Diving Deeper: Why We Should Care More About Fish

Wednesday, 22 Mar, 2023

Fish are the most emblematic animals of the sea, yet they’re seen as little more than food or decorative pets. Just consider the language we use: fish are commonly described as “stock” to be “harvested” and sold by the ton.

Boxes of dead fish on a fishing trawler inspected as part of Sea Shepherd Global's campaign in Gabon, Operation Albacore.

Today, most people are proud to support the protection of whales, dolphins, penguins, and turtles. Even sharks are finally starting to get the respect and protection they deserve as important apex predators after centuries of being demonized and slaughtered by the millions. But most fish -- and other marine wildlife species we collectively refer to as “seafood” -- still end up on our plates without the least consideration of how they got there or whether we should be consuming them at all.

“Obviously, this is carefully chosen language so potential consumers don’t question the way we extract fish and other creatures from our ocean,” wrote Sea Shepherd Global CEO Alex Cornelissen in his commentary on sustainable fishing.

Perhaps the reason we rarely consider the fate of the estimated 2.7 trillion wild fish being scooped out of the ocean each year [1] is that we just don’t know or understand much about them at all…and what we think we know is often outdated and incorrect.

But this can change as people are becoming more aware of how complex and fascinating fish really are, and the important role they play in maintaining the ocean’s ecosystem.

Fish Are Critical for A Healthy Ecosystem

It’s impossible to have a healthy ocean without fish. They play a critical role in maintaining the health and balance of marine ecosystems, and even mitigating climate change.

- To Eat and Be Eaten: fish are an essential part of the marine food web, controlling the populations of their prey (including smaller fish, crustaceans, and plankton), and providing sustenance for a wide range of predators such as larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals such as whales. When fish populations are depleted by humans, it can result in cascading effects that endanger countless other species that depend on them for their survival. 

- For the Nutrients: when fish poo, their waste is broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms. This process helps recycle nutrients, making them available to primary producers like phytoplankton and algae, which in turn are responsible for a significant amount of carbon fixation through photosynthesis.

- For Habitat Creation: some fish species, such as reef-building fish, play a crucial role in creating and maintaining habitats for other marine organisms. For example, parrotfish help maintain coral reefs by grazing on algae, preventing it from overgrowing and smothering the corals.

- For Biodiversity: there are approximately 34,000 known species of fish, more than all other vertebrates on the planet combined. This biodiversity is vital to the overall health of the ocean, as it contributes to ecosystem stability and resilience.

- For Carbon Sequestration: fish contribute to carbon sequestration when they die and their bodies sink to the ocean floor, helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Additionally, fish excrete calcium carbonate, which can dissolve in seawater and lead to the storage of carbon in the form of dissolved inorganic carbon [2]

Despite knowing how important fish are for maintaining a healthy ocean, we’re still treating fish as if they’re an infinite resource. Consumption of fish has quadrupled over the past 50 years, twice as fast as human population growth, because the average person now eats almost twice as much fish as half a century ago. In 1974 only 10% of global fisheries were considered “overexploited”. But today close to 90% of the world's fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted according to the United Nations Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD). Over half of the fisheries are overfished off the coast of West Africa, where Sea Shepherd Global fights with local governments to stop illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which further threatens fish populations [3].

Technological advances have made it easier than ever for industrial fishing trawlers to effectively empty the sea of almost three trillion fish every year. Yet the fishing methods they use are not only harmful to the ocean and marine habitats, but also cruel to the fish and other non-target species that suffer and die in their nets.

Sea Shepherd and Gabonese navy inspect a purse-seine fishing vessel for Operation Albacore.

Yes, Fish Can Feel Pain

“We have largely thought of fish as very alien and very simple, so we didn’t really care how we killed them,” says fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite. “If we look at trawl netting, that’s a pretty gruesome way for fish to die: the barometric trauma of getting ripped from the ocean into open air, and then slowly suffocating.” [4]

One of the reasons it’s so hard for us to relate to fish is that we don’t believe they feel pain. This misunderstanding persisted so long simply because, until recently, there were no scientific studies proving otherwise. [5]

But research experiments conducted by biologists over the past 15 years have produced substantial evidence that fish do indeed experience pain, just like mammals and birds. [6] In fact, fish are highly evolved species with keen senses that give them the ability to see more colors than humans, smell from receptors along their bodies, sense electromagnetic fields, or even navigate thousands of miles. 

“‘How could they not feel?” asks famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle in a 2018 interview in The Guardian. “Fish have had a few hundred million years to figure things out. We’re newcomers. I find it astonishing that many people seem shocked at the idea that fish feel."

