Fish and seafood are often recommended as good sources of healthy nutrients like protein and essential fatty acids. Some research even suggests that fish may help you live longer, with a lower risk for disease. But how much truth is there to these claims? What about contamination with mercury and other heavy metals? And what about the ethical and sustainability concerns?
Some studies tell us that people who eat fish live longer and enjoy healthier lives, with lower risk for chronic diseases that impact much of the Western world. For instance, the ongoing Adventist Health Study has so far found that vegetarians outlive omnivores, vegans outlive vegetarians, and pescatarians – people who avoid all animal products except for fish – appear to have the longest life expectancy of all.
Meanwhile, in a 2019 review of 44 studies that was published in the highly specialized medical journal PLEFA (“Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids” – not what most people would call light reading), researchers concluded that children of mothers who ate seafood weekly had significantly higher verbal I.Q. scores. The review also concluded that children who ate seafood had better school grades, and higher I.Q. by as much as 9.5 points when compared to their peers who ate no fish.
Why are we seeing these benefits? Is it because fish is high in the long chain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, and these are beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health? Is it because fish-eaters are generally eating less red meat, or less processed foods – and these are the real culprits in ill-health? Do fish-eaters tend to get more exercise? Are they less likely to smoke? Do they live healthier lifestyles, in general? Research is ongoing, and the data isn’t necessarily conclusive. However, there is a large body of evidence that for most people, at least compared to the Standard American Diet, fish consumption may be linked to positive health outcomes.
But… there’s something you should know about eating fish
But before you run out to chow down on a fish burger, or buy a bunch of stock in the nearest fishing fleet, there’s something you should know. Fish are killed, of course. And for ethical vegetarians, that’s reason enough to steer clear. It’s true that some scientists say that fish do not have the neuro-physiological capacity for a conscious awareness of pain, and do not feel pain the way humans do. But others say that it is impossible to definitively know whether another creature’s subjective experience is like our own. What’s certain is that in recent years, fish biologists around the world have discovered substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain. It is now widely accepted that fish produce the same opioids—the body’s innate painkillers—that mammals do.
And there are some other issues, too. Wild fish swim in polluted waters and exist at the top of very long food chains. As a result, many wild fish today are contaminated with dangerous levels of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other toxins. And industrialized fishing operations are practically strip-mining the oceans, leaving fish stocks depleted, eviscerating marine food chains, and threatening the viability of the commercial fishing industry for future generations.
What about fish farms? They have some big, big problems, too. So more people are wondering what is it about seafood that seems beneficial – and whether there are any better ways to derive the benefits, without devastating our oceans or exposing consumers to dangerous levels of pollution.
Types of Fishing
When we think of fishing, we conjure up images of intrepid fishermen in yellow oilskin jackets bravely sailing out of the harbour, enduring lashing rain and fierce winds, and returning at the end of the day with a fresh catch. That romantic vision has nothing to do with how fish are caught these days. The modern fishing industry relies on two methods for the vast majority of its product: trawling in oceans and seas, and farming in human-made lakes and tanks.
Fish labeled as “wild-caught” come from the ocean through commercial fishing methods. There are several huge problems with wild-caught fish.
Overfishing is exactly what it sounds like. We’re pulling more fish out of the ocean than the natural ecosystem can replenish, creating an unsustainable system that has put certain species on the edge of extinction. Overfishing has been a problem since at least the early 1800s, when the whale population was severely affected by humans looking for blubber to use in lamp oil. Commercial fishing industries are actually harvesting over 160 billion pounds of sea life out of the ocean every year – that’s nearly a half of a billion pounds every single day. And if fishing rates continue apace, nearly all of the world’s fisheries will collapse in the next 30 years.
We don’t know exactly how the removal of entire species from the web of ocean life will affect the rest of the food chain and ecosystem, but various models make it clear that we can expect devastation that will lead to dead zones and impaired human health. As biodiversity in the ocean declines, that leaves more room for invasive species to colonize coastlines and further destabilize ecosystems. As algae-eating fish go extinct, algal blooms can pollute water and contribute to epidemics of disease in humans (and other species, too!).
And while commercial fishing produces the vast majority of the fish we eat, there are still plenty of places where old-style fishing cultures are still catching enough for subsistence and a local economy. These cultures are being devastated by the die-off of their preferred seafood sources due to overfishing.
