Fish farming

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina

Last month, we explored the cruelty and environmental damage inherent in commercial fishing. This month, we look at aquaculture. Today, approximately half the fish consumed are reared in crowded enclosures whether on land or in water. Globally, between 40-120 billion farmed fish are slaughtered for food each year.

The goal in fish farming is the same as in agri-business: to generate the most meat for the least money. Fish farms maintain a density of animals never seen in the wild. Growth accelerators are used to speed weight gain and antibiotics are used to contain the spread of disease. The consequences of these intensive operations are widespread and severe.

Fish welfare: Poor conditions in aquaculture operations include crowding, polluted water and disease outbreaks, causing stress, fear and pain in these animals.

Pressure on wild fish stocks: One argument used to justify fish farming is the protection of wild fish. Yet many of the farmed fish, such as salmon, are carnivorous. Seventy percent of salmon on the market is farmed. It can take 2.5-5 pounds of wild fish to yield one pound of farmed carnivorous fish. Farmed fish that manage to escape can transfer serious diseases, sea lice and other parasites to wild fish stocks; they can devastate native fish populations.

Environmental damage: Ecologically sensitive areas, such as mangroves, coastal estuaries and salmon migration routes, may be seriously threatened by fish-farm outputs, including nitrogenous waste (mainly from fish feces), food pellets and drug residues. This untreated waste released into the ocean affects water quality and other sea life and also fuels a proliferation of toxin-producing algae that can cause massive die-offs of fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds and animals that consume them.

Proponents argue that eating farmed fish is better than eating beef in terms of greenhouse emissions while admitting that, on average, the environmental footprint is somewhat higher than for chicken and pork.

Risk to human health: Frequent use of antibiotics in aquaculture allows disease microbes to become resistant to antibiotic treatments, making it more difficult to treat human disease.

Fish life: Scientists now confirm fish demonstrate myriad complex behaviours and skills; they form relationships, recognize other individuals, pass on knowledge and skills, have long-term memories, solve problems, collaborate in food finding, experience fear and distress and avoid risky situations. They have neurotransmitters and feel pain.

Death as a farmed fish: Until the 90s, there was little scientific agreement that fish could feel. Since then, studies have made us rethink these beliefs. Scientific thinking can be strange; even as a child, the one time I went fishing, it was obvious the fish was not comfortable having a hook through its cheek.

While farmed fish do not get the hook, out of water, their gills collapse leading to a slow, stressful death by asphyxiation. Other commercial methods of killing include being clubbed to death, gill cutting and being allowed to bleed to death, carbon dioxide stunning, spiking the brain and live chilling.

Alternatives? If you like the flavour of seafood, try vegan alternatives such as Sophie’s or Gardein’s fishless filets. Check out www.vegan, Whole Foods and Choices.

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and co-author of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition and other books. See

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