Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fish for Thought

I am often asked if, as a vegetarian, I eat fish. The definition of “vegetarian” is “a person who does not eat or does not believe in eating meat, fish, or fowl” (dictionary.com). By definition, one who eats fish is not a vegetarian. A pescetarian is “a vegetarian who will eat fish.” I am a vegetarian, and no, I don’t eat fish.

Don’t I need fish for the Omega fatty acid and DHA/EFA content? No. Fish don't actually produce omega-3 fatty acids, they capture it from algae. I take a DHA/EFA supplement straight from the source- algae. I also eat plenty of flaxseed and olive oil, which provides my body with healthy percentages of fatty acids.

Another popular question regarding my not eating fish is “why?” Dietary? Environmental? Ethical? For me, it’s a little of all three. But the most interesting is the environmental reason. Let me explain my reasoning.

How can a little fishie affect the environment?

Fish do not consume all of the resources that a cow or a pig does, so how can killing them affect the environment? The answer to this is threefold: Overfishing, energy-consumption, and pollution.

Overfishing

An ecosystem is an ecological community comprised of biological, physical, and chemical components, considered as a unit (thanks, Wiki). Have you ever built a card house? It is a house built from a deck (or few) of playing cards. The entire structure of the house depends on each card. If you remove one card, the entire house is structurally compromised and falls down. This is what removing fish from the marine ecosystem does.

In 1997, “the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 11 of the world’s major oceanic fishing grounds had gone into a serious decline as a result of overfishing. 34% of all species were vulnerable to, or in immediate danger of, extinction” (The Food Revolution, John Robbins, p. 295). As the years go on, science journals report that the “destruction of life in the oceans had progressed farther than anyone had suspected” (Robbins, 295). In fact, 90 percent of large fish populations have been exterminated in the past 50 years and a recent report published in the academic journal Science, estimates that by the year 2048 our oceans will have been completely over-fished. Fisherman have difficulty obtaining their quotas, and as a result, drop their nets deeper into the ocean, catching many more “unusable” fish and mammals, as well as coral (absolutely vital to the preservation of the delicate ecosystem of the ocean), which they discard after their demises. Fishermen are willing to take smaller fish now, which usually feed the larger fish. Without the smaller ones to feed the larger ones, the larger ones die off. One fish likely bears the heads of many other fish, mammals, coral, and marine animals killed in the fishing process.

Perhaps the most compelling environmental consequence of fishing is what happens when we remove millions of species of ocean creatures from their ecosystem. Take salmon. Salmon play a “crucial and irreplaceable role in the functioning of a vast array of ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, and forests” (Robbins, 297). Adult salmon spend their lives at sea. They contain marine carbon and nitrogen isotopes, and after they come back to the forested streams they grew up in, they spawn and die. Their carcasses feed fish, mammals, and birds throughout the forest. In the water, the carcasses are digested by fungus that feeds bacteria necessary for the life of insects and invertebrates. They also feed their own offspring. When the babies emerge from the bottom, “25-40 percent of the carbon and nitrogen in juvenile salmon comes from the remains of their parents. Isotope studies show that 30% of the vital nitrogen and carbon in aquatic algae and insects, and 18% along the river, comes directly from salmon” (Robbins, quoting David Suzuki, p.297). Forests need salmon to survive. After eating the carcasses of salmon, bears, eagles, wolves, ravens, and other animals, will defecate, making a nitrogen-rich fertilizer necessary for the trees to live and grow. Take away the adult salmon from the ocean and rivers, and we disrupt the delicate ecosystem of the forest. According to the U.S. National Fisheries Institute, American per capita consumption of salmon has risen from 0.87 pounds (0.39 kg) per year in 1992 to 2.026 pounds (0.92 kg) in 2006. The species also went from being America's sixth most popular fish to eat to its third over the same period of time.

What about factory farmed fish? “Aquafarms squander resources—it can take 5 pounds of wild-caught fish to produce just 1 pound of farmed fish—and pollute the environment with tons of fish feces, antibiotic-laden fish feed, and diseased fish carcasses. Fish on aquafarms spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures, and many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries. Conditions on some farms are so horrendous that 40 percent of the fish may die before farmers can kill and package them for food. In short, fish farms bring suffering and ecological devastation everywhere they go. Fish farms are no better for the environment. The fish on ocean-based farms are plagued by parasites and diseases, which they pass to fish living near the farms. When foreign fish escape from their cages, they threaten the well-being of native fish species. Fish farms pollute coastal waters with massive amounts of fish feces and require huge numbers of wild-caught fish to feed their captives. Click here to learn more about aquaculture (fish farms).” (http://www.fishinghurts.com/fishFarms.asp). .

Energy-Consumption

It takes a lot of fossil fuel energy (oil, coal and natural gas) to deliver you your sushi. After all the media attention to oil, coal and natural gas, do I really need to go into their ill effects on the environment (Really interested? See this article: http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/energy/)? “Commercial fishing is very energy intensive; it may require as much as 20 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy from fish. This is a ratio which makes fish 50 to 100 times as energy-intensive as production of plant foods, even when those plant foods are produced under standard Western agricultural methods. At best, then, fish is merely less damaging than other forms of meat production. The truth is that fishing on any large scale just won't work. Fishing must either remain a very small and statistically insignificant form of food, or become environmentally damaging and draining in important ways when it is expanded to include any significant portion of the population” (http://keithakers.com/fish.htm).

Pollution

Wild fish may be higher in mercury, and not all fisheries catch fish in environmentally-sound manners. With farmed fish, sewage, pesticides, and antibiotics used can spill into surrounding waters, posing a risk to not only wild fish, but to any animal, bird, insect, or human who consumes it. Escaped farmed fish breed with wild ones, diluting the genetics.

Fish for Thought
A great site about farmed and wild fish is this: http://www.fishinghurts.com/index.asp.

Here are some interesting facts about fish consumption, from John Robbins (see book for fact citations).

* Amount of fish caught per person, worldwide, sold for human consumption in 1996: 16 kilograms.

* Amount of marine life that was hauled up with the fish and discarded, per person, in 1996: 200 kilograms.

* Amount of the world’s fish catch to feed livestock: Half.

* Likely result if current overfishing trends continue: Wholesale collapse of marine ecosystems.