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Fish: Where have all the Fishes Gone? by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 69 (Summer 1995)

"There are plenty more fish in the sea" is perhaps an expression that vegans would prefer to avoid. It is also an expression that is rapidly becoming untrue for two reasons. One is because humans view what they see in the world around them as just there for them to use, with no thought for preserving a balance of nature, i.e. conservation. The other is a failure to take care of how we dispose of the waste products of our various activities, i.e. pollution.

Life originated in the seas. When land masses were jostling together to form, mountain chains and volcanoes were bursting with fire and molten rock, it must have been much safer to live under water and although some creatures have since ventured on to land, the seas which cover about four-fifths of the globe have remained the home of countless millions of creatures, as we all know from simply putting our heads under water near a rocky shore or from documentary films that give us a wider view.


People living near the sea or by rivers and lakes have long used fishing as a more easily obtained source of food than cattle which had to be reared and cared for or grains that had to be sown and watered. With the growth of population, which for this century is described as an explosion, it was inevitable that a far greater quantity of fish would be caught. With high technology also greatly expanding in this century, the methods of fishing are developed on a far bigger scale and sophistication. Incredibly, boats now drag nets that stretch for miles. Instead of fishing for one shoal of fish, of one type, all the sea creatures in a wide area are dragged up, including many unwanted and useless ones that also die for no reason. Many dolphins, for instance, are unintentionally caught in these nets resulting in a serious decrease of their population which most people deplore.


The result of the increasing demand and decreasing supply of fish is that different nations are fighting for the few remaining good fishing grounds. Russian factory ships station themselves near the northern coast of Britain. Canadians and Cornishmen have bitter feuds with Spanish fishermen and nations try to limit the quantity of fish that is permitted to be caught in order to preserve stocks. The Whaling Commission was in fact set up to allocate quotas for the catching of whales. European fishing boats are now visiting the coasts of Africa and taking the fish that local populations rely on. This has become another example of false ideas leading to global disaster. Until we realise that there is no necessity for humans to consume animals, we will continue to fight each other until all the fish have gone. The plant life in the sea (which we call seaweeds because we fail to appreciate their worth) could be harvested as is done in Japan to provide a valuable source of nutrition. They are especially rich in iodine.


Apart from overfishing by pulling them out of their habitat to suffocate "like a fish out of water" (do we really think about what this expression means?) we destroy fish on a huge scale by polluting the seas and destroying their environment in many ways. A report on the Black Sea shows that it has become one of the most polluted seas in the world and is undergoing an agonising death. It has become a sewer for a large part of Europe - a place for the disposal of huge amounts of phosphorous compounds, mercury, DDT, oil and other toxins from 160 million people. Of the 26 varieties of fish that were caught in the Black Sea in the 1960s only 5 remain. The Sea's dolphin population has shrunk from 1 million to 200,000 and many of those remaining are infected with swine fever from all the pig farms that discharge sewage into the river Danube.

The North Sea is also heavily polluted by chemical pollutants and by nitrates and phosphates used in agriculture. Sewage discharges and farm run-offs cause eutrophication (oxygen depletion) in parts of the North Sea (where algae bloom blots out all other life) and fishes suffocate from lack of oxygen. The recent controversy over the obsolete Brent Spar oil platform has raised the problem of further pollution from the oil rigs that will become obsolete in the future. The cod which was so abundant in the North Sea may be extinct there by the turn of the century. Fishermen are often alarmed to find the fish they catch show signs of disease and many that appear healthy may be polluted with poisonous metals.

Fish Farming

Fish farming has been developed by keeping fish in high density in cages or tanks. As with other forms of intensive farming, the crowded conditions lead to widespread disease which has to be countered by drugs which spread out into the environment The sight of fish crowded in a tank may not seem as pathetic as chicks in battery cages, but who can know the stress suffered by these animals who would normally be ranging over wide areas and keeping their distance from each other? Because fish are cold blooded we imagine they must suffer less, but they obviously have a nervous system which reacts to a brain. They must feel pain when caught by a hook and when they are dragged out into the air, they must feel pain as we do if we are kept under water. Because shellfish have tough outer shells, we assume they are somehow tough and inured to pain but cutting them up alive or plunging them into boiling water alive should not be imagined to be pain free.

Humans claim to have powers of imagination - to be able to appreciate the suffering of others in the way other animals probably don't. Cats don't imagine what it must be like to be the bird that is caught and killed. Birds don't imagine what it must be like to be the insect or worm that is captures and eaten. Nor do they have alternatives for their diet.

Humans have the capacity to understand the suffering they cause to other sentient creatures, creatures with nervous systems and brains, creatures that will run away when they fear capture and cry out when suffering pain. Humans also have alternative diets they can turn to. Diets that have been proved to be healthier for them and which cause less harm to the environment. Aspiring vegetarians may be excused if they first give up meat and continue to eat fish whilst their minds and bodies adjust to the change of diet, but they must soon move on to leave the fish in the sea and lakes to pursue their own destiny. They have enough to contend with our pollution, let alone suffer the hazard of being dragged out and eaten.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that all the world's major fishing grounds are beyond their biological limits and half are on the brink of ecological collapse. Yet EU countries increased their subsidies to fishing fleets from $80 million to $580 million between 1983 and 1990, more than one fifth of which went to building larger boats, which encourages over fishing. Every major fishing ground is now a site of conflict and 50 countries are clashing over fish stocks. Mackerell have reached "commercial extinction". Cod are heading for extinction in the North Sea and instead we could end up with an ecosystem dominated by jelly fish. No one can tell what might happen when the balance is upset so dramatically.


Angling is a very popular pastime. The angler sits by a river or lake with a rod and line feeling at peace with the surroundings. They sit in solitary contemplation of nature and wildlife. He (less seldom she) will even be happy in pouring rain (though sheltered under a large umbrella). We should not wish to prevent this communion with nature, but why should the fish suffer? A country walk by the riverside, nature trail, observing fish under water with a schnorkel, and other ways can be developed to maintain this bond with nature without having to inflict pain and suffering.

Fish Oils

Fish are considered to be more easily digested than other animals. The stink that comes from a fish shop smells quite strongly, at least when you have become vegetarian. The oils in fish are claimed to have benefits in contrast to the fats from land animals which nutritionists want us to eat less of. I understand that the so-called Eskimo Diet takes up this theory that fish oils provide beneficial Essential Fatty Acids. These Essential Fatty Acids can however be obtained from plant sources. They can be obtained from linseed oil (also known as flaxseed oil) in sufficient quantities. This argument for eating fish no longer stands.

We do enough harm on land. Let us leave the sea and its fishes to fulfil their own destiny. If the human race is bent on self-destruction, when the planet has re-purified the land masses that we may destroy, it may need to bring life back out of the sea, as it did before.

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Cross-reference: Fish & Seafood