The fishing industry: Damaging the environment

The world’s wild fish populations are declining rapidly as more and more vessels chase fewer and fewer fish. Tuna, cod, swordfish and marlin populations have declined by 90 per cent during the last century. Numbers of cod, plaice and sole have declined by 32 per cent in EU fisheries since 1993 and the fish catch in the North Sea has slumped from 3.5m tonnes in 1995 to 1.5m tonnes in 2007. Despite this, nearly half of the quotas set in December 2012 were in excess of the best scientific advice.

Vast drift nets, some over 2km long, are used to trawl the seas. Fish can be dragged along the ocean bed for hours within these nets, trapped alongside rocks, debris and other sea life that has fallen in the net’s path. Bottom trawling is a destructive way of ‘strip mining’ the ocean floor. It destroys ancient deep-sea coral forests and other delicate ecosystems. As well as the target fish species, this also results in the death of thousands of commercially unattractive animals like starfish and sponges.

An estimated 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) die in fishing nets every year, with an undocumented number escaping but with resultant stress or injuries. Approximately 800 common dolphins are caught in EU trawl fisheries in the north-east Atlantic each year alone.

Dolphins suffer prolonged and traumatic deaths when caught. Injuries include abrasions, amputations, penetrating wounds, broken mandibles or teeth, bruising, punctured or collapsed lungs and fractured bones. Non-lethal injuries can lead to health problems and may reduce survival or fertility. Asphyxia (suffocation) is the main cause of death, and can last from three minutes in harbour porpoises to potentially more than 60 minutes in sperm whales.

Globally, millions of sharks are killed in fishing nets each year. Tuna fisheries, which in the past had high dolphin by-catch levels, are still responsible for the deaths of 1 million sharks annually.

Six of the seven marine turtle species are classed as threatened with extinction, and fisheries bycatch is recognised as a major threat to all species.


Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including tens of thousands of albatrosses, are now estimated to be caught each year in longline fisheries worldwide.

The Scottish fish farming industry admits to shooting 500 seals a year to prevent them eating the fish, but campaigners believe the real figure could be as high as 5,000. Fish farming is also causing serious environmental destruction. It has been estimated that the amount of pollution in Scotland due to the ammonia input from fish farming is comparable to sewage produced by 9.4 million people.

Lice infestation is a devastating, highly stressful condition that flourishes in the cages. The lice multiply and graze on the fishes’ flesh, literally eating them alive. The industry attempts to control the lice through the use of antibiotics and toxic pesticides but it’s a losing battle, and the lice spread from the cages to nearby wild fish, who suffer and die as a result. Numbers of wild salmon have plummeted as a result of these infestations.

Around 35 million farmed fish are slaughtered in the UK every year, almost as many as all cattle, sheep and pigs combined. And yet the only welfare stipulation for fish at slaughter is that they be ‘spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing or related operations’. Of course, all the suffering is ‘avoidable’ – we just need to stop farming, killing and eating fish.

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