A few years ago, something happened to me on the island of Roatan. I had a realization about fish.
I was on a scuba diving trip to explore the pristine reefs of this famous island off the coast of Honduras. Most of the guests came from Quebec. It was easy to make friends, and from the first diving day, a group of us stuck together as if we’d known each other for decades, like cousins of a big extended family.
The dives were wonderful. Through some geographical luck, the Bay Islands have not seen the level of degradation and bleaching brought about by warmer oceans and pollution, such as in other areas of the world, like in Hawaii or Australia. The coral reef is in seemingly pristine condition, and marine life still flourishes there.
We swam in reef valleys, cave-like formations that go on for miles. We contemplated in astonishment the blend of colors of the coral and the grace of the animals living there. The reefs were teeming with small and big fish, unhurried turtles, playful dolphins, shape-changing octopus, primeval eels, fluorescent seahorses, and the strangest creatures that although identified by biologists and found in books, I preferred to think of as the wonders and mysteries of the ocean.
What Diving Made Me Realize
Before I started scuba diving, the ocean always seemed to me to be a scary place: dark, treacherous and ready to engulf me into her depths.
But after I spent a little time under the surface and among the creatures that live there, I got a different experience — more like that of an enchanted garden of wonders. Animals that seemed scary, like sharks, just blended into the landscape.
It would seem to make sense that divers, of all people, should know how precious the ocean is. And that after seeing the beauties of the ocean, they would feel bad about eating fish.
But during my stay in Roatan, I realized that there is a huge disconnect between our experience and our eating habits.
I realized that when our little group eventually ventured outside of the resort to the nearest town to have our only night out at a restaurant overlooking the bay. When presented with the menu, I suddenly felt a strange feeling of gloom when I noticed that the offer revolved mainly around fish — the very same fish we had swum along with on the week’s dive!
Spiny lobster, “fresh-caught” mahi-mahi, tuna and the like. I remembered the lobsters we saw on the dive. I realized that the reason we had struggled to find them was probably that they were served every night at the restaurants on the island.
I ordered the salad and left the restaurant hungry.
And I thought about Sylvia Earle, a leading marine biologist dedicated to raising awareness about protecting the ocean. In 1998, she was named by Time Magazine as the first “Hero for the Planet.”
In an interview, she writes that when she started diving, there were two billion people on the planet. Now we have 7.6, and this growing population has a taste for fish protein.
Silvia Earle knows about the ravages of the fishing industry, and how populations of many species have collapsed by over 90% in her lifetime. In one interview, she said about eating fish, “think of them as wildlife, first and foremost.” That has always resonated with me.
Of course, she can tell you all about how our appetite for sushi has been devastating for fish populations. She’s also quite aware of how we’ve contaminated the oceans, making fish more toxic than ever. She’s also quite critical of the “sustainable fish” label, and the small fish that are used to make fish oil as well as the perils behind fish farming.
But first and foremost, Silvia Earle doesn’t eat fish because it’s a resource we need to preserve. In her own words: “Basically I have come to understand the value of fish alive in the ocean, just as we’ve come to understand the value of birds alive to keep the planet functioning in our favor. Imagine a world without birds. Imagine a world without fish.”
If that argument alone doesn’t convince you, let’s take a look at why eating fish is one of the worst choices you can make for your health and the environment.
Commercial Fishing is a Disaster
A four-year study published in the journal, Science, in 2006 predicted that the world would run out of wild-caught seafood in 2048 Although that’s debatable, it’s clear that over-fishing has already decimated fish populations around the world.
While traditionally fishing was a peaceful activity that was hardly effective enough to endanger a species, current practices are akin to fishing with dynamite (blast fishing is a real technique, although illegal in most places). You might have heard of bottom trawling, where giant nets are pulled along a sea bottom and removing up to 25% of the sea-life present in that area in one go. There’s also the problem of by-catch, which doesn’t just affect dolphins and turtles, but all sorts of species caught in the nets and discarded like old shoes.
But beyond the individual fishing techniques that we could discuss for pages, the crux of the matter is that there are just too many people on the planet, and we are overextending ourselves with damaging practices that have already caused most fish populations to a fraction of what they once were. In this context, any fishing or fish farming aimed at feeding a growing planet cannot be anything but environmentally disastrous.
You Can’t Trust What’s On Your Plate
When you buy a bag of apples, you’d never think for a moment that the fruit you purchased might be pears. But with fish, the fish you buy is not necessarily what you paid for.
A detailed report by Oceana demonstrated how seafood was mislabeled 59% of the time.
