Fish: What's the Catch?

If the Earth's oceans were a human being, they'd be rushed to the hospital, admitted to the intensive care unit and listed in grave condition.

The United Nations reports that all 17 of the world's major fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits.[1] Once among the most productive fishing grounds on Earth, the Grand Banks off Canada and New England's Georges Bank are closed and considered commercially extinct.[2] The World Conservation Union lists 1,081 fish worldwide as threatened or endangered.[3] Roughly 106 Pacific salmon stocks are already extinct and dozens more are seriously depleted.[4] There are so many pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay that it takes the few remaining shellfish more than a year to filter the entire estuary. When Europeans first explored the Chesapeake, the shellfish population filtered it three times every day.[5]

Through the vast stretches of time, the oceans have provided safe harbor for an immense pantheon of life—all life, in fact. Research indicates that at present the biodiversity of the oceans rivals that of the tropical rainforests.[6] If this fact was better known and appreciated—and people realized that what we are effectively doing is clearcutting these precious underwater environments with our appetite for fish—then perhaps many would seriously reconsider eating so freely from the sea.

Overfishing and Overeating: The Net Loss

How is it that waters once teeming with life are now so barren as to deserve being called, "the Next Dust Bowl"?[7] Simply put, humanity's taste for fish has far exceeded nature's ability to provide.

Currently there are some 13 million fishers in the world. Twelve million use simple traditional technologies to land about half the world's fish catch. The remaining one million fishers crew 37,000 industrial fishing vessels and account for the other half of the fish caught.[8] These fishers deploy highly sophisticated contrivances ranging from sonar and spotting planes to fishing nets large enough to swallow twelve 747 jumbo jets.[9]

As vacuuming fish from the sea has grown easier and fleet sizes have ballooned, fishers have achieved the once unimaginable—they've begun to strip the seas of their genetic wealth. Industrial innovations permit fishers to scoop an astounding 80 to 90 percent of a given fish population from the ocean in any one year.[10] Individual species have been ushered to the brink of extinction, and predator-prey relationships that evolved over millennia have been grievously disrupted.[11]

There's more. As preferred species are overfished and lose commercial viability, fishers switch to less-desirable species lower in the food web. This robs larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds of food, creating additional havoc.[12] And since less-palatable species earn fishers less money, they must catch more of these fish just to maintain their incomes. Where will it all end?

As harvests plummet, jobs are threatened and governments step in to prop up faltering fishing industries. In 1994, according to the United Nations, fishers worldwide spent $124 billion to catch fish valued at only $70 billion. The difference—a whopping $54 billion—was covered by governments and hence, taxpayers.[13] Alas, such subsidies encourage massive overcapacity in the industry. Between 1970 and 1990, the world's industrial fishing fleet grew at twice the rate of the global catch.[14] The net effect? More and more boats chasing fewer and fewer fish.

Innocent Bystanders

To worsen matters, today's fishing industry is incredibly wasteful. For every fish, crustacean or mollusk that ends up on a dinner plate, several other sea creatures are likely to have perished in the process. The innocent victims include fish having little or no commercial value, juvenile fish, turtles, diving seabirds and marine mammals like the dolphin.[15]

Shrimp fishing is particularly indiscriminate. For every pound of shrimp sold, upwards of 20 pounds of other sea creatures are caught.[16] Their remains are returned to the sea, either dead or dying. Methods of catching tuna have become more dolphin-friendly, but they still ensnare and kill thousands of sharks, turtles, and billfish like swordfish. (They also kill tuna, of course, majestic creatures that can reach 1,000 pounds and speeds of 55 mph.) Similarly, for every king crab sold from the fish case, five or six others (mostly juveniles) are caught and tossed overboard.[17] As disturbing as these figures are, the magnitude of the waste is probably significantly more, since much "bykill" is never reported.[18]

One may ask, does aquaculture, or fish farming, reduce the strain placed on the oceans by wasteful industrial fishing methods? "Strangely, it may do the opposite," says Carl Safina, Ph.D., director of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program. How so? Well, for starters, the young fish used in aquaculture and the food fed them are often taken directly from the sea.[19] What's more, aquaculture is routinely conducted on coastal land cleared of mangrove forests, prime breeding and spawning ground for many fish. To date, about half the world's mangrove forests have been cleared, drained, diked or filled.[20] Aquaculture also requires vast amounts of clean water and feed, and hefty applications of antibiotic drugs.

