IN THE NEWS: Jonathan Safran Foer: the truth about fish farming

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IN THE NEWS: On FEB 23, 2010

Factory-farmed chickens, turkeys and cattle all suffer in fundamentally similar ways. So, it turns out, do fish. We tend not to think of fish and land animals in the same way, but "aquaculture" “ the intensive rearing of sea animals in confinement “ is essentially under- water factory farming.

The Handbook of Salmon ­Farming, an industry how-to book, details six "key stressors in the aquaculture ­environment": "water ­quality", "crowding", "handling", ­"disturbance", "nutrition" and "hierarchy". To translate into plain language, those six sources of suffering for salmon are: water so fouled that it makes it hard to breathe; crowding so intense that animals begin to cannibalise one ­another; handling so invasive that ­physiological measures of stress are evident a day later; disturbance by farmworkers and wild animals; ­nutritional deficiencies that weaken the ­immune system; and the inability to form a ­stable social ­hierarchy, ­resulting in more cannibalisation. These ­problems are typical. The handbook calls them "integral ­components of fish farming".

A major source of suffering for salmon and other farmed fish is the abundant presence of sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water. These lice create open lesions and sometimes eat down to the bones on a fish's face “ a phenomenon known as the "death crown" in the ­industry. A single salmon farm generates swarming clouds of sea lice in numbers 30,000 times higher than naturally occur.

The fish that survive these conditions (a 10% to 30% death rate is seen as good by many in the salmon industry) are likely to be starved for seven to 10 days to diminish their bodily waste during transport to slaughter then killed by having their gills sliced before being tossed into a tank of water to bleed to death. Often the fish will be slaughtered while conscious, and convulse in pain as they die. In other cases, they may be stunned, but current ­stunning methods are unreliable.

So are wild-caught fish a more ­humane alternative? They certainly have better lives before they are caught, since they do not live in cramped, filthy enclosures. That is a difference that ­matters. But consider the most common ways of catching wild tuna, shrimp and salmon. Three methods are dominant: ­longline fishing, trawling and the use of purse seines.

A longline looks something like a ­telephone line running through the water suspended by buoys rather than poles. At periodic intervals along this main line, smaller "branch" lines are strung “ each branch line bristling with hooks. Now picture not just one of these multihook longlines, but dozens or hundreds deployed one after the other by a single boat. And, of course, there is not one boat deploying longlines, but dozens, hundreds, or even thousands in the largest commercial fleets.

Longlines today can reach 75 miles “ that's enough line to cross the Channel more than three times. And longlines don't kill just their "target ­species", but 145 others as well. One study found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed by longline fishing every year, including roughly 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatross and 20,000 dolphins and whales.

Even longlines, though, don't ­produce the immense bycatch associated with trawling. The most common type of modern shrimp trawler sweeps an area roughly 25 to 30 metres wide. The trawl is pulled along the ocean ­bottom for ­several hours, sweeping shrimp (and everything else) into the far end of a funnel-shaped net. Trawling is the marine ­equivalent of clear-cutting rain forest. Whatever they target, trawlers sweep up fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops “ typically about 100 different fish and other ­species. Virtually all die. The least efficient operations throw more than 98%, dead, back into the ocean. There is something quite ­sinister about this scorched-earth style of ­"harvesting" sea animals.

Modern fishing techniques are ­destroying the ecosystems that sustain more complex vertebrates (such as salmon and tuna), leaving in their wake only the few species that can survive on plants and plankton, if that. As we ­gobble up the most desired fish, which are usually top-of-the-food-chain ­carnivores such as tuna and salmon, we eliminate predators and cause a short-lived boom of the species one notch lower on the food chain. We then fish that ­species into oblivion and move an order lower. The generational speed of the process makes it hard to see the changes (do you know what fish your grandparents ate?), and the fact that catches themselves don't decline in volume gives a deceptive impression of sustainability.

Trawling and longline fishing aren't only ecologically worrisome; they are also cruel. In trawlers, hundreds of different species are crushed together, gashed on ­corals, bashed on rocks “ for hours “ then hauled from the water, causing painful decompression (this sometimes causes the animals' eyes to pop out or their internal organs to come out of their mouths). On longlines, too, the deaths animals face are generally slow. Some are simply held there and die only when removed from the lines. Some die from the injury caused by the hook in their mouths or by trying to get away. Some are unable to escape attack by predators.

Purse seines are the main technology used for catching tuna. A net wall is deployed around a school of target fish, and once the school is encircled, the bottom of the net is pulled together as if the fishers were tugging on a giant purse string. The trapped target fish and any other creatures in the vicinity are then winched together and hauled on to the deck. Fish tangled in the net may be slowly pulled apart in the process. Most of these sea animals, though, die on the ship, where they will slowly suffocate or have their gills cut while conscious. In some cases, the fish are tossed on to ice, which can actually prolong their deaths.

Does all this matter enough that we should change what we eat? What ­conclusion would most selective ­omnivores reach if attached to each salmon they ate was a label ­noting that 2.5ft-long farmed salmon spend their lives in the equivalent of a ­bathtub of water and that the animals' eyes bleed from the ­intensity of the ­pollution? What if the ­label mentioned the explosions of ­parasite populations, increases in diseases, degraded ­genetics and new ­antibiotic-resistant diseases that result from fish farming?

Although one can realistically ­expect that at least some percentage of cows and pigs are slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did.

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