, uneaten feed, lice, disease, bacteria and escapee fish pass straight into the ocean and although the water in inland fish tanks is just as polluted, it is disposed of differently.

If the flow of water through a farm is from a river, the effluent is filtered and released back into that same river, its quality greatly reduced. In times of drought, the flow of fresh water is reduced and so waste increases in concentration.

Imprisoned in cages, farmed fish have nowhere to go but around in circles  

Just another industry
Fish are sold by size and when buyers specify a certain size, only these fish are removed from a pond. A former fish farmer with a senior position told Viva!:

“When I was studying aquaculture at agricultural college, the word ‘welfare’ was never mentioned and it was the same when I began work. The only concern was over ‘mortality’, but that was about profit and not welfare. Some level of fish mortality is accepted so long as the group of fish as a whole remains profitable.

“The fish farming industry is as corrupt as any other. Farms will flush effluent downstream on a stormy night, fish escape and are not recorded, they are moved from farm to farm without a licence and banned substances may be used. Fish are constantly manhandled and are left to deteriorate and die if injured or diseased. I’ve seen fish with two heads, with their upper jaws missing and with fins missing as a result of inbreeding and disease.

“Throughout their lives, fish are manhandled by humans, causing huge stress. If a restaurant wants 20 fish of a certain size, the farmer will net a whole pond and keep the fish out of the water while he finds the right-sizes. And it can happen over and over again.

“Fish on farms are selectively bred. When females are stripped of eggs, most are anaesthetised to help relax their muscles. The eggs are then kept in trays until they hatch to become alevins and are then fed on powdered/pelleted food until they’re old enough to go into the pens.

“Fish farms are generally very isolated so people don’t notice cruelty and, of course, the fish can’t make a noise. Their lifecycle is completely unnatural - they live to eat, grow and be slaughtered.”

Making a killing

Our former fish farmer explains fish slaughter:

“Some farms use electric baths to stun the fish, which are then netted and gutted. Some hit them over the head with a ‘priest’ - a heavy, blunt weapon. The stomach is then slit open and the guts removed by hand. Fish are often killed and gutted alive or left to suffocate as there is little attention paid to suffering.”

Here and now
UK production is dominated by two species - salmon (96 per cent of all farmed fish) and fresh-water trout (3.7 per cent) (6). Scottish lochs are a favoured location, with 340 salmon farms. Production has increased from 800 tonnes in 1980 to 145,609 tonnes in 2002 (7). Globally, the annual production of farmed salmon grew 16-fold to over one million tonnes between 1985 and 2000, overtaking the catch of wild salmon.

According to the Worldwatch Institute: “No form of aquaculture chews through more of the world’s marine life than does salmon farming.(8)” Salmon are fed pellets primarily made up of wild-caught fish such as anchovies, mackerel and capelin.

For every tonne of farmed salmon produced, three to four tonnes of ‘industrial’ fish are caught, mostly from the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru and the Northeast Atlantic. In just 15 years, stocks of South American pilchard have crashed by 99 per cent (8).

  A blood-sucking sea louse

Blood suckers
Parasites are so common that they are the single biggest health problem for fish (3). A combination of large numbers of lice and escaping fish have been blamed for contributing to the precipitous drop in wild salmon numbers.

Lice feed on mucus, blood and skin of salmonid fish such as salmon and trout, leading to deep, open wounds, stress and death (9). They are highly infectious and can lead to the destruction of all fish - 10 million farmed salmon died in Norway in 2001 alone (8). Pesticides used to combat lice are particularly damaging as lice are crustaceans and what kills them can also kill lobsters, crabs and shrimps

The fate of most lobsters is to be boiled alive  

Farmers have resorted to antibiotics, pesticides, disinfectants and growth-promoters in exactly the same way as livestock farmers. In 1989, just three chemicals were fed to farmed salmon but by 2000, it was 26 (10). The continuing use of antibiotics will add to the already deadly problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans (8).

Colour me pink
Deprived of their natural food sources, the flesh of farmed salmon is grey, not pink. To remedy this they are fed an artificial colouring called canthaxanthin (11). Farmers can choose precisely which shade of pink they prefer from a ‘SalmoFan’ colour chart (12). The problem is, canthaxanthin, which is banned as a food additive, has been linked to eye defects in children (13) and is banned in the US because it is believed to be carcinogenic.

