The High Environmental Cost of Eating Fish

A graphic of several sea animals, including fish, sea snails and a turtle.
(Sophie Reingold • The Student Life)

Americans ate a total of 4.8 billion pounds of seafood, approximately 15.8 pounds per person in 2009, according to NOAA. Globally, each person eats an average of 17 kg of fish per year, with seafood making up at least 15 percent of the average animal protein intake for 3 million people.

Not only is fish important to the diet of the world, but the economy as well. With a majority of people on the planet living in coastal or near-coastal areas, 12 percent of the world’s population relies on fishing and aquaculture to make a living, and the total export value of the world trade of fish was U.S. $148 billion in 2014.

Fishing practices vary across regions, markets, and types of fish. One of the most widely used devices in large scale wild fish catching is a Fish Aggregating Device. According to Greenpeace, “A FAD is essentially a large object–anything from a fallen tree to a man-made structure–that floats in the sea and acts as a beacon for fish.”

Often FADs attract fish to an area to create almost a mini-ecosystem where massive amounts of fish congregate. Eventually, the fisherman or industrial fleet returns with nets and takes everything around the FAD, which are used to target and catch mostly big pelagic fish, almost always tuna.  

FADs range from simple nets and objects for small, artisanal, or traditional fishing to huge man-made productions for large-scale industrial fishing. More modern FADs even include radio locator devices to sense how many fish have accumulated in the area and alert the fleet when to come back. Fish are attracted to FADs as they lull fish into a false sense of security and make them feel protected from predators.

FADs ultimately help large-scale fishing fleets lower prices of commercial wild-caught fish. When a large area of the ocean is collected together in a huge net, the target fish will not be the only thing that ends up being caught. Larger animals like sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, young fish, and other marine animals end up in the nets along with the target fish.

After being dragged out of the water onto a ship, they are thrown back into the ocean dead. Currently, entanglement in FADs is the largest threat to sea turtles, a species that is already threatened.

It is nearly impossible to determine the number of non-target animals that are killed in FAD fishing. Commercial fishing companies do not want to record, research, or publish the number of dolphins or turtles they kill per year. They are not held responsible with regulations or by the market, which meants that they carry on without considering catching fish in a better, more ethical way.

Marine fisheries are being depleted across the planet. As global populations climb, demand for seafood does as well. FAD fishing is not the worst overall. When compared to bottom trawling and other destructive forms of fishing, FAD fishing does not disrupt marine habitats to the same degree.

The ultimate problem with FAD fishing is that it allows industrial fishing fleets to catch astronomical amounts of fish with less effort. In an already depleted marine fishery, FAD fishing not only allows, but encourages rapid large-scale fishing and further depletion of fish stocks.

With meat, we know that buying farm-raised, grass fed, local, organic, grade-A meat is the most ‘ethical’. When it comes to fish, when we buy it in a store, most people think that wild-caught means it is safer and more ethically raised and caught than farm-raised fish. But at least when eating farm-raised fish, many other, larger, endangered species did not die in it’s catching.

Now, mind you, I eat fish. I sometimes say I’m a vegetarian, but I do eat fish on occasion. For so long, I’ve thought that eating fish is better for the environment or more humane to the animals. Producing fish is definitely different than producing meat in our industrialized food system. But I love turtles.

Countless numbers of turtles are killed in every FAD,  and nearly all commercially bought tuna is caught in a FAD. If other aspects of the fishing industry don’t turn me off enough from eating tuna, the fact that my favorite animal died in its production should.

I’m not here to tell you to stop eating fish because FADs are unethical and have unintended consequences. I am here to constantly reassess my own convictions, including eating fish. Every meal is a choice and each of us has the power to consider the greater effect it has.

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