Gone Fishin' with Real Bullets

"The emerging anarchy in the oceans" is how one United Nations official describes the situation on the high seas. With so many vessels scouring increasingly fished-out waters, squabbles are inevitable. Russians attack Japanese vessels in the Northwest Pacific. Scottish fishers attack a Russian trawler. A Falkland Islands patrol chases a Taiwanese squid boat more than 4,000 miles. Norwegian patrols cut the nets of three Icelandic ships in the Arctic, and shots are exchanged. Philippine patrols arrest Chinese fishers near the hotly contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The list of confrontations is ever-expanding.[21]

Shrinking fish populations have sparked another type of conflict as well. As industrial fishing fleets venture farther from their territorial waters in order to fill their holds, they sail increasingly into waters that subsistence fishers rely upon to feed their families. As National Geographic magazine reported in 1995, "for these people any declines in fisheries mean hunger."[22]

Hook, Line and PCBs

Fish caught by the world's 12 million subsistence fishers may represent a dietary necessity for those who eat it, but the same cannot be said of the seafood consumed in the developed world. In the U.S., where fish is lauded as a low-fat source of protein, the average American already consumes roughly twice as much protein as is recommended. Excess dietary protein is not a risk-free indulgence; it has been linked to obesity, kidney disease and osteoporosis, among other serious health problems. Worried about getting insufficient protein on a plant-based diet? Have no fear. Protein is found in generous quantities in many plant foods, making it virtually impossible not to get enough when eating a varied plant-centered diet.[23]

There are numerous additional personal health reasons to reconsider eating seafood and load up instead on whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables.

To begin with, fish contain none of the protective phytochemicals, antioxidants and fiber found only in foods of plant origin. Dark green vegetables, canola, soybean and walnut oils, tofu, walnuts, pumpkin and flax seeds and wheat germ possess the prized heart-protective omega-3 fatty acid found in fish.[24] Moreover, plant foods contain no cholesterol, a claim fishmongers cannot honestly make. A three ounce serving of salmon, for example, contains 74 milligrams of cholesterol, about the same as in a comparable serving of T-bone steak or chicken.[25] How much cholesterol should you eat? A recent international conference of leading heart researchers concluded, "The optimal intake of cholesterol in the adult is probably zero."[26]

Fish and shellfish can also become repositories for the industrial and municipal wastes and agricultural chemicals flushed into the world's waters. As one authority observed, "If there's something wrong with the water, chances are something will be wrong with the fish."[27]

Consider PCBs, a synthetic liquid once widely used for industrial purposes but outlawed as carcinogenic in 1976. According to a six-month investigation by Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports magazine), "By far the biggest source of PCBs in the human diet is fish... As PCBs linger in the environment, their composition changes, and they gradually become more toxic... And these more toxic forms are likely to be found in fish... PCBs accumulate in body tissue. The PCBs that you eat today will be with you decades into the future." Of the eight species it analyzed, Consumers Union found PCBs in 43 percent of the salmon, 25 percent of the swordfish and 50 percent of the lake whitefish.[28]

Other pollutants that can concentrate in sea creatures include mercury (which can damage the brain and nervous system), lead (which can impair behavioral development in young children) and pesticides.[29] Fish and shellfish can also harbor a number of naturally occurring toxins, none of which can be detected by sight or smell, nor destroyed by cooking.[30]

Consumers Union's investigation also revealed that nearly half the fish tested from markets in New York City, Chicago and Santa Cruz, CA, were contaminated by bacteria from human or animal feces.[31] Why weren't these tainted fish detected? Inspectors examine a scant one percent of the domestic catch and three percent of the imported catch for chemical or bacterial contamination.[32] No wonder the Centers for Disease Control reports an average of 325,000 food poisonings annually from contaminated seafood.[33] In fact, this figure may severely undercount the true number of poisonings since many sufferers attribute their flu-like symptoms to something other than contaminated seafood.

Scaling Back: A Recipe for Getting the Planet's Oceans Off the Hook

The situation is grim, but not hopeless.

In order to safeguard the oceans from further decline, a number of things must occur. We must do a much better job of curbing all forms of water pollution. We must put an end to the reckless development of our coastlines. We must convince governments to stop subsidizing fishing operations with taxpayer moneys. And, we must press governments, regulatory agencies and fishers to act with future generations in mind, rather than fighting with each other down to the last fish.