  Disease is commonplace amongst farmed fish, often due to excess handling

One tonne of farmed trout produces pollution equal to the untreated sewage of 200-300 humans. Ammonia pollution in Scotland from fish farming is comparable to the sewage produced by 9.4 million people (14). Toxic build-up around fish cages includes nitrates, phosphates and nitrogenous waste products, which can lead to algal blooms and eutrophication - the destruction of all vital oxygen in the water through bacterial action. As a result, the state of Alaska banned all fish farming in 1990 (8).

Highly-poisonous environmental pollutants are now present in all fish but are more concentrated in farmed fish because of the large amounts of wild-caught fish they eat (see Fish and Health page 20).

The great escape
Fish frequently escape from coastal farms and in Scotland the figure is one million in five years, according to the Worldwatch Institute (8). The disease and parasite burden they carry and their interbreeding with wild fish results in hybridisation, which threatens wild fish with extinction (15).

In the developing world it is mangrove swamps that are the favoured sites for fish farms. Mangroves provide the most important habitat in the oceans yet are being destroyed wholesale to farm expensive fish such as prawns and yellow tails. Chosen sites quickly become degraded and are then abandoned, owners moving the problem further down the coast as they establish new farms (see Shellfish page 10).

Lesson learned?
Despite all these serious threats, the industry continues to grow. In the US it is worth $1 billion annually and President Bush has vowed to increase this figure five-fold over the next 20 years. It is predicted that by 2025 a half of all fish eaten will be farmed (16). The result is likely to be disastrous.

Many fish are gutted while still alive  

Do fish feel pain?

Or is it just humans who are insensitive?
Scientists have contorted themselves into knots in order to prove that fish don’t feel pain for obvious commercial reasons. If once accepted that fish suffer it poses a serious challenge to the ways in which they are caught and killed and, increasingly, farmed. They are stupid animals with tiny brains and a three second attention span and who clearly don’t feel pain, we’re told.

And yet, there is something instinctive in us which screams out loud that of course they do. Pain is an essential protection which prevents both humans and animals from doing such things as walking into a blazing fire, for instance. It defies common sense that animals which have most of the same organs as ourselves should have been excused this essential protection in their millions of years of evolution.

Fortunately, the science is now clear - fish feel pain.

Intelligence and the capacity for pain are inextricably linked. According to scientists at St Andrews University in Edinburgh and Leeds University (1), fish are socially intelligent creatures who don’t deserve their reputation as the dim-wits of the animal kingdom - so dim they can’t even feel pain. They are, in fact, cunning, manipulative and even cultured.

One of the team, Dr Kevin Laland, says: “Fish are steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.” He goes on to say that they recognize individual “shoal mates”, have social prestige and use tools to build complex nests and exhibit long-term memories.

Significantly, he adds that in some ways fish can be favorably compared to non-human primates and as the most ancient of the main vertebrate groups, they have had plenty of time to evolve complex behaviour patterns that rival those of other vertebrates.

Research at Oxford University confirms that fish are fast learners who can carry mental maps around in their heads and retain memories for months. In fact their abilities outstrip those of some small mammals (2).
Dr Theresa Burt de Perera found that the fish did more than merely avoid bumping into objects in their tank, they built a detailed map of their surroundings and memorised any obstacles within a few hours (2). She explains: “We're now finding that they are very capable of learning and remembering, and possess a range of cognitive skills that would surprise many people.”

Dr Culum Brown at the University of Edinburgh found that Australian crimson spotted rainbow fish learnt to escape from a net in their tank and remembered how they did it 11 months later - the equivalent to a human remembering a lesson learnt 40 years ago (2).

  Monk fish are of the shark family and are in steep decline

Pain receptors
In 2003 Dr Lynne Sneddon of the University of Liverpool published the first evidence that fish have pain receptors like ours - nociceptors - that respond to chemicals, heat and other forms of stimulation.

The whole debate was transformed in 2004 by work at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, which looked at farmed fish as well as reviewing hundreds of other pieces of research (3).

