Fish are eaten all over the world, across hundreds of species and in vast quantities. There is no reliable measurement of the numbers of fish slaughtered globally each year, but the contribution of fish to global diets has reached a record high of approximately 17 kg per person per year.
Fish, contrary to popular belief, are sentient beings who do experience pain. Recent research shows that fish are extremely intelligent and have complex inner lives. Fish have been shown to be capable of complex communication and cooperation within schools, and even of deceiving others and making social judgements as to the trustworthiness of other members of their group. Fish are often considered to be mindless, but if other animals are not mindless, then we must conclude that fish are not either, since the level of mental complexity fish display is on a par with most other vertebrates. All of these facts considered, there can be no reasonable moral justification for refusing to take the well-being and experiences of fish into consideration when deciding whether or not it is ethical to consume them.
Whether caught by line or net, most fish caught will suffocate, which causes extreme stress and pain before death. It is not only fish who are effected however, for every 1 pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by kill. This is because, since most fishing equipment is non-selective, it catches many other non-target species, including sharks, seabirds, dolphins, whales and porpoises. In the U.S fishing industry alone, an estimated 2 billion pounds of bycatch are discarded every year. It is estimated that over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year, making this the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans, with many facing extinction as a direct result. For these reasons, many believe that fish farms represent a better option, however, aquaculture means fish are crowded in unnatural settings, with waste products, including faeces and dead fish flushed into the surrounding waters where they contaminate local ecosystems. These captive fish must also be fed, requiring 37 pounds of “feeder” fish to produce just 1 pound of commercially sold fish.
Whether wild caught or industrially farmed, eating fish also comes at a dire environmental cost, as well as severely impacting local ecosystems and driving the extinction of dependent predators. Some fish have been over-fished to the point of near extinction, in Newfoundland for example, formerly the largest cod fishery in the world, the decline in cod biomass is estimated at over 99%. The United Nations has warned that if current trends continue and estimates are accurate, we may witness fish-less oceans by 2050. Few other foods choices have as big of an impact as eating fish, not only on the individuals cruelly killed, but on the vast numbers of other animals who are utterly dependent upon fish for their survival. We have reached a stage where reduction or so-called “sustainable” fishing simply will not limit the impacts of global fish consumption even nearly enough. Therefore, those of us who have the option must cease our consumption of these animals entirely not only as a matter of justice and compassion, but absolute necessity.