The environmental impact of aquaculture

Overfishing has become catastrophic.

Industrial fisheries using large commercial machinery to trawl the ocean bed result in millions of other sea animals, including whales, dolphins, and turtles, getting trapped and killed in nets – known as ‘bycatch’. Species such as Maui’s dolphin and North Atlantic right whale are being pushed to the very brink of extinction.

These aggressive fishing practices are emptying our oceans of life at an alarming rate. A report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 2016 found that around 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are now fully or overfished, and according to a 2017 survey in Science, seafood could vanish completely by 2048.

Now that commercial fishing has all but emptied our oceans of wild fish, the seafood industry has turned to raising fish in contained factory farms – a process known as aquaculture. These farms raise millions of fish in netted cages in coastal waters.

Confining so many fish in small areas leads to a host of environmental and health hazards.

Let’s start with faecal contamination. The massive amount of faeces produced by fish in these farms upsets the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem. In some cases, the huge amount of fish excrement settling below fish cages has actually caused the ocean floor to rot.

Then there’s disease. Containing so many fishes on these farms means they are prone to disease. In Scotland, for example, lice infests nearly half the salmon trapped in these sea prisons.

More and more chemicals and antibiotics are being used on fish farms to try and (unsuccessfully) control the spread of infectious diseases. Dead fish carcasses and uneaten antibiotic-laden fish feed – as well as being major threats to human health – pollute the coastal areas that surround these farms.

Shrimp farming for example – as well as being rife with slave labour – has resulted in the loss of around 3 million hectares of important coastal wetlands, including mangroves. And the once pristine sanctuary of Kolleru in India – one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes that supply drinking water to several island villages – has been polluted with pesticides and chemicals due to large-scale shrimp farming for export.

The irony is that while aquaculture was designed to combat the problem of overfishing, it actually contributes to the problem. This is because the fish caught and imprisoned in these farms are fed their wild-caught friends, cousins, and other relatives. It’s a vicious circle that’s completely unsustainable.

So, what can you do?

The best way to stop the environmental devastation caused by aquaculture is to stop eating fish and other marine animals.

But don’t worry, you can still enjoy seafood – vegan-style!

There are some amazing vegan fish alternatives available, with others being developed. For example, in the US Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Toona canned fish is available nationwide in Whole Foods, Sprouts and a plethora of independent stores, and stocked next to real tuna. Ocean Hugger has made a splash in the restaurant and food service sector with its raw tuna, Ahimi, billed as the world’s first plant-based alternative to raw tuna, for use in dishes such as sushi, ceviche, poke, tartare and crudo. Good Catch is gearing up to release its vegan tuna, crab cakes, fish sliders, and fish burgers, while New Wave Foods is working on a plant-based shrimp.

In the UK, VBites has a range of plant-based fish products including fish fingers, fish steaks, and fish cakes, and in Australia, Fry’s battered prawn-style pieces are stocked in major supermarket chain Coles.

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