Commercial fishing nets – also called trawling nets – are no joke. They can be up to two miles long and around the size of a football field at their opening. Do you think a net that large will only catch the salmon, shrimp, or tuna that commercial fishers set out to catch? Certainly not. Approximately 40% of global commercial catch is actually not the intended species. This 40% is called bycatch, and can include species like dolphins, sharks, whales, sea turtles, and anything else that happens to be swimming through at the time of the catch.
Besides being incredibly sad, bycatch causes other problems. It leads to more overfishing, slowing down the recovery time for exploited and overexploited species. It kills already endangered species like sea turtles and seabirds. They may be caught in the nets and killed, or they could become entangled in netting debris, carrying around pieces that are disfiguring and can even drown or starve them. Bycatch is also extremely wasteful, both physically and financially. Even fisheries that are certified sustainable have been found to toss a large percentage of their catches overboard.
Destruction of Ocean Ecosystems
Millions of ocean species cannot be killed without also causing disruption to the ocean itself. Any dead carcasses thrown overboard can attract scavenging species and cause a disruption in the ocean’s nutrient balance.
Netting debris often gets caught in the physical ocean environment, like the seabed, coral reefs, and sponges. A 2019 Greenpeace report found that the biggest source of plastic pollution in our planet’s oceans comes from fishing. More than 640,000 tons of lost or abandoned fishing gear finds its way into the ocean every year. Just to give you an alarming visual, that’s the weight equivalent of about 210,000 Hummer 2 SUVs, or a new Hummer hitting the water every two and a half minutes, all year long. This “ghost gear,” as it is known, kills hundreds of giant sea turtles annually, and can compromise the ability of whales to filter water as they feed. It can also suffocate seabirds, crustaceans, and small fish.
Spurred on by the depletion of the oceans and the stocks of fish that swim in them, an ever-growing share of the world’s fish is being produced in fish farms. In fact over half the world’s fish harvest now comes from aquaculture. Unfortunately, this isn’t great for the oceans, either.
Farm-raised fish contribute a significant amount of pollution and disease. The largest source is the waste that fish produce, as well as uneaten food that sinks to the bottom of the pens and contaminates the water. Chemicals – like pesticides, antibiotics, disinfectants, and anti-corrosives – are widely used in fish farming to try to prevent the spread of diseases. However, these chemicals contaminate the water, the fish themselves, and the equipment.
And in a spectacle remarkably similar to factory farming of cows and pigs, fish are given routine doses of antibiotics simply to keep them alive under miserable conditions. The overuse of antibiotics in these environments poses a significant public health risk, increasing the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant bacteria entering our food system. Farm-raised fish are also contaminated by the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs, which may be found in farm-raised salmon at 16 times the concentration found in wild-caught salmon. Nutritionally, most farm-raised fish are problematic as well. Fish raised in these environments have been found to promote inflammation due to their higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Additionally, they may have up to 20% less protein than fish that come from the ocean.
You may have noticed a color difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon. Because fish raised on farms don’t have access to things in the ocean that would naturally give them their carotenoid-rich pink pigmentation – like crustaceans and algae – most salmon farmers add pigmenting compounds like astaxanthin to their salmon feed to enhance the coloring that consumers want. These chemical dyes that turn otherwise grey fish into a rich reddish hue are actually the most expensive part of farm-raised salmon feed.
Farm-raised fish are far from sustainable, which can be seen in the feed conversion ratio it takes to produce them. For every pound of salmon, 2-3 pounds of fish chow are needed. This chow is usually made from other fish, like mackerel, anchovies, or sardines. Some of the species used to make farm-raised fish chow are threatened, and their role as an input in the production of other fish accelerates their own extinction. Some fish farms also feed their fish GMO soybeans and waste byproducts from factory farmed livestock.
Genetically Engineered Fish
Another concern in the fish farming industry is the genetically engineered (GE) fish. At least 35 species of fish are currently being genetically engineered around the world. Some of these include trout, flounder, catfish, salmon, tilapia, and striped bass. What does this mean? Many GE fish have been engineered to have a gene for growth hormones, which speeds up maturation and results in a fish getting bigger, faster. The economic benefit of doing this is that more fish, and larger fish, will be available to consumers faster. Other GE fish have been “improved” to be more tolerant to varying temperatures, resistant to diseases, and even to have larger muscles. The genes being used are often sourced from bacteria, mice, and other fish. In November of 2015, AquaBounty Technologies produced a GE fish called the AquAdvantage Salmon, which grows twice as fast as regular salmon. The FDA approval for consumption caused quite an uproar from consumers, members of Congress, environmental groups, chefs, and restaurant owners.
