Fish is something most of us eat. Over the last few decades we’ve become experts at making fish abundantly available, especially the two sexy fish, tuna and salmon. A few generations ago, we didn’t eat as much fish, especially in non-coastal areas. In my parents generation, they may have had fresh salmon once or twice a year. Sure we had canned tuna fish growing up, but rarely fresh tuna steaks and certainly not tuna sashimi. Eating fish meant going to a fish market and selecting a whole freshly caught fish, like sea bass, haddock, or cod.
In his book, The Sushi Economy, Sasha Issenberg, explains how the explosion of sushi has helped change the landscape of fish eating. “In the sushi system, tuna is the trophy fish,” he says. “A generation ago, red tuna was worthless — used as pet food. Demand started around 1970. Over the course of 2 decades, the price of tuna rose by 10,000 percent, now valued as a complex calculus of fat, oil, color, texture and taste.”
Salmon doesn’t lag far behind in popularity, available in almost every market in a wide variety of types and forms.
Both tuna and salmon are powerful fish, naturally migrating thousands of miles a year. Tuna, one of the greatest migratory animals on earth, cover thousands of miles a month. But now, the vast majority of both come from aquaculture — farms, where they have relatively little room to move.
The Handbook of Salmon Farming details 6 stressors on the quality of life of fish on farms — water quality (foul), crowding (intense, cannibalization), handling (invasive) , disturbance, nutrition (weaken immune system), hierarchy (inability to form stable hierachy).
Quoting from his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer discovered that wild salmon farms are so crowed that they generate clouds of sea lice “30,000 times higher than what naturally occur.” Sea lice create a major source of suffering among salmon, as they eat into their face and bones, and cause open sores. In fact, “a death rate of 10-13% on salmon farms is considered good.”
Buying ‘wild-caught’ fish has its own challenges because harvesting them involves killing and discarding thousands of other sea life. It’s common knowledge that among the three forms of commercial fishing, longlines, trawling, and purse seines, millions of sea animals are killed as by-catch. In one study, Foer says that trawling annually kills, 1 million marlins, 3.3 million sharks, and 60,000 sea turtles. Commercial fishing vessels routinely throw 80-90% of captured sea animals overboard, as (dead) “by-catch.” It’s like a scorched earth practice says Foer, massively wasteful, disrupting the bio-system, and cruel.
We don’t tend to think of fish as animals or that they feel pain. Don’t get me wrong, I eat fish and I’m no activist. But I think, not unlike most of us, that we would like to know that whatever animal we are eating has had somewhat of a normal life. In other words, it would be nice to know that any food, whether flesh, produce or otherwise, has been raised and prepared well.
No doubt that some aquaculture farms are better than others, and that smaller, more wild fish ‘friendly’ methods exist. But aquaculture and commercial wild fishing are like any other industry, with a goal of maximizing output with the least expense. Industries were born to feed our hunger, and we’ve developed a newfound hunger for salmon and tuna.
Is there an answer to enjoy the fish we’ve come to love while lessening the downside? Yes. Eating less flesh of any kind would be a start, or at least making flesh a smaller portion on the plate. And, by being aware of where our food comes from and how it’s raised. If not, what we eat becomes a little fishy.