This is the third post in my “Farm to Fork” series in which I am trying to make up my mind about some of the important ethical issues surrounding where our food comes from, this week the focus is on sustainable fishing.
Fish and seafood play a part in some of my most vivid childhood memories; my mother placing live lobster into steaming pans, delicate pale pink whole salmon presented on special occasions and even waiting in the fluorescent light of the local fish and chip shop for the warm parcels of battered cod for our dinner. So you can understand why a fish lover like me would approach this topic with a little apprehension – I really didn’t want to talk myself in to renouncing fish forever.
There are a few different techniques used in industrial scale fishing, somehow they all sound quite primitive to me but they don’t need to be complicated to be highly effective. A popular method is netting or pursing where gigantic nets up to a mile in length are dragged through the ocean at different levels to ensnare the catch. Another widely used method is long lining where lines of baited hooks are set in the sea and collected later once the fish have bitten. When these methods are used excessively they lead to overfishing, fish populations are depleted much faster than the fish can reproduce leading to a dangerous drop in numbers. In addition, these methods can be crude and undiscriminating – trawling the ocean irreversibly damages ecosystems and tonnes of unwanted sea life is swept up with the main catch only to be later discarded.
Overfishing is not good for anyone – consumers, sea life or the fishermen themselves who need to earn a consistent living. Nations and agencies cooperate in extensive monitoring and sampling of fish populations with the aim of globally managing fishing intensity to ensure sustainable populations, however, this is a complex task and currently things are not heading in the right direction. The WWF living blue planet report points to a 50% reduction in global fish populations between 1970 and 2012 with stocks of fish such as bluefin tuna, hake, cod and haddock in serious danger.
Before I began researching I had a notion that farmed fish was A Bad Thing. I think it was formed from snippets of articles I had seen and a rumor from my friend that farmed salmon had so much fat in it that you may as well just be eating fish flavored lard. What I didn’t appreciate is that fish farming is a response to overfishing in the oceans, fish are reared in contained ponds where their population is no longer linked to the ocean ecosystems leaving all the lucky wild fish to live their lives in peace. Predictably though us blundering humans have managed to introduce new sets of problems to aqua farming, these include feeding fish antibiotics which can cause resistance in humans and also causing such cramped conditions that disease quickly develops which can eventually spread to wild fish. I am going to focus mainly on two prominent issues in farmed fishing, fish welfare and PCB’s.
PCB’s are toxic oily carcinogenic chemicals which are found in electrical devices, through leaking or dumped equipment the chemicals have entered the water table. When they contaminate the water they are absorbed by small fish and the PCBs become concentrated in the fatty tissues in their body. Now what we do is catch these small fish and make process them into fish food for farmed salmon so when the salmon eat this they too absorb the PCBs concentrating the chemicals further in their tissues. Of course we then eat the farmed salmon and the dangerous chemicals enter our bodies contributing to problems with immune end reproductive systems and even cancer. The PCB issue was widely publicised around 10 years ago and triggered big efforts globally to clean up fish food. Latest studies appear to show progress, in 2011 it was safe to eat 1.3kg per week of farmed Norwegian salmon and Greek salmon also showed PCB concentrations well below dangerous levels.
Now onto the issue of welfare, even those not inclined to vegetarianism might feel a stirring of empathy for a poor little pig or chicken but it comes to fish people seem to draw the line. Perhaps it’s because they are not in our mammal family or simply because they can be a bit ugly and smelly? Most likely we perceive fish to be of much lower intelligence than other animals however they are recognised by the EU as sentient beings and hence guidelines are provided for their storage and slaughter. Surprisingly being contained in high density groups as found in fish farms is not one of the main causes of fish stress. Since most fish would naturally live in large schools its safe to say that they are not claustrophobic. What really gets a fish het up is being out of water – this can occur during transport or handling for fish grading. Now stress in one thing, but what about pain? Well the debate is still ongoing but it looks like fish might not have brains developed enough to consciously experience pain but in my opinion nothing has been conclusively proved on either side of the argument.
So that was a very quick and by no means comprehensive round up of some of the issues with fishing, do have a look at the links below to learn more on this topic. Based on what I have learnt I am moving towards the opinion that even though fish may not feel pain they do feel stress so I can’t be happy about eating fish to my hearts content. The same way that I try to think about meat, I think fish should be reserved for special occasions and considered a luxury not a staple. As for farmed vs wild I recognise the need for fish farms in order to satisfy the worlds demand for fish and I feel certain that eating farmed fish from the supermarket is safe health wise. However personally I would choose wild fish where possible considering how little is know about how fish experience pain or stress this is the only way I could be sure that had a relatively happy life. It goes without saying that when buying ocean caught fish you must check for the sustainability credentials to make sure you are not contributing to overfishing. You can look out for the MSC symbol (see below) on packet to be sure.