When Food Gets Fishy

The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy shocked millions of viewers by exposing what it saw as the reality behind the global fishing industry.

The documentary, directed by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, explores the environmental impact of fishing, examining the various impacts of marine life and advocates for ending the consumption of fish. The documentary uncovered the raw facts about how depleted our oceans are from over-fishing to satisfy an ever-increasing human consumption. It revealed just how large the fishing industry is with over 4.5 million commercial fishing vessels at sea at any given time.

Global fish production is estimated to have reached about 179 million tonnes in 2018, of which 156 million tonnes ended up on our plates. Fish is clearly a staple in our diets, but what if you knew about the fishing crisis that lies beneath the surface? Today, over 70% of world fish stocks are fully exploited or are already overfished, and in need of being urgently rebuilt.

A dire consequence of wild fishing is that many fish species are almost extinct; for example, today less than 3% of the Pacific bluefin tuna remains. It’s not just fish suffering extinction, but so are intelligent mammals, such as dolphins and whales who are caught in fishing nets by accident as ‘bycatch’ and then discarded back into the ocean, often dead. The Sea Shepherd conservation society says that on the West coast of France alone, “up to 10,000 dolphins are killed every year as bycatch”. Sharks are now also endangered as a whopping 100 million sharks are killed each year, both as a result of over-fishing and as bycatch.

With the seemingly precarious future of wild fishing, commercial fish farming, or ‘aquafarming’ is the direction the fishing industry is rapidly moving in. Aquafarming is the breeding of fish, usually for food, in fish tanks or artificial enclosures, such as fishponds. They can be found along coastal areas and inland rivers and lakes.

With the world continuing to eat fish and ‘wild’ fish no longer being able to fill our insatiable appetite, could fish-farms be the answer to our depleted oceans? About half the fish consumed globally today is already sourced from fish farms; hailed by some as the solution to the overfishing problem, but just how environmentally friendly is the solution?

Fish farming - aqua culture - is the ‘fastest growing area of animal food production’, according to the Animal Welfare Institute - some of the most farmed species include salmon, tuna, cod, trout and halibut. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that fish-farming will grow by 50% over the next 15 years.

The benefits of artificial fish-farming are that it takes the stress off surviving fish populations in the wild, whilst allowing the industry to keep up with public consumption. In fact, the UN FAO insists that “to ensure a food secure future for all, the fisheries and aquaculture sectors are key”. It is hoped aquaculture will provide much needed protein for the Global South through locally produced fish,

Sounds good? Not perfect though as there is an environmental impact on the oceans. According to PETA, “aquafarms discharge waste, pesticides, and other chemicals directly into coastal waters, further destroying fragile local ecosystems”. The most recent COP26 climate change discussions in Glasgow put pressure on governments to control and change their fishing methods and keep the issue of over-fishing high on the environmental agenda.

It’s debatable whether fish farming is the better of two evils when it comes to sourcing our fish. With the sorry state our oceans are in, it’s not surprising that humans have turned to aquafarms. But the welfare of animals as well as the impact of these fish factories on the climate is still contested.

With climate anxiety rising, teenagers are becoming more interested in food sourcing and sustainability, which may be driving a change in eating habits. With the way the fishing industry is heading, who knows, maybe we won’t be eating nearly as much fish as we’d ever think in years to come. If Seaspiracy is anything to go by, teenagers will be the first to ditch fish from their diets. Too fishy, clearly.

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