As we undertake these admittedly daunting challenges, thankfully there is something we can do every day to help protect and rejuvenate our imperiled aquatic environments. We can choose an ocean-friendly diet. Some might suggest that dramatically scaling back our consumption of fish and shellfish doesn't even begin to address the problem. Will it really make a difference if you stop eating seafood? Given the horrible difficulty involved in getting fishers and governments worldwide to stop draining the seas of life, what we do individually is likely the only thing that can make a difference. Ultimately, it is consumer demand that has brought us to this juncture, and only a profound reduction in consumer demand can prevent a total collapse of the seas. If Americans begin by halving their current intake of seafood, two billion pounds of marine life would be spared each year, not to mention all that is killed incidentally. This would allow the oceans, rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries to begin the process of healing.

Do what you can to help take the seas and all their creatures off the hook. Begin by taking them off your plate.

Can Saying 'No, Thanks' to Meat and Dairy Safeguard Water and Fish?

Replacing fish on your menu with nutritious whole foods of plant origin is a direct and vital way of helping protect and restore beleaguered aquatic environments, both freshwater and marine. Another albeit less-obvious way is by reducing your consumption of all animal products. How so? It's a matter of water pollution, second only perhaps to overfishing in the toll it exacts on aquatic ecosystems worldwide.

Given that how we eat determines to a considerable extent how our world is used, a person eating a plant-based diet bears little if any responsibility for the massive quantities of land degraded, soil eroded and water polluted by this nation's animal foods industry. These activities yield pollutants—principally nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers and manures, and sediments from eroded soils—that routinely make their way into creeks, streams, lakes, rivers and oceans.[34] The pollutants wash primarily from two sources: (1) Croplands used to produce animal feedgrains (more than 60 percent of America's croplands are planted for this purpose); and (2) animal production sites including feedlots, holding areas and pasturelands. Farm animals in the U.S. create roughly ten times the waste produced by human residents.[35]

How big is the problem? BIG. The Environmental Protection Agency has fingered agriculture as far and away the leading source of pollution flowing into this nation's waterways, contributing significantly more pollution than either municipal or industrial sources. According to the organization Trout Unlimited, "The nation is replete with examples of watersheds containing valuable aquatic ecosystems contaminated by agricultural run-off and physically degraded by grazing and other livestock rearing activities."[36]

Why are agricultural pollutants so devastating? Sediments are the worst. They smother eggs and newly hatched fry, and they block sunlight, killing aquatic plants that provide cover for fish and the organisms fish subsist on.[37]

Nutrients from fertilizers and manures can have an acutely toxic effect on aquatic organisms. Scientists says that nutrient overloading from animal and human waste, and fertilizer runoff is responsible for killing more than 10 million fish in southeast North Carolina in recent months.[38] Nutrients promote algae growth as well, depriving fish of life-giving dissolved oxygen.[39] As an added wallop, agricultural pollutants can carry with them an assortment of pathogens (like fecal coliform bacteria) and toxins.[40] Between 1963 and 1985, more than 200,000 fish were killed by the pesticides toxaphene and endosulfan in California's Central Valley alone.[41]

The processes involved in agricultural pollutant run-off are self-aggravating. As soil erodes, polluting aquatic habitats, soil fertility is lost. Farmers "replenish" topsoil with added applications of chemical fertilizers, but these are quickly leached because the soils now are less able to hold nutrients. Runoff and pollution worsen as a result. Soil productivity plummets, beginning the vicious cycle anew.[42]

Freshwater fish like trout are the first to suffer from agriculturally tainted water because they are close to the point of contamination and are keenly sensitive to pollution. (In fact, the American Fisheries Society calls cattle ranching the leading villain in the demise of this nation's wild trout species.) But marine fish are by no means immune. More than 75 percent of the U.S. commercial catch of ocean fish is comprised of species that depend upon North America's large rivers, estuaries and near-ocean waters for some portion of their lives.[43]