That means it’s likely pain – and not simply a reflex action – that causes fish to violently flop their bodies when hooked in the mouth and gasp for breath when they’re subjected to the most common fishing method: asphyxiation. Some fish take over an hour to die from suffocation when removed from the water [7]. And that’s only if they’ve survived being crushed under the weight of the other fish pulled up in massive nets by industrial fishing vessels today.

Unfortunately, even if scientists now agree that fish are sentient beings that can feel pain, this hasn’t changed how the fishing industry gets them to our table, especially when caught at sea. Industrial fishing methods that crush, suffocate, or freeze living fish and other marine wildlife are perfectly legal.

Dead fish sliding into the cargo hold of a purse-seine fishing vessel in Gabon.

The Cognitive and Emotional Abilities of Fish

If you’re not concerned by how important fish are for a healthy ocean or moved by their capacity to suffer, perhaps they can impress you with their cunning ingenuity.

Forget the outdated misconception that fish only have a 3-second memory span. Research in recent years has demonstrated that fish are amazingly intelligent creatures with advanced cognitive abilities, such as learning, memory, and problem-solving skills.

“Fish are more intelligent than they appear,” writes renowned fish researcher Professor Calum Brown in his New Scientist article, Animal Minds: Not Just a Pretty Face. “In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of “higher” vertebrates, including non-human primates. Best of all, given the central place memory plays in intelligence and social structures, fish not only recognize individuals but can also keep track of complex social relationships.”

Here are just a few examples:

- They Cooperate: moray eels and groupers communicate through special gestures to go hunting together, helping each other locate and capture prey [8]

- They Remember Your Face: fish can recognize and remember faces of the people who feed them, something that scientists previously only thought was possible by a few animals such as horses, cows, dogs and certain birds like pigeons [9]

- They Use Tools: tuskfish use rocks as tools to crack open clams for food, behavior only recently captured on film [10]

- They’re Good Communicators: elephant fish talk to each other using electric impulses in their tails that communicate everything from the signaler’s species, sex, age, dominance status, and even emotional states like aggression, submission, and courtship [11].

- They Don’t Need GPS: it’s a well-known fact that salmon are among the greatest navigators due to their advanced sensory capabilities, using geomagnetic field orientation, an inner 3D compass, and even an amazing sense of smell that detects just a few parts per million of its birth river in ocean currents to follow them home, migrating up to 50km per day, and up to 3000km total, swimming upstream to spawn in the exact same freshwater rivers where they were born [12].

- They Have Individual Personalities: In addition to being smart and capable of feeling pain, new research is also proving what a lot of people who spend time around fish already know: fish also have unique personalities, emotions, and inner lives. Sylvia Earle calls groupers “Labrador retrievers of the sea” because of their strong personalities. A giant grouper named Ulysses at San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium would lay on his side and open his huge mouth to be pet. But only by the people he liked; he would blast water at the ones he didn’t [13].

- And…They Can Drive! In 2021, scientists used a specially engineered “fish on wheels” interface that allowed goldfish to control a robotic car over land—essentially, a clear tank on a four-wheel platform that moves according to the orientation and movements of the fish inside, who quickly learned to chase after food pellets [14]!

A giant grouper in Cuba. Photo donated to Sea Shepherd Global by Marco Rossi.

What Else Are We Missing?

If all of these aren’t good enough reasons to stop indiscriminately killing fish, consider the fact that many of these discoveries about the amazing capabilities of fish and their role maintaining a healthy ocean have only been made in the past two decades!

If we didn’t know any of this until recently, what else are we missing? What more could we find out if we spent our resources protecting and learning about the sea and the marine wildlife living within it, instead of trying to find more “efficient” ways of exploiting and consuming everything until the ocean is nothing but a dead zone?

Sea Shepherd Global is currently in the Southern Ocean for Operation Antarctica Krill, where we caught industrial supertrawlers targeting pods of whales to steal the krill right from their mouths. Why are we emptying one of the last pristine ecosystems of its krill? Because we’ve already depleted most of the fish in the wild through overfishing, so now we’re hoovering up massive quantities of krill to feed farmed fish and sell health supplements.

Nets full of krill on the deck of a supertrawler in Antarctica. Photo by Sea Shepherd Global.

What Can You Do?

1. Keep fish off your plate: whether taken from the wild or raised on wild krill taken from Antarctica, fish are better off in the ocean!

2. Watch your words: we can also help make a difference by using more accurate language when talking about the living creatures in the ocean:

- Instead of “fish stock”, use “fish populations”
- Instead of “seafood”, use “marine wildlife”
- Instead of “harvested”, use “hunted”

3. Support Sea Shepherd’s Operation Antarctica Defense, donate today

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