What’s the big deal? For starters, the environmental dangers are significant, with great concern regarding what could happen to wild salmon populations if these GE fish escaped into the wild. In short, they could cross-breed. And with the competitive advantage of rapid growth, they could take over, and effectively eliminate wild non-GE salmon stocks in short order. As for human health impacts, these remain unknown since there haven’t been any studies conducted. But we do know that GE salmon are more susceptible to disease, and tend to receive larger amounts of antibiotics than other farm-raised fish. The reality is that there is stunningly little government oversight of the aquaculture industry, and claims of “sustainable” may or may not mean anything.
Contaminants in Fish
Fish tissue tends to be fatty, and most environmental contaminants are fat soluble. Compounding this problem is the fact that bigger fish eat smaller fish, so the contaminants get more concentrated the higher up the food chain we go. And a lot of the fish we love to eat are pretty high on that food chain. You can’t see the contaminants, so you never know what – or how much – of something harmful could be lurking in the fish you buy. What are some of the most common contaminants in fish, and where do they come from?
Nearly all fish contain at least trace amounts of mercury, and some contain a significant amount. Mercury is a toxic metal. It can cause neurological and chromosomal problems and harm unborn babies if they are exposed during pregnancy. Certain species tend to contain more mercury than others, largely due to their predatory position in the aquatic food chain. For this reason, many experts advise avoiding consumption of shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel, as these fish tend to eat many smaller fish, which contributes to their mercury load. Albacore, yellowfin and bigeye tuna are also very high in mercury.
And even those fish that are lower in mercury still contain some. This is why pregnant women are advised to avoid many types of fish, to prevent harm to their fetuses. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are toxic man-made industrial compounds that can build up in the fatty tissue of fish. Unfortunately, even though the use of PCBs has been banned in many places, they tend to stick around in the environment for a long time. The EPA considers fish a persistent source of PCBs in the human diet. Consuming PCBs can have lasting neurological, endocrine, circulatory, digestive, and central nervous system effects. Some states have told people to limit their consumption of all fish and shellfish from freshwater or coastal areas nearby due to the high risk for PCB contamination. Research has shown that PCBs can cause birth defects, smaller birth weight, and delayed learning among infants, and older adults can experience reduced memory and learning.
Dioxins are cancer-causing industrial pollutants and have been called some of the most toxic chemicals known to science. They’re also known to be harmful to reproduction and human development. Unfortunately, fish are a major source of dioxins in the human diet. Similarly to mercury, dioxin tends to accumulate in larger fish up the food chain. In fact, dioxin levels in fish can be 100,000 times that of the water around them.
Pesticide residues from factory farms can also end up in the fish you eat, by way of the waterways that run into the ocean. And lastly, plastics from landfills can end up in the water, be eaten by the fish, and ultimately end up in your body. Research has shown that plastics can linger throughout generations of fish.
What You Can Do – Transition to a Vegan Organic Whole Foods Diet
Probably the most important question to ask after recognizing all of the concerns around eating fish is: what can you do about it? One option, of course, is to reduce or eliminate your fish consumption altogether. And if the main reason you’re eating fish is for DHA and EPA, consider taking an algae-based DHA and EPA supplement instead, like Complement. Pair this with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and you can reap the benefits of these long-chain fatty acids without the risk of marine contaminants, the ethical problems associated with all forms of animal agriculture, and the environmental concerns raised by eating fish.
Afterword from VSM
In December 2017, the United Nations General Assembly formally launched (Resolution 72/249) negotiations on a new international and legally binding instrument to protect marine biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. These areas cover 64% of the ocean and are critically important for many species. The negotiations on these talks will be finalised in 2020 but so far do not look promising. You can keep up with the talks and get further info from the Greenpeace Ocean Treaty page here.
Below are 2 TED Talks on the Oceans from Enric Sala, National Geographic Ocean Scientist:
Enric Sala shares glorious images — and surprising insights and data — from some of the most pristine areas of the ocean. He shows how we can restore more of our oceans to this healthy, balanced state, and the powerful ecological and economic benefits of doing so. Unfortunately he is not speaking from a vegan perspective but at least he is advocating for areas to be protected from fishing, which is a start.
In this second talk Marine ecologist Enric Sala shares his bold plan to safeguard the high seas — some of the last wild places on earth, which fall outside the jurisdiction of any single country — by creating a giant marine reserve that covers two-thirds of the world’s ocean. By protecting the high seas, Sala believes we will restore the ecological, economic and social benefits of the ocean. “When we can align economic needs with conservation, miracles can happen,” Sala says.