You’ve probably heard about how goldfish only have 3 second memories, and how fish can’t feel pain. Well, believe it or not, both those commonly held beliefs are entirely untrue. Just like grandparents warning their grandchildren that their faces might get stuck that way, these popular myths don’t seem to have much basis in science.

In fact, research into goldfish memory has shown that they are able to learn and remember how to navigate mazes. And that fish can feel and respond to pain is actually pretty obvious: pain is a very basic cognitive function that seems to common to most if not all vertebrate animals. Fish might not look or act very much like us, but they can definitely think and feel. Certain species of fish even work cooperatively with members of other species.

Whatever their intellectual and social lives might be life, fish stocks around the world are in crisis. In part, this is due to climate change and pollution. But mostly, it’s because we are exterminating them. The industrialization of fishing over the past century has wrought havoc on global fisheries.

Blue Spotted Grouper

Collapsing Fish Stocks

In 1992, the cod fishery off the east coast of Canada was shut down. After millennia of fishing off the Atlantic coast, the cod population, which had been one of the driving factors of early European colonization, had collapsed. Today, after more than 20 years of the fishery being closed, the population hasn’t recovered. The Atlantic cod were a canary in the coal mine. But have we been listening?

Salmon fisheries are at historic lows up and down the Pacific coast. Salmon runs which used to clog the rivers and streams running up into the coastal forests are now barely surviving from year to year. The wild salmon, which have been a corner stone species all across the Pacific coast have been largely replaced by open net fish farms, where thousands of Atlantic salmon are raised in captivity. These fish further damage the vulnerable wild salmon populations by spreading disease and dumping tons of waste into the water. The need to feed farmed salmon, which are predatory animals, further drives the pressures on wild fish stocks.

Estimates are that between 70 and 90 percent of the world’s large predatory fish are in steep decline. Bluefin tuna is a species on the brink of extinction, and yet you can still buy their meat at high end restaurants and grocery stores. Yellowffin stocks are also dangerously low. But the harvest continues, with industrial fishing fleets taking in entire schools of tuna at a time.

Similarly, the sale of shark fins is still allowed in most places, even though shark populations have been decimated all throughout the world’s oceans. Most sharks have experienced at least a 50% reduction in population over the past few decades. Some, such as scallopped hammerheads, have lost up to 90%. These great predators have swam the Earth’s oceans for millions of years. Will they survive two centuries of industrial fishing?

Leaping Wild Salmon

The Tragedy of By Catch

By catch is the fishing industry term for species which are caught “accidentally” that aren’t the target species. This includes birds, turtles, other species of fish, sharks, whales, dolphins, crabs and anything else which lives in the oceans. The levels of by catch in modern fishing is absolutely horrific. In shrimp trawling, by catch ratios range from 3:1 to 20:1 That’s 3 to 20 times more species killed just as a byproduct — that’s up to 90% of the overall haul.  In what other industry would such astronomical levels of destructive waste be tolerated?

  • Bottom Trawling: a fishing method whereby an enormous net is weighed down with heavy metal weights so that it drags against the bottom of the sea floor, catching all the sea creatures not quick enough to escape. Bottom trawlers wreck the sea floor, and are destroying underwater mountain ecosystems.
  • Long-Lining: a horrendous method of fishing where extremely long cables are dragged behind a boat, sometimes miles long. Hooks are affixed at intervals down the length of the cable. All manner of aquatic life, from seals to whales, dolphins, fish and even birds get hooked and dragged until they die or are hauled on board to be slaughtered.
  • Fish Aggregating Devices: FADs are fishing devices which emit a tracking signal. A boat or  fleet will leave these large devices out floating in the ocean. Fish, being naturally curious, will congregate in large numbers around the FAD. The fishing vessels then return, capturing all the fish that had been attracted by the FAD, catching many young fish and generating high proportions of by catch.


What Can Be Done?

While on land we have created parks, reserves, and other protected areas where logging and hunting are not allowed, the oceans it is essentially unprotected. While nation states control the waters around their own borders, most of them have limited controls in place. The rest of the ocean is a free-for-all. Less than 1% of the global ocean is protected.

At the end of the day, people who do not traditionally rely on fishing should stop eating fish. We need to allow fish stocks to recover, especially considering the added pressures we’re creating through climate change. At the very least, the most egregiously destructive methods of long-lining, bottom-trawling and fish aggregating devices need to be banned.

  • If you must consume fish, do not buy bluefin or yellowfin tuna. Do not trust industry labels which claim their products are dolphin-free or sustainable unless they are caught by simple hook and line fishing.
  • Avoid buying farmed salmon. Genetic testing has recently shown that a high percentage of salmon which is labeled wild is in fact farmed salmon. Salmon should be avoided entirely in supermarkets and grocery stores.
  • Ask your grocery stores and markets what their sustainable fishing policies are. If they don’t have any, ask them why not. Tell them you will not support stores without actionable sustainability policies.

See our Ways to Help page for more information on how you can help make a change for the better.

Photo Credits

A Leaping Salmon” by Walter Baxter, own work. Licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0 via www.geograph.org.uk