Fish farming is a form of aquaculture in which fish are raised in enclosures to be sold as food. It is the fastest growing area of animal food production. Today, about half the fish consumed globally are raised in these artificial environments. Commonly farmed species include salmon, tuna, cod, trout and halibut. These “aquafarms” can take the form of mesh cages submerged in natural bodies of water, or concrete enclosures on land.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 32% of world fish stocks are overexploited, depleted or recovering and need of being urgently rebuilt. Fish farming is hailed by some as a solution to the overfishing problem. However, these farms are far from benign and can severely damage ecosystems by introducing diseases, pollutants and invasive species. The damage caused by fish farms varies, depending on the type of fish, how it is raised and fed, the size of the production, and where the farm is located.
One significant issue is that - rather than easing the impact on wild populations - the farms often depend on wild fish species lower on the food chain, like anchovies, in order to feed the larger, carnivorous farmed species. It can take up to five pounds of smaller fish to produce one pound of a fish like salmon or sea bass. Overfishing of these smaller “forage” fish has repercussions throughout the ocean ecosystem.
As is the case with industrial animal farms on land, the fish are often housed in unnaturally crowded and cramped conditions with little room to move. Fish may suffer from lesions, fin damage and other debilitating injuries. The overcrowded and stressful conditions promote disease and parasite outbreaks - such as sea lice - that farmers treat with pesticides and antibiotics. The use of antibiotics can create drug-resistant strains of diseases that can harm wildlife populations and even humans that eat the farmed fish.
Escaped fish introduce yet another threat into the environment. Each year, hundreds of thousands of fish escape farms and threaten the genetic diversity and survival of native species. High stocking densities result in a significant amount of pollution from fish excrement and uneaten food, which in turn lead to poor water quality high in ammonia and low in oxygen. Outdoor fish farms can also attract predatory marine animals, such as sea birds and sea lions, who are sometimes poisoned or shot by aquafarmers for eating the fish.
Despite evidence to the contrary, it is still a common misconception that fish do not feel pain. Slaughter methods in the aquaculture industry are appalling. Little to no attention is given to the suffering of the animals and most are fully conscious during slaughter, which can take many minutes. Some species, such as salmon in the United States, are also starved for many days to empty the gut before they are sent to slaughter. Fish are most often not stunned and are killed by bleeding out, being hit on the head repeatedly, suffocating or freezing. In the U.S., as with many other countries, there are no regulations to ensure the humane treatment of fish.
Years of unregulated and underreported catches of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean are threatening the existence of this severely overfished species. To meet the high and growing demand for sushi in Japan and elsewhere, ranching of bluefin tuna is becoming a popular industry and is exacerbating the problem. Fisherman use longlines and purse seines to catch the tuna before they reach breeding age and have time to reproduce. They are then kept in seafarms for 3-6 months and fattened with thousands of pounds of smaller wild-caught fish before being killed and exported.