Proof conclusive
They set out to establish whether fish really could experience pain, fear and psychological stress. They found that they behaved in very ways similar to four-legged animals, which indicated sentience, and felt pain, fear and stress in a similar way to them. Their conclusion that fish have the capacity to suffer has profound implications.
And if that isn’t sufficient proof, Dr Donald Broom, a scientific advisor to the British Government, has also reviewed the available literature and has come to this conclusion: “The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and animals” (4).

John Webster, Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol, says in his book, Animal Welfare: Limping Towards Eden: “A powerful portfolio of physiological and behavioural evidence now exists to support the case that fish feel pain and that this feeling matters. In the face of such evidence, any argument to the contrary based on the claim that fish ‘do not have the right sort of brain' can no longer be called scientific. It is just obstinate” (5).

Do shellfish feel pain?

“You always feel better after killing something. I do... stab the head off a lobster. You feel all the better for it... God knows how many I've killed... plunge them into boiling court bouillon and their tails flip up and they scream and you can hear their claws scraping on the sides, and I got great pleasure out of that.(6)” This was the foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay speaking and he clearly has far greater problems than simply controlling his temper.

“As an invertebrate zoologist who has studied crustaceans for a number of years, I can tell you the lobster has a rather sophisticated nervous system that, among other things, allows it to sense actions that will cause it harm. Lobsters can, I am sure, sense pain,” says Jaren G. Horsley, Ph.D (7).

One of the most common methods of slaughter used, and possibly the cruellest, is boiling alive. As the lobster is dropped into the boiling water it whips its body frantically and scrapes at the side of the pot saucepan. It can take up three minutes to die. In the journal Science, researcher Gordon Gunter described this method of killing lobsters as “unnecessary torture”.

Some believe that putting lobsters in cold water and then heating it slowly causes them to lose consciousness before reaching boiling point. Dr J R Baker, for the Humane Education Centre, found that as the temperature of the water rises, lobsters begin shaking and trembling and start to convulse (7).

Lobsters who are put into fresh, unsalted tap water flip wildly, assume unnatural postures, regurgitate food and suffer from what appear to be painful swelling of their joints. Again, according to J R Baker: “It is almost as though one sought to anaesthetize a human being, encased in tight armour, by a slow injection of fresh water into the blood stream” (7).

The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare recommends that live lobsters should be killed by splitting them in half down the centre line using a large French cook’s knife (8). As the lobster has a chain of nerve centres all along the mid-line, from head to tail, each one would have to be cut through to ensure that it is unable to feel pain. Not a job for an amateur!(9) Others believe that thrusting a knife directly into the animal’s head between its eyes causes instant death but scientists disagree, arguing that lobsters feel pain during and after the cut (10).

Another supposedly painless death is to place the lobster in a freezer but this is likely to cause ice crystal formation inside the shell and result in acute pain (11).

In their excellent publication Cephalopods and Decapod Crustaceans, Advocates for Animals sift through the evidence for intelligence in lobsters, crabs and crayfish (decapods) and squid, cuttlefish, octopus and nautilus (cephalapods) and their capacity to feel pain. Their conclusions are unequivocal (12).

“In light of the scientific evidence which strongly suggests that there is a potential to experience pain and suffering, it is now necessary to adopt the precautionary principle.”

The UK Government is having none of this and in the Draft Animal Welfare Bill (2004-2005), (13) it claims: “There is insufficient evidence to show conclusively that invertebrates are capable of experiencing pain, suffering and distress.”

No matter how attractively dressed, all salmon contain poisons  

Fish and Health

The ‘health’ food that’s far from healthy
Eat fish for good health, we’re told and the magic ingredient is omega 3 essential fatty acid (EFA), important for brain development and for protection against heart disease. The fish which contain the most are oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herrings, sardines, fresh tuna, sprats and whitebait. The reason EFAs are ‘essential’ is because the body cannot manufacture them and so they need to be included in the diet. Although fish are promoted as the best source, plants foods such as flax (linseed), rapeseed and soya oil and nuts, particularly walnuts (1), and leafy green vegetables are even better (2).

Plant oils more effective

There is evidence that fish oils can reduce the risk of death from a second heart attack in people who have already had one attack but they don’t reduce the number of attacks per se (3) and are not effective long term (4). Plant omega 3s not only reduce the number of attacks but are twice as effective at cutting the death rate and have long-term benefits (5). Even more impressively, people who avoid fish entirely and eat a near-vegan diet can actually reverse even severe heart disease (6,7).

