Article by Jennifer Kirsch
“The views I express here are mine alone and not necessarily a reflection of the organizations I work with.” – Jennifer Kirsch
How does it impact fish?
Aquaculture operations are built on the premise that fish do not feel pain and the current production rate leaves little room for the ethical treatment of fish. To reduce costs, fish are only seldom stunned (=desensitized) before slaughter, kept in poor conditions (e.g. low water quality, starvation, overcrowding) and are frequently handled out of water (Ashley, 2007). This leads to disease outbreaks, injuries and aggression between individuals. As a result mortality rates on aquaculture farms are high, ranging from 25 to 50% from hatching until fish are grown (Undercurrentnews, 2018). Unfortunately, wild-caught fish cannot expect more humane treatment. With little oversight of fishing activities, many wild-caught fish are dying painfully. When being lifted with a net, lower-lying fish get crushed to death and remaining ones are left to suffocate onboard the ship. Animal Equality has recorded painful procedures for catching tuna which leaves them suffering for many hours while workers stab them.
How does aquaculture impact the ocean & environment?
Ever seen a fish swim underneath your board while you were sitting in the line-up waiting for your next ride? You may be surprised to learn that even these wild fish are negatively affected by common aquaculture practice. Fish meal, which is used to feed carnivorous farmed fish (such as Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout), contributes a great deal to overfishing, depleting ocean fish stocks and causing problems along the whole food chain which threaten the well-being of our oceans (Naylor, 2005). In the last two decades, ⅓ of wild-caught fish worldwide has been used for fish meal production. This means 6-7 million metric tons per year (Banrie, 2012). In Mauritania, one of the major fish meal producing countries, up to 50% of wild-caught fish are used for fish meal production of which generally 5kg fish give 1kg of fish meal (Changing Markets Foundation, 2019).
Disease spread is a major concern in mariculture (ocean-based aquaculture operations). Scientists are even concerned that fish on inland aquaculture farms could spread diseases to other animals, for example birds (Naylor, 2005). In mariculture, wild fish are attracted close to the cage where farmed fish are kept by feed. This is often enough for a pathogen (disease-causing organism) to spread from farmed to wild individuals and vice versa.
Finally, aquaculture produces wastewater which is released back into the environment. If this water does not get filtered, it contaminates local rivers and nature, eventually draining to the very ocean you dipped your head in this morning. Particularly in mariculture, where filtration is not possible because cages are in the ocean without any barriers, waste can easily diffuse (Gormaz, 2014).
Should I eat fish?
Now here comes the million-dollar question: With fish feeling pain and aquaculture offering great potential for suffering, should we even continue eating fish? The answer to this question is a personal decision, though I would like to highlight some thoughts you may want to consider when making this decision:
From an animal rights perspective, eating fish today is hard to defend ethically. Certification schemes are only doing first steps to include welfare standards and many fish suffer greatly, particularly in Asia where 90% of seafood consumed comes from (Bondando-Reantaso, 2005).
“[T]he general agreement is that current aquaculture practices are neither meeting the needs of fish nor environment. Thus, the obvious environmental and animal welfare aspects of finfish aquaculture make it hard to ethically defend a fish diet.” (Bergqvist & Gunnarsson, 2011)
- Push for change: Ask about welfare and environmental standards (e.g. through certifications) for the fish you buy or order in restaurants and shops.
- Minimize: Try out some plant-based recipes and introduce meat-free days.
- Eat responsibly: Many organizations offer seafood guides that focus on environmental impacts of species and aquaculture operations (Careful: These usually do not include welfare!)
- South Africa: WWF SASSI app
- UK: Soil Association, Marine Conservation Society Fish Guide
- U.S. (& international species): Seafood Watch Program & Greenpeace Redlist
- Australia (& international species): Good Fish Sustainable Seafood Guide
- New Zealand: Forest & Bird – Fish Guide & Greenpeace Redlist
- Canada: Greenpeace Redlist and SeaChoice Sustainability assessment
- Germany: Greenpeace Fischratgeber
- Indonesia: Greenpeace Redlist
- Czech Republic: Greenpeace Guide
- General, more extensive resources: SeaChoice
“Do fish feel pain?”, Victoria Braithwaite
“What a fish knows?”, Jonathan Balcombe
“Do fish feel pain?”, Fish Welfare Initiative
“Pain of the fish”, La Fondation Droit Animal
Aquatic Life Institute for top-down approach to this problem
Jennifer is an environmental scientist with a focus on marine conservation and a passion for the ocean. She has worked on various marine creatures, ranging from seals, over fish to whales and dolphins. Her bachelor thesis focused on the impacts of environmental change on northern elephant seal newborns which are expected to suffer greatly from human-induced climate change. She supports the Underwatercircle, a German organization focused on ocean, lake and river protection and aiming to inspire people for the ocean. In her free time, she loves to surf, swim and freedive.
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