It has reached a point where fish don't even have to come close to shore to be sickened or killed by agricultural runoff. As reported in the Wall Street Journal in September 1995, researchers are monitoring the growth of a lifeless expanse at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico now covering roughly 7,000 square miles, nearly the size of New Jersey. This "Dead Zone" is the end result of an ecological "chain reaction" set in motion by all the agricultural fertilizers, animal manures, sediments and pesticides that end up in the Mississippi River. Excess nutrients flush from the river into the Gulf of Mexico and trigger exponential algae growth. When the algae die and sink to the bottom, their decomposition depletes the water of oxygen, creating a death trap for any fish or shrimp that cannot escape.[44]

There's one more key connection between animal foods production and the welfare of the oceans. Currently one-third of all the fish caught in the world are turned into fishmeal and fed to livestock.[45] This arresting and disturbing fact highlights the far-reaching and sometimes unforeseen environmental benefits that shifting to a plant-based diet can have. It also demonstrates the resounding vote that such a dietary shift represents for the wise and sustainable use of all the world's natural resources.

- Steve Lustgarden

For more information, visit a Pulitzer Prize-winning Series on the state of the world's oceans.


[1] Lester Brown, et al. Vital Signs: 1994 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 1994), p 32.

[2] Carl Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish," Scientific American, Nov 1995.

[3] Brian Groombridge, ed., Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources, World Conservation Monitoring Center, in collaboration with the World Conservation Union, UN Environment Programme, World Wide Fund for Nature, and the World Resources Institute (New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992).

[4] Rick Mooney, "Water, Clean and Clear," Field & Stream, Aug 1995.

[5] Peter Weber, "Oceans in Peril," E Magazine, May/June 1994.

[6] Ibid, p38.

[7] Michael Parfit, "Diminishing Returns," National Geographic, Nov 1995, p 37.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Safina, as per note 2.

[10] Safina, as per note 2.

[11] Gar Smith, "Save the Tuna", Earth Island Journal, Fall 1994, p19.

[12] Safina, as per note 2.

[13] Lester Brown, as per note 1.

[14] Safina, as per note 2.

[15] Safina, as per note 2.

[16] Safina, as per note 2, and Joan Hamilton, "All You Can Stomach," Sierra, Nov-Dec, 1994, p38.

[17] Safina, as per note 2.

[18] Safina, as per note 2.

[19] Safina, as per note 2.

[20] Weber, as per note 5.

[21] Michael Parfit, as per note 7.

[22] Ibid, p22.

[23] T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., "The Protein Puzzle," Nutrition Advocate, Aug 1995.

[24] Melina, Davis, Harrison, Becoming Vegetarian (Summertown, Tenn: Book Publishing Company, 1995) p105. Gurney Williams III, "What's Wrong With Fish?", Vegetarian Times, Aug 1995.

[25] Jean Pennington, Food Values, 15th edition, Perennial Library Press, 1989.

[26] Moncada S, Martin JF, Higgs A, Symposium on regression of atherosclerosis. European Journal of Clinical Investigation 1993;23:385-98.

[27] Michael Jacobson et al., Safe Food Eating Wisely in a Risky World, Living Planet Press, 1991, 118.

[28] "Is Our Fish Fit to Eat?", Consumer Reports, Feb 1992.

[29] Ibid, p 112.

[30] Michael Jacobson et al., as per note 27, p121.

[31] As per note 27, p103.

[32] Michael Jacobson et al., as per note 27, p125.

[33] Gurney Williams III, as per note 24.

[34] Trout Unlimited, The Invisible Menace: Agricultural Pollution Run-off in Our Nation's Streams, Feb 1994.

[35] Jim Mason, "Fowling the Waters," E Magazine, Sept/Oct 1995, p33.

[36] Trout Unlimited, as per note 1, p3.

[37] Trout Unlimited, as per note 1.

[38] Ilene LeBlanc, NPR Saturday Morning, Jan 6, 1996, first aired on Living on Earth. Nutrients are promoting a toxic dynoflagelate called fiesteria, discovered by Joanne Burkholder at NC State. 75 percent of the nutrients are from agriculture.

[39] Trout Unlimited, as per note 1.

[40] Peter Weber, "Oceans in Peril," E Magazine, May/June 1994.

[41] Trout Unlimited, as per note 1, p5.

[42] Trout Unlimited, as per note 1.

[43] Fisheries, 1993 vol 18, no 10, p4.

[44] Jonathan Tolman, "Poisonous Runoff from Farm Subsidies," Wall Street Journal, Sept 8, 1995, A10.

[45] Safina, as per note 2.