Brainy oils
Our brains, particularly growing brains, also need EFAs (8) for the development of intellect and reasoning (9). Not surprising, then, that fish is promoted as essential for infant development and to overcome learning and behavioural problems. Right diagnosis - wrong prescription! If vegetarian children were lacking in EFAs, they would come bottom in the intelligence stakes. They don’t and their brains function perfectly well without fish! Plant oils are just as effective.

Persistent pollutants

In 2002, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended that people at risk of heart disease should eat both plant and fish omega 3 but warned that fish are contaminated with environmental pollutants (10). In fact, oily fish, the ones we’re encouraged to eat, are the worst affected because these contaminants are absorbed by fat. Two of greatest concern are the potentially deadly PCBs and dioxin, now present in all sea creatures.

They can cause cancers, birth defects, attack the central nervous and immune systems and damage foetuses. Despite this, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) encourages everyone to eat at least two portions of oily fish every week. Bizarrely, they have told pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants and children to avoid marlin and swordfish entirely and cut back on fresh tuna because of these pollutants (11).

No such thing as safe

The Microchemical Journal reported in 2005 that eating just 400g (14oz) of mackerel, bluefin tuna or swordfish would exceed the ‘tolerable weekly intake’ of PCBs and certain pesticides (12). Safe levels are a nonsense as they take no account of the many other sources from which humans accumulate dioxin, including meat and dairy.

Oily fish have their oils distributed throughout their flesh while white fish, such as cod and haddock, have them concentrated in their livers. They are extracted and sold as supplements such as cod liver oil and these, too, are polluted in most cases.

In 2004, the University of Surrey researched the PCB and pesticide content of 21 popular fish and cod liver oils and found that levels had not significantly reduced over a nine-year period. They also found that PBDE (a deadly flame retardant) had doubled in just four years. When omega 3 oils from plant sources were tested, ‘little or no contamination’ was found (13).

Violent damage

Dioxin is the common name for hundreds of chemicals - and includes some PCBs - produced by chlorine chemistry and released by incinerators, chemical factories, paper mills and pesticides, some wood preservers and chlorine-coated paper and products used in livestock and arable farming. According to Robert Allen, a Sunday Times sub-editor and author of the book The Dioxin War:

“We all have some dioxin in our blood and 90 per cent of it gets there through food. An extremely persistent chemical, it now exists in quantities in the environment at levels capable of extreme and violent damage to living systems. This damage, however, is subtle (14).”

Another health concern about farmed fish has been raised by New York Medical College and concerns the overuse of antibiotics, particularly in fish food, resulting in inevitable antibiotic resistance in fish. They say: “Residual antibiotics may be found in fish products and fish meat. People who eat these products will be inadvertently consuming antibiotics making them more susceptible to bacterial infection (26).”

Mercury is also widespread in fish and can affect the kidneys and central nervous system and cause heart disease.

The Proof

  • In 1995, Greenpeace scientists sampled 22 brands of fish oils and found that 21 contained high levels of the pesticides DDT and lindane as well as PCBs (15).
  • In 1997, a Government survey of dioxins and PCBs in fish oils found “relatively high concentrations” (16).
  • In 1999, another Government survey of PCBs and dioxins tested 132 samples of fish and found they all contained some (17).
  • In 2002, the Food Standards Agency found that 33 fish oil supplements contained dioxin, 12 at unsafe levels (18). In Ireland, 10 out of 15 top selling brands of fish oil were unsafe (19).
  • In October, 2002, the Consumers’ Association reported that eating more than one portion of oily fish a week would put millions of people at risk (20).
  • In 2002, researchers found that farmed salmon were 10 times more toxic than wild salmon and (21).
  • A Mediterranean study found that over 60 per cent of bluefin tuna contained more than the recommended levels of PCBs (22).
  • In 2003, 116 fish eaters were tested for mercury and the majority exceeded safe levels. When they stopped eating fish, their levels dropped (23).
  • In 2000, a Government study failed to find any mercury in vegetarian diets (24).
  • In 1995, it was found that mercury in all fish increased the risk of heart attacks (25).
End of the line