Fish can feel things so why don’t we care as much about them as we do about other animals?

Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jul 8, 2021


The sardine run off the KZN coast is an annual spectacle, tourist attraction and a source of food.

Newspapers run pictures of men heaving on thick ropes dragging nets stuffed with silvery fish in a frenzied scene that could well have been from a David Attenborough documentary.

My young cousin comes up to me and asks if the sardines are from a farm like chickens and beef.

Puzzled, I respond: No, why? She then asks if the people were stealing the fish from the ocean since it was not a farm? I explained that the sardines were wild fish that people catch for food but before I could delve further into the intricacies of fishing, she grew bored with the conversation and left me to ponder her innocent question.

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How indeed is this plundering of the sardines okay? If a group of men drove into the Kruger National Park and began netting herds of antelope and driving them into the back of a truck with cattle prods, there would be outrage, just as there is over rhino poaching.

Why then do we relentlessly plunder our oceans of wild fish? Why have we as a species placed a higher value on some animals while treating others as no more than a commodity? What damage is this doing to our oceans? Why are more people not speaking about this?

KwaZulu-Natal seine netters pulled in about 500 crates of sardine from one shoal at the beginning of June 2021. A fisherman estimated that a single crate consists of around 400 fish. This equates to an estimated 200 000 sardines in 500 crates.

These were 200 000 lives that ended in fear and suffocation, dragged along hot, glassy sand, eyes scorched under a dry sun.

A January 2018 article published by Haikai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems, stated that fish do feel pain. The late Penn State University biologist Professor Victoria Braithwaite said: “It is impossible to definitively know whether another creature’s subjective experience is like our own.”

For 17 years Braithwaite and fish biologists from around the world have produced study after study which provide substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain. Braithwaite said: “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”

Dr Sylvia Earle, a renowned marine biologist interviewed on Seaspiracy, a marine documentary, said: “To me, it’s remarkable that the question (about pain) is even asked. As a scientist, it’s common sense. Fish have a nervous system. They have the basic elements that all vertebrates have. They have the capacity to feel on a level that I almost can’t imagine we can. We feel pain, we feel touch. But fish have a lateral line down their sides that senses the most exquisite little movements in the water.

“So you see a thousand fish moving like one fish. Those who say, ‘Doesn’t matter what you do to a fish, they can’t feel anything or say ‘Fish can’t sense danger’ have never really observed fish. I think it’s a justification for doing dastardly things to innocent creatures. It’s the only explanation I can think of for treating fish with such a barbaric attitude.”

One of the biggest issues facing marine ecosystems and which undermines the myth of sustainable fishing is bycatch. Bycatch is the term given to any species caught in fishing nets that are not the target fish. Sharks, dolphins, marine birds, and stingrays caught in the seine nets during the sardine runs along the South African east coast were all bycatch.

A staggering amount of marine life including turtles, dolphins and juvenile fish are hauled up with the catch, and then discarded overboard, dead or dying.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says with more than 300 000 small whales, dolphins and porpoises dying each year from entanglement in many types of fishing gear, bycatch is causing one death every two minutes and is the single largest cause of small-cetacean mortality.

In addition, several seabird species also become bycatch, particularly albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and penguins. Around 300 000 seabirds drown each year after diving for bait set on longlines and becoming hooked and dragged underwater.

Bycatch accounts for about half of global shark catches. Longlines are mostly responsible, but bycatch in nets is also important. In the Pacific Ocean alone, 3.3million sharks are caught each year as bycatch on longlines. Global longline fisheries, for example, caught more than 250 000 endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles in 2000.

This disrupts the food chain by removing predators which result in an explosion of a lower-level species which would eventually exhaust their food sources and die out. If this trend this continues down the food chain, it may irreversibly damage marine ecosystems.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a third of commercial fish stocks are being harvested at biologically unsustainable levels and 90% are fully exploited. National Geographic said the population of Pacific bluefin tuna has plunged 97% from historic levels due to rampant overfishing of one of the ocean’s most ecologically and economically valuable top predators.

This depletion is largely the result of subsidies for industrial fishing fleets. A study published in January 2018 titled “The economics of fishing the high seas” found that China’s overseas fishing fleet of 3 000 vessels roams the ocean from Africa to the Antarctic to the Pacific, and found that nearly half the fish caught on the high seas in 2014 ended up in the holds of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels.

In June 2019 the European Union elected to restore its subsidies to expand its fishing fleet. The EU already accounts for 11% of global subsidies and awarded $2billion in “harmful support” in 2018, according to the researchers. “Harmful support” refers to subsidies provided to fishing vessels not aligned to sustainable fishing practices.

European fishing trawlers are then able to exploit fisheries as far away as North and West Africa which may have even led to the increased outbreaks of deadly Ebola fever.

By depleting local fish stocks, EU vessels deplete the livelihoods and food sources of millions of West Africans.

A paper by AS Khan published in March 2015 posed the question: “Seafood insecurity, bushmeat consumption, and public health emergency in West Africa: Did we miss the early warning signs of an Ebola epidemic?” The paper said seafood was “a major part of the diet in the sub-region, amounting to 70% of animal protein intake in coastal countries like Sierra Leone. The small-scale sector plays a key and important role in this as it strives to address not only food security and wellbeing but also broader development issues”.

The paper says left without a reliable food source and source of income, many fishermen and their families were forced to travel inland to find work and food. This, the author suggests, resulted in the increased demand for bushmeat and eventually led to Ebola.

Another result of subsidised overfishing in both West and East Africa is the increased incidence of piracy that has plagued international shipping for over a decade. These pirates were once fishermen who could no longer find fish and resorted to piracy to put food on the table.

The International Maritime Organisation says there are 64 000 large fishing vessels registered around the world. The biggest of these vessels use massive fishing nets. Gillnets up to 11km long trap fish not small enough to escape. Trawling nets dragged between two vessels can be up to 1.2km long with an opening up to 120m wide. These fleets catch a bulk of the estimated 2.7 trillion fish taken from our oceans annually.

Although some big-brand fishing companies claim to work sustainably, it is virtually impossible to monitor fishing methods when a vessel is at sea for months at a time. Most of the larger fishing vessels have onboard processing and packing plants, making it even more difficult to verify quantities and species of fish caught.

Some vessels carry sustainability monitors, but they can be bribed or threatened. Fishing nets are designed to kill, and the nets do not discriminate. No matter how sustainable fishing practices are claimed to be, there will always be millions of animals killed or maimed as bycatch.

Professor Callum Roberts, a British marine conservation biologist, oceanographer, science communicator, author and research scholar at the University of Exeter, said in an interview: “If we protect more, and fish less, and restore that kind of balance and healthy ecosystem, they’ve got a good chance of making it through the tough times ahead.

“There is real hope here because marine ecosystems bounce back so quickly if they are allowed to. You would see the reefs coming back, you would see these incredible shoals of fish returning, you would see the whales returning to our coast. This is within our grasp. We can do this.”

It is not the fisherman on the pier or small boats destroying our seas. If you don’t need to eat fish, don’t. If there is a demand, there will be a supply. Rather opt for chicken or turkey which are the most sustainable land-based protein sources at present. You can also be sure that no sharks, dolphins, or turtles were killed for your chicken burger.

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