By Scott Smith 

It’s not uncommon to meet a vegetarian who talks about all the good they are doing for animals and the environment by not eating the flesh of cows, pigs, chickens and sheep. Somehow, though, eating fish is different; it’s often seen as a lesser evil than eating meat.  

“Unfortunately, there is no virtue in a pescatarian diet,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “There is widespread awareness of the ills of animal farming; now it’s time for people to acknowledge the horrors of the fishing industry.” 

Recent Netflix documentaries like “Seaspiracy” and “My Octopus Teacher” are making people confront their denial and face the truth. Among the revelations in “Seaspiracy:” Humans kill 2.7 trillion fish a year to feed ourselves, our pets, our livestock, even our crops. That’s roughly 339 fish per year for every person on the planet. 

That’s a lot of killing. 

The carnage doesn’t end with fish, of course. Other wildlife and ecosystems are harmed in the process. What’s in the Net, a 2020 study by the World Wildlife Federation and Sky Ocean Rescue, documents that at least 720,000 seabirds, 345,000 seals and sea lions, 300,000 cetaceans, and more than 250,000 turtles die annually after being caught in fisheries around the world—along with tens of millions of sharks slaughtered each year. Many of these species are endangered or on the brink of extinction.  

If you’re eating fish, you’re also ignoring how wasteful the fishing industry really is. Almost 50% of the sealife supply in the U.S. is wasted every year, according to a study published in Global Environmental Change. Globally, 110 billion pounds of fish is lost, much through species inadvertently caught or fish that don’t meet size standards. While by law fish bycatch has to be returned to the sea, most captured creatures do not survive such a reprieve. Beyond that, many fish spoil during transport.  

Clearcutting the sea 

There’s a reason that bottom trawling, the most widespread and destructive form of industrial fishing, has been compared to forest clearcutting by the Washington-based Marine Conservation Institute. Bottom trawling reduces habitat complexity, productivity and biodiversity, in particular weakening ecosystems by decimating invertebrates toward the bottom of the food chain. The practice disturbs seafloor sediment and releases huge stores of carbon back into the ocean and atmosphere as CO2—as much as 300 tons of CO2 per year for every square mile trawled. Bottom trawling also destroys deep-sea sponges, corals, and other organisms whose structure provides spawning grounds, nurseries, food, and shelter from predators.  

Today, some bottom trawlers have nets as wide and as long as a football field, stirring and scraping the ocean floor, scooping up every living thing in their path and leaving a trail of sediment so large it can sometimes can be seen from space, the Institute points out. 

In the U.S, marine life killed by that destruction is widely available at your supermarket. The list includes pollock—made into fish sticks and surimi—as well as shrimp, cod, scrod, scallops, clams, flounder, skate, sole, haddock and western rockfishes.  

The ‘ghost gear’ haunting marine life 

The fishing industry is not only cruel, it’s also careless—recklessly so. The planet’s oceans are awash in the “ghost gear” fishers lose or leave behind. At least 10% of all marine litter is estimated to be made up of fishing detritus—the countless miles of abandoned fishing lines, ropes, nets, traps, hooks and other items—which means that as much as 1 million tons of fishing gear foul the ocean every year, according to WWF.  

A single abandoned net is estimated to kill an average of 500,000 marine invertebrates, like crabs and shrimp; 1,700 fish; and four seabirds. (Much of this equipment is made of plastic, which turns into harmful and long-lasting microplastics when it eventually breaks down.) 

With their large fins and flukes, whales are particularly vulnerable. Of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, which now number just 350 individuals, including only about 85 reproductive females, scientists say the greatest mortality risk comes from fishing lines—mainly those that run from surface buoys to lobster pots or crab traps on the sea floor, according to recent research published by Oceanographic Magazine

Beyond regulating atrocities  

Friends of Animals has been fighting to end the harm that fishing inflicts on marine life for nearly 50 years, as Feral recounts on page 00. In the 1990s, we led a nationwide boycott of canned tuna and pet food containing tuna to protest the slaughter of dolphins. A letter from an attorney representing Star-Kist testifies to the value of such public advocacy campaigns in saving countless dolphins over the past decades: “An important issue in this case is why Star-Kist, and more specifically its parent corporation, H.J. Heinz Co., announced its dolphin-safe requirements,” wrote Michael P.A. Cohen to Feral on Aug. 18, 1992. “Obviously, Star-Kist’s policy was a reaction to public demand and the efforts of environmental organizations like Friends of Animals, Earth Island Institute and the Dolphin Coalition.” 

Sometimes we learn from history and make needed change, only to fall back onto old lethal habits. Sea lions were hunted nearly to extinction for their pelts, but after the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act the species has rebounded, from a low of 30,000 to more than 250,000. Now, state wildlife agencies, with help from the federal government, are allowing the killing of hundreds of sea lions that they blame for catching salmon and steelhead trout below dams on the Columbia River. 

Or take the case of the double-crested cormorant, which a century ago was a common presence in the Great Lakes region. Anglers systematically killed cormorants by shooting them, “oiling” eggs, often with the blessing of the U.S. and Canadian governments. By the early 1970s, fewer than 250 cormorants remained in the entire Great Lakes basin. The double-crested cormorant became federally protected in 1972, and killing them prohibited unless authorized by the government as specified in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  

With state and federal protection, the population of the fish-eating bird rebounded. And now, responding to claims of anglers and aquaculture producers in Ohio reporting damage to their fish stocks by cormorants, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the USDA, are weighing proposals to kill cormorants to keep fish factories happy. In Connecticut, FoA has protested the authorized killing of birds, including blue herons, common mergansers and belted kingfishers, who the state claims snatch fish from its hatcheries. The state spends millions a year to operate the hatcheries, which provide 1.2 million fish to state waterways, most to give anglers something easy to catch. 

“The state is shooting birds to bolster a small percentage of anglers’ egos,” says Feral. “Birds shouldn’t have to die to make it more convenient for the so-called sport of fishing.” 

Food for thought 

Today, Feral notes, the only way to protect fish, and to save sea birds, whales, sea lions and other marine animals whose lives depend on fish, is to adopt a vegan, plant-based diet. 

“Humans have choices: We don’t have to eat fish. Marine animals need fish to survive,” Feral adds. “People need to ask themselves tough questions: ‘Can I eat a lobster roll from a fisher whose lobster pot and buoyed lines may have just killed the last female right whale?’ Can I turn a blind eye to the fact that as many as 700 sea turtles are found dead every year in Japan, who fishermen see as competitors? Or look the other way as angry anglers off the California coast toss cherry bombs at sea lions?” 

Friends of Animals will continue to protest the wanton killing of marine life. In August, FoA submitted comments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association protesting the Makah tribe’s request to hunt North Pacific gray whales. See “FoA to NOAA: Say no to brutal Makah tribal whale hunt,” page XX. 

The idea that a fish is a non-feeling thing and doesn’t experience trauma is no longer acceptable, nor is the idea that we can continue to plunder the oceans with no consequences. “Being vegan reorders the universe,” Feral said. “That’s food for thought for those looking to rethink their diets.”