Why We Need to Drastically Change the Way We Fish

Seafood has historically been one of the healthiest things you can eat. Fish provide essential omega 3s, vitamins, and minerals, and is relatively easy to harvest yourself – at least some shellfish and smaller fish without shells. There also was a seemingly endless supply of all kinds of fish in both salt and fresh water – any diver can attest to that. Going below the ocean’s surface in an area with a healthy reef will lead one to believe that the oceans are teeming with life – the kind of life you just won’t see on terrestrial earth. It’s a beautiful sight to behold. Fish is also a traditional staple in the diets of many peoples across the globe, and can be cooked in many ways that make it a delicious addition to any meal – or even eaten raw, as the Japanese do. It’s probably no surprise, then, that demand for seafood and fish products has been increasing steadily along with global population growth. And increased demand leads producers to find cheaper and cheaper ways to produce more and more of a product.

In the case of fish, this has meant using large nets cast out at sea, which brings back sometimes hundreds of tonnes of fish. This method of fishing is cheap and highly effective, bringing in both the intended fish, and sometimes hundreds of other species, including species that may be endangered or undesirable for whatever reason. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of fish a large net may catch, it’s typically impossible to save those endangered or undesirable fish, and much of the catch is often wasted. This, along with other methods of fishing, has decimated up to 90% of large fish populations. Large fish are typically highly important to the health of an ecosystem, with some large fish being keystone species (meaning that the ecosystem collapses without them). New research also shows that large fish have an impact on carbon dioxide emissions. Large fish are made up of about 10-15% carbon, and when they die, they sink to the depths of the ocean, sequestering that carbon for thousands or even millions of years. They also provide food to other species. However when they are caught, the carbonthey contain ispartially emitted to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). Since 1950, according to the research study, at least 730 million metric tonnes of CO2has been emitted into the atmosphere as a result of ocean fishing. In 2014, an estimated 20.4 million metric tonnes of CO2was emitted, which is equivalent to 4.5 million cars driving for a year. This includes the fossil fuel used to power fishing vessels.

If concerns over climate change don’t affect you, or the idea that we’re running out of seafood, perhaps the sheer volume of plastic contained in the oceans might give you pause. It’s difficult to know just how much plastic is in our oceans, but we do know that over 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Large pieces of plastic result in the death of many marine animals through suffocation, ingestion, and entanglement – but small, microscopic pieces of plastic, which are found pretty well everywhere and are invisible to the naked eye, are found in all fish collected from our oceans. Several chemicals contained in plastic are known to be carcinogenic, and interfere with the body’s endocrine system. This can cause developmental, neurological, reproductive, and immune system disorders. When we expel these tiny micro-particles of plastic into the toilet, this ends up in our fresh water systems – where it enters fresh water species, which we and other animals then eat. The plastic in our oceans ends up literally everywhere.

Farming fish, as it’s been traditionally done, isn’t a solution either. Farmed fish are usually raised in netted environments in the open ocean, where they’re crammed together like sardines. Just like in densely populated human societies, diseases spread quickly in fish farms, and these diseases are sometimes passed on to the greater fish population in the open ocean, wreaking havoc. Farmed fish are similarly susceptible to ingesting micro particles of plastic, and are generally less healthy than wild fish. To keep fish alive in these crammed conditions, antibiotics and pesticides are sometimes used, especially in Asia – which is where 90% of the US’s seafood is imported from, and which is where 90% of fish farms exist. The Food and Drug Administration only inspects about 2% of the seafood imported from Asia, and in the past, they’ve discovered numerous banned substances, including carcinogens, in those imports.

There is some progress being made in fish farming – healthier and more sustainable methods of raising fish in the open ocean, and fish farming on land. But just like farming any other meat, farming on land takes up space. And as the human population grows, taking up more and more space, this inevitably means taking over natural areas. And farming on land uses great amounts of water resources – which also adds cost.

The most sustainable way to eat fish will remain getting your own fishing rod, and using it sparingly. Same goes for eating any kind of meat. But most people don’t have the time or knowledge to do this, which necessitates better methods of mass production. And this will likely cost the consumer much more.

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