The Viva Vine: vol #4, no #5: Nov./Dec. 1995

fish image Fish in Peril

by Pamela Teisler-Rice

Fish is in the newspaper, and I don't mean wrapped. And I don't mean in the food section, either. Fish is on the front page, as in stories of an industry's demise. It's in the science section as in environmental devastation. We're hearing about fish in scientific journals and studies. The outlook is grim; and from a vegetarian point of view, senseless and sad.

All to feed a worldwide human addiction for animal-based protein, we hear of species after species of fish being threatened with extinction and aquatic habitats being marred with degradation due to human activity--overfishing mostly. Countries are practically at war over fishing methods and rights. And what once were quaint fishing towns are now being turned into restoration projects depicting a lost way of life.

And what of aquaculture--that is fish farming? This is where one fifth of the world's fish catch comes from. Is this the dream solution?

When it comes to fish, most people are decidedly indifferent. In most people's minds, it's okay to catch fish, farm fish, eat fish--do anything you like with fish.

Though many people like to think to the contrary, fish surely do feel pain in death. No, they cannot vocalize this agony, but it's there. Fish deaths are prolonged periods of suffering until suffocation finally takes place. No "humane slaughter" laws here. Not even talk of it. Vegetarians ask, "Why cause pain? It's not necessary."

Conventional wisdom says the natural world will spring forth endlessly with the bounty of the sea. Fish could never run out--they reproduce too fast! Unfortunately when you examine such convenient points of view, you find not all is okay with fish.

A current story in the November edition of "Scientific American" puts much of the story together for any vegetarian arguing for the virtues of his or her lifestyle. It puts an ocean­size damper on the table for any fish-eating apologist. We find in this story some of what we already suspected, but never had documentation for previously. We find that in some ways the problems of fish are bigger than even those of other animal agriculture. This "fish" story contains the tragedy of extinction, looming perilously soon.

Wading through the myths, point by point, the "Scientific American" article lists the technological innovations which today threaten the survival of fish; it describes the biological reasons for fish depletion due largely to this technology; it trashes the view that aquaculture is the answer to species extinction; and it notes some of the economic forces at work.

A line and a hook is murder on fish, one at a time. But, what's technology brought us?

--Today, radar helps fishermen navigate through fog. It's no longer "lower ye anchors" when that blasted fog hits.

--Sonar, today, can detect schools of fish. It's no longer hit or miss to find a net-full.

--With satellite technology a ship is able to retrace its steps to that place it found fish before. In addition, today's fisherman is able to purchase satellite maps that chart weather conditions and water temperature, predicting the movement of fish.

--Some ocean vessels work in tandem with airplanes flying overhead spotting fish for it.

--Ships today may be equipped as floating factories, processing fish as they are caught. Vessels are able to be at sea for months. No longer are fishermen inconvenienced by rotting fish on board ship having to rush back to shore.

--These factories will employ submerged longlines, 80 miles in length, with thousands of bated hooks. Or, bag-shaped trawl nets may be used, large enough to, according to the "Scientific American" story, engulf 12 jumbo jetliners.

--As for those 40-mile-long driftnets we've heard about, the U.N. has proclaimed a worldwide ban on them. Still, France, Ireland and Italy (among other nations) continue to employ them.

Driftnets, longlines, and trawlnets all contribute criminally to what is today termed "bycatch" or "bykill." One in every 4 animals taken from the sea is unwanted and then discarded dead overboard.

To quote from the "Scientific American" article: "For the past two decades, the fishing industry has had increasingly to face the result of extracting [fish] faster than fish populations [can] reproduce."

Solutions? The solutions, unfortunately, are often just as bad as the original problem. For instance, when preferred species are no longer available, other species, lower on the food web, may be fished--those fish which otherwise may be dinner for the preferred fish, starving them out and diminishing their numbers even further.

So, what of aquaculture? Has it taken pressure off the problems of fish extinction? On the contrary. Aquaculture is often the cause of even more disruption to the environment.

Few may believe that aquaculture actually accelerates the depletion of fish. But just a little logic tells you that shrimp or any other fish on fish farms still need to eat. And what do they eat? Fish, of course. Fish from the ocean. Albeit, the species they eat may be those undesirable to humans. Still, it is surely a species important to the food chain of the sea.

In addition, today's farmed shrimp has ushered in the practice of what is termed "biomass fishing," the scooping up of everything in a catch with a fine mesh net. Most everything in the catch can be processed as food for shrimp. The problem with this is that the fine mesh collects juvenile fish that never grow to an age to reproduce.

Also, the construction of pens that confine farmed fish along the coast demands that mangroves--the natural nurseries for fish--be cut down. The Worldwatch Institute has reported that aquaculture is the major reason that half the world's mangroves have been destroyed.

Another tragic consequence of aquaculture is that certain profitable species do not breed in captivity. This leads producers to rob the oceans of newly hatched fish, again, not allowing them to grow to reproducing age. In addition, aquaculture requires huge amounts of clean water. In tightly quartered pens, fish produce, just like factory raised pigs and chickens, dangerous concentrations of waste.

Fish. What is the real cost to the environment? What are we facing in the way of extinction?

Vegetarians say, save the whales, yes. But save the fish too. It's easy! Just use your fork and your knife.

But there's more...

Read more aquatic woes due to our society's meat addiction.

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