Sea Bass was replaced by Antarctic Toothfish, wild salmon with farmed salmon, snapper with anything white (including tilapia), and white tuna with escolar. The samples collected came from a variety of sources, including high-end restaurants.
And if you feel reassured by buying organic salmon instead of farmed salmon, you should consider the fact that organic fish farming is not held to the same standards as organic land products.
Organic salmon came as a desperate attempt by the salmon industry to respond to the demands of consumers rightfully shunning farmed salmon due to environmental and contamination considerations.
Organic fish farmers can use many of the same chemicals used by the traditional industry, such as pesticide-like anti-sea lice treatments, chlorine-based chemicals like formalin (a preservative and disinfectant) to prevent fungal growths, and questionable fodder, consisting of “the filleting waste (blood, guts, tails, heads) of fish harvested for human consumption.”
All Fish Is Contaminated
There’s no other example of a food that can be as contaminated from as many different sources as fish. There are, of course, certain toxins that can end up in fish, such as ciguatera, which can lead to serious neurological problems. Poorly refrigerated fish can also lead to scombroid poisoning, a food-borne illness that makes many people wary of fish from dubious sources.
Fish can be contaminated with toxic algae, resulting in many types of poisoning. This type of illness is more common with shellfish.
We know of course that some fish contain mercury. Although most people do not worry too much about it, the FDA still advises a safety limit of how much fish to eat.
Uncooked fish can also contain parasites, which may be of a concern if you eat sashimi, sushi, ceviche other similar raw fish dishes. Fish has to be frozen at a certain temperature for enough time to kill those bacteria, and home freezers may not do the job. Some people do not know this and eat parasite-cocktails like wild salmon tartare, although a recent study showed that 100% of Pacific wild salmon is infected with a parasite. Although parasite infections from fish are rare in a developed nation, they do occur occasionally.
In addition to toxic algae, parasites, and heavy metals, fish can be polluted by many toxic chemicals, depending on the water they’ve been living in.
Compared to Plant Protein, Fish is Not Healthy
Health professionals often recommend that people “eat more fish.” But where is the evidence that this is healthy? Eating more fish is only healthier than eating other animal foods that are high in both cholesterol and saturated fats (many types of fish are generally low in saturated fats).
But, some studies showed that switching from beef to chicken or fish doesn’t make much of a difference in cholesterol levels.
Fish contains no fiber and is low in antioxidants and phytonutrients. The Omega-3’s it contains can be easily found in plant foods such as walnuts and flax seeds products. An urban legend affirms that our bodies do not convert the fatty-acids in plant-foods as well into the DHA and EPA that we need. But this has never been proven.
Omega-3 supplements, from fish or otherwise, are popular and have been recommended for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, hypertension, arthritis, high cholesterol, and even ADHD. But a new review published by the rigorous Cochrane group, analyzing over 79 studies involving more than 112,000 people shed light on the matter.
Increasing the intake of EPA and DHA can slightly lower triglycerides, and raise HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). However, they concluded that taking Omega-3 supplements does not prevent cardiovascular disease. Other studies have not yielded the exciting results from this supplement that we hoped for.
Martin Juneau, of the Institut de Cardiologie de Montréal, writes “We believed in it for a long time, but in the end, it was maybe too simplistic that we could solve certain problems with a pill.”
It turns out that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to many factors, such as the higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. There was not a magic solution like taking fish oil capsules or drinking red wine.
Mr. Juneau also writes that “For a long time we said that Omega-3’s from fish were better than those of plant sources because they were of a long-chain nature and easier to assimilate. This way of thinking is over.”
Because I feel that my main point should be enough to end the discussion about fish, I don’t want to keep rubbing salt in the wound by exposing more of the offensive problems associated with fish consumption. But I should at least mention the recently-discussed problem of micro-plastic accumulation in the environment, which ends up in fish. The effects on human health are so far, unknown.
Of course, many points are debatable. You could argue that you need the extra protein, and
that it’s much healthier, and that the benefits outweigh the risks of environmental pollution.
You could also say that you have a special source for fish that is supposedly “clean” and environmentally responsible.
Even if those points were valid, I would still not eat fish. The main reason that we should boycott all fish consumption is that ultimately, we’re fishing away our oceans, a precious resource whose balance has been pushed to the extreme. Not only that, but we’re polluting our oceans first, then stripping them away from the life they contain, ingesting the flesh of those contaminated creatures into our own, increasingly polluted bodies, perpetuating the cycle of destruction, first of our oceans, then of our health.
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