Fish: Fishing and fish farming in aquacultures

Image source: / Tosaphon C

Fish have the same capacity to feel pain as mammals. Yet millions of tonnes of fish are caught each year and an increasing number of species are at risk of extinction. ProVeg explains why sustainable fishing and fish farming is impossible in practice.

The consequences of overfishing

Fish are one of the oldest and most biodiverse groups of vertebrates inhabiting our planet. They populate almost all the earth’s waters, but their numbers are dwindling rapidly. It is particularly hard for us to imagine the world that fish inhabit. We rarely think of them as individuals – in most cases, we speak of them as collective beings, described in kilograms and tonnes.

Each year, around 93 million tonnes of these marine creatures are taken from the sea and subsequently die in pain and distress.1 2.7 trillions of these sentient creatures perish each year – and this does not include the numbers killed by the rampant practice of illegal fishing.2

Bycatch causes unnecessary suffering and death

Environmentally hazardous fishing methods and inadequate fishery laws wreak havoc on the oceans and their inhabitants. Each year, several million marine animals end up in fishing nets as bycatch. Around 40% of the captured animals are then tossed back into the sea as they are not profitable for the fishing industry.3 The term ‘bycatch’ describes sea dwellers that are not the targeted animal – including 300,000 whales and dolphins. Most of them do not survive the ordeal4 – they either perish in the nets or die a slow death later on due to injury or stress.5

Fish stocks are rapidly dwindling due to overfishing

Fish stocks are rapidly shrinking around the world. For example, in the North Sea, the stocks of fish which are able to reproduce have plummeted due to absent or inadequate fishing bans or exorbitant fishing quotas. Today, over 90% of fish stocks are considered either overfished or exploited close to the point of unsustainability. This applies to cod in the Northwest Atlantic, as well as other species. Cod populations recovered, but only very slowly, after a dramatic decline at the end of the 1990s. Meanwhile, of the seven most fished tuna species, 41% are not fished sustainably.6

Increasing imbalance in the marine ecosystem

Overfishing wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. As well as the populations of species intended for human consumption, the stocks of animals caught as bycatch are also declining. Rampant fishing also causes immense damage to the seabird, jellyfish, and plankton populations.7 Beyond the sheer volume of fish caught, the fishing methods used are especially damaging to ecosystems as a whole. Bottom trawl nets, for instance, which are used to catch plaice, sole, and crustaceans, destroy the seabed and the organisms living there, including corals.

Fish farming in aquacultures damages the environment

In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in the number of aquafarms around the world. As well as carp, trout, and catfish, fish farms also breed marine dwellers such as salmon and bream. In 2014, aquafarms produced over 73 million tonnes of fish.8 The animals experience elevated stress and increased susceptibility to injury and disease as a result of the high density common in fish farming.9

Additionally, aquaculture damages the environment in numerous ways. The use of antibiotics and industrial chemicals pollutes the waters and can, in the worst-case scenario, encourage the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains that may present a risk to humans as well. Faeces and feed residues burden the environment and can lead to over-fertilisation of the waters and a decline in biodiversity.10

Aquafarms frequently breed predators such as salmon or trout, which require smaller fish as fodder, thus exacerbating the problem of overfishing.11 12 For example, sardines are being fished to the brink of extinction simply to satisfy the global demand for fishmeal.

Fishing is a form of animal cruelty

Although many people now reject the practice of hunting wild game, fishing is still widely perceived as a relaxing hobby – perhaps because most people do not realise that fish are sentient beings who can experience pain. Hobby fishing causes substantial suffering to fish: the hook produces deep wounds in the oral cavity, while the fish slowly suffocates after being taken out of the water. ‘Catch-and-release’ fishing is a similarly traumatic experience, even though the fish is thrown back into the water. After being released, the animals suffer significant stress and injury, returning to the water with substantially depleted reserves of strength and reduced chances of survival.

Fish maintain different social systems

As with the vast spectrum of land animals, fish also have strongly varying social systems.13 14 For example, trout are regarded as loners, while other fish species live as couples or form loose groups or large shoals (as is the the case with tuna). Fish possess long-term memories and are therefore able to establish complex social relationships. Additionally, they are equipped with spatial memory, allowing them to create mental maps that they use to navigate the waters.15

Fish have feelings and can experience pain

The assertion that ‘fish do not feel pain’ is frequently used to stifle any discussion of whether fish are able to suffer. But the inability to scream simply means that the pain felt by fish remains invisible and unheard. It follows, therefore, that we do not generally experience the same pangs of conscience that we feel in relation to pigs, cattle, or chicken. Nevertheless, researchers increasingly confirm that fish feel pain. Fish, like mammals, have sensory systems as well as cerebral structures and functions that are responsible for the perception of pain, fear, and stress.16 17 18 This is substantiated by behavioural patterns such as defensive reactions to pain stimuli.19

Rising demand for fish will lead to fishless seas in a few decades

Despite stock depletion, the global demand for fish is rising. Figures released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicate that fish consumption per capita was 20 kg in 2014.20 Part of this consumption includes the increasing global demand for sushi, which is gradually presenting an existential threat to the stocks of tuna. Perceived as a healthy form of fast food, sushi is now available on every street corner – but barely any consumers are aware of the dire consequences of overfishing. Tuna stocks in the North Pacific, for instance, are estimated to have plummeted by over 96%,21 22 and it has been predicted that all fish stocks will completely collapse by 2050, leaving us with fishless oceans in a few decades’ time.23 24

Fish contain harmful mercury, dioxin and lead

Fish absorb and accumulate the contaminants contained in seawater. There is a pertinent rule of thumb: the higher up the fish is in the food chain, the greater the toxin concentration in its body. This is troubling news for those who are accustomed to eating popular species such as salmon or tuna25 – large predators that feed on smaller marine creatures and, in doing so, absorb toxins that accumulate in their bodies and become increasingly more concentrated over time (this is known as bioaccumulation). People with a liking for fish will therefore consume mercury, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins, lead, and arsenic, which can lead to a variety of conditions, ranging from kidney damage to cognitive decline, cancer, and even death.26 Fish bred on aquafarms do not present a healthier alternative. After all, they are treated with antibiotics and chemicals to fight parasites and skin and gill infections – which are all consequences of the unnatural farming conditions.

A fundamental change in our collective mindset is needed

Not only are fish able to feel pain, they also possess complex cognitive skills and social structures. Additionally, fishing and fish farming have negative impacts on the environment and our health, all of which makes fish an unsustainable source of food. A fundamental change in mindset is needed in view of the exorbitant fishing quotas and the burden placed on the environment, nature, and the fish populations themselves. The availability of plant-based products similar to fish is on the rise. From vegan fish burgers to caviar, calamari, prawns and shrimp, there is an alternative for every occasion.

ProVeg supports the availability of plant-based fish alternatives

ProVeg does not only point out healthy, cruelty-free alternatives but also makes them more readily available. ProVeg supports and facilitates a range of vegan events throughout the year, from annual happenings such as VeggieWorld and VegMed to important one-off events such as CEVA trainings and legal and political symposiums. Furthermore, ProVeg advises and supports innovative companies that want to enrich the veggie market with their products. This ranges from mentoring early-stage start-ups to consulting for major international supermarket brands and administering the V-Label, which guarantees that a product is either vegan or vegetarian. Find out more about what we are doing to help the world transition to a more plant-based society and economy that are sustainable for humans, animals, and our planet.


1.FAO (2016): The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016: Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. Rome

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