"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Sunday, 16 January 2011

Hugh's Fish Fight

In the UK we have the taste for salmon and we eat vast quantities of it. I would guess this goes back to a few years ago when we were told that oily fish is an essential part of a healthy diet. Also we don’t like bones in our fish, and salmon is quite bone free in fillet form. Now it seems that we as consumers cannot get enough salmon. So much so that to satisfy the demand at a price we are prepared to pay in the supermarkets and fishmongers, massive fish farms have been built in the lochs of Scotland.

This week I’ve watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall campaigning on TV – Hugh’s Fish Fight, on Channel 4, all week. Last year he campaigned, along with Jamie Oliver, for the welfare of chickens, and as a result the industry had to make many changes – indeed is still doing so, all for the well being of chickens. This year his cause is fish sustainability. After seeing the episode on Thursday about the said fish farms I really am glad I’m a vegetarian. But I still buy salmon for the family, and I will definitely look more carefully at what I buy in future.

Fact number one: 3 tons of small wild oily fish such as anchovies are caught on the other side of the world, made into fish pellets and brought here where they are fed to our farm salmons. That is bad enough – but it gets much worse. Three tons of these small fish produce just 1 ton of the farmed salmon that ends up on our plates. How sustainable is that?

Fact number 2: The pellets are fed continuously to the fish through tubes into the tanks – and the fish certainly don’t have much room to swim around in. As a result of the overcrowding the fish get lice. Chemicals are used in the water to control the lice, but the lice also infect and kill the wild fish in the surrounding waters of the loch.

Fact number 3: Pink dyes are used in the feed to make the flesh an “acceptable” pink colour – to make the pieces of fish look more attractive to us as consumers!

Fact number 4: When the fish are big enough to “harvest” the process is absolutely horrible to watch, (although it is clearly more humane than the treatment of fish suffocated to death in nets at sea – see my recent blog on this). The fish are “hoovered” up through a big tube placed in the tank, travel through the pipe into the slaughtering and processing shed, where men are ready to guide them splashing and struggling into large sharp arrangements of knives which kill the fish before they move along the line for further processing and packing. The men who do this wear lots of waterproof protective clothing but were well bloodied by the procedure – in fact there was blood everywhere. It was a very bloody business and I found it deeply disturbing. I forget the volume of carnage per hour, 8 hours a day – but it was on a horrendous scale.

Quite apart from the question of whether and how much fish suffer, there are two further issues here. Firstly, the process for organic farmed salmon is much more environmentally sustainable and the product that reaches our plate is likely to be a healthier option, free from chemicals with unknown long term effects. Organic farmed salmon are fed on pellets made from locally sourced fish scraps – offcuts and trimmings they are called, wastage from other fish processed elsewhere and that would otherwise be thrown away. But organic salmon represents less than 5% of the total farmed salmon we eat. If we have to eat so much salmon, let’s at least go organic.

But the second issue is this. It seems we are very conservative in the fish we eat – it’s basically and almost exclusively cod, salmon or tuna. Cod stocks are dangerously low. Tuna fishing is often far from sustainable and depending on the method used can threaten other species in the sea such as dolphins and turtles. And salmon farming – well the facts are as given. So why not try all the other wonderful fish that are freely available in our seas, and give non-organic salmon, tuna and cod a break.

I could write so much more on all of this and probably will in later blogs, but do visit Hugh’s website from where you can link to the Fish Fight pages.

Now I know this story is from the UK. But in the United States 1 in every 30 Americans, that is 10 million people, back the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that seeks a humane and sustainable world for all animals and is America’s ‘mainstream force against cruelty, exploitation and neglect.’ This means that 29 out of every 30 or 290 million Americans may not care very much about animal cruelty. That is a huge number of people. Perhaps Americans need a clone of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall!

I also know the pictures are not of salmon! They are of the fish market in Funchal, Madeira.

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