• Becci Pigeon

Farming fish won't save the oceans either

Updated: Jun 13

More people are realising that eating fish and other sealife means supporting environmental disaster. The fishing industry is the largest source of ocean plastics and it kills 2.7 trillion individual fish every year. It also results in the deaths of many other forms of sea life: a full 40% of what the fish industry catches is unintended. These victims are known as bycatch, and they are made up of multiple species, many of which are endangered--seabirds like albatrosses, whales and dolphins, sharks, sea turtles and more. Meanwhile, nearly 90% of fish stocks are entirely depleted and labels that promote 'sustainable' fishing like the Marine Stewardship Council's blue label have been proven near useless. And just like slaughterhouse work, the fish industry is rife not only with animal abuse but human exploitation. (Learn even more at our dedicated fish research page!)

(A quick side note: despite what public perception might indicate, there is no longer any debate in the scientific community as to whether fish feel pain. Multiple studies have been conducted which indicate that fish not only experience pain but remember it and attempt to avoid it in the future.)

Some people claim that farming fish is a solution to our rapidly depleting oceans. Farm-raised fish, however, has been described in the New York Times as 'the cage-raised chickens of the sea' and 'as much a part of the industrial food chain as a fast-food burger'. What's more, it now accounts for more than half of the fish people eat.

Take salmon, which is no longer fished commercially in the UK; it all comes from Scottish farms. They've been praised as being environmentally sustainable, but how true is this claim? (First, let's note that in the case of carnivorous fish like salmon, it takes three to four pounds of wild-caught fish meal to produce just one pound of farmed fish!) More than 200 farms in Scotland and the Northern Isles contain hundreds of thousands of these fish, who swim around in enclosed pens, fed processed foods and medicines in an attempt to curb the constant threat of parasitic sea lice and diseases. Despite this, a startling 9.5 million salmon--or a full 20%--die in these pens every year, the most common cause being illness: amoebic gill disease, salmon gill pox virus, proliferative gill disease, cardiomyopathy syndrome, pancreas disease, anaemia and fungus. And the latest numbers are even worse: more than ten million fish died prematurely in 2019, higher than in any previous year but part of a larger pattern of increasing death rates in fish farms. (The salmon fishing industry responded to this pattern, incidentally, by no longer reporting these numbers routinely as they had been, complaining that doing so was damaging their business.) 70% of these farms are certified 'RSPCA Assured', but their salmon standard advisory boards are staffed mainly by figures from the aquaculture industry itself--a clear conflict on interest. (Learn more about why 'RSPCA Assured' isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

All this disease and suffering affects more than just the caged salmon. Wild salmon, too, whose numbers continue to drop despite no longer being commercially fished, swim through the same waters as their caged counterparts. This decline is attributed in part to climate change, but fish farms are another culprit: as wild fish swim past and around them, they can pick up the infectious diseases and pathogens that kill so many farmed fish prematurely, as well as sea lice--and they do. In 2018, biologist Paul Hopper was alerted to an epidemic of dead and dying salmon making their way back to their spawning grounds in the Outer Hebrides. While wild fish always have 'background levels' of sea lice, Hopper explained, an epidemic like this in a wild population was 'really quite unusual'. The dead fish were found close to several fish farms on Loch Roag. And it isn't just the fish who suffer: the seabed does too. David Ainsley is a marine biologist and a diver. By 2019 he had filmed the seabeds next to a Loch Shuna fish farm for eight years. Only fellow divers are aware of how bad the damage is, he reported: 'We found large areas of bacterial mat, we found lots of dead things on the seabed. In fact, there's very little left alive.' This should come as no surprise: fish farms use a great deal of chemicals and produce an enormous amount of food waste and faecal matter, all of which falls to the seabed below. According to marine ecologist Dr Sally Campbell, '...most people who choose salmon off their supermarket shelves have no idea of the waste that's going into our marine environment as a result of that. And they would be appalled.'

The option isn't to switch from wild-caught fish to farmed ones: it's to leave fish alone. And it's getting easier and easier to do so--in fact, vegan seafood is predicted to be the next plant-based trend! Just check out a few of these lovely fish and ocean-friendly recipes!

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