Something is very fishy - and wasteful

By Jackie Giuliano Ph.D.

Looking at Your Empty Plate:      
My plate, empty now,     
will soon be filled     
with precious food.

Looking at Your Full Plate:      
In this food,     
I see clearly the presence     
of the entire universe     
supporting my existence.

Contemplating Your Food:      
This plate of food,     
so fragrant and appetizing,     
also contains much suffering.  

Thich Nhat Hanh

The extreme harvest of animals from the sea and the huge pressure of commercial fishing fleets are usually justified by the claim that millions of people are provided food from this source of protein. Yet very little of the sea life caught is used to feed the hungry. Unimaginable amounts of unwanted species, immature animals, and undesirable pieces of the meat are wasted and either dumped at sea or buried in landfills. Twenty five percent of the fish pulled from the sea never make it to market and much of the rest is used in designer foods for the well off customer.

The UN reports that 27 million tons of unwanted fish are thrown back each year. Most of them do not survive because of rough handling during the catch. This represents more than half of all fish from capture fisheries that are used for direct human consumption. Greenpeace reports that discarded crabs from the Bering Sea king crab fishery amounted to 16 million animals in 1990, more than 5 times the amount brought to market. Records from the early 1990's show that Alaskan fishing boats threw back nearly 350,000 tons of fish because they weren't the right kind or size. Once again, few of these may survive.

Shrimp trawlers may exact the largest toll on life in the sea. The huge shrimp nets capture 11 million tons of unwanted finfish each year! Often 90 percent of the catch from a shrimping run is made up of unwanted animals. In Trinidad, 15 tons of fish are discarded for every ton of shrimp caught. Among this bycatch are often sea turtles as well. The herring fishery may be the most classic example of greed and waste that is destroying a vital strand of the web of life. During the 72-hour fishing period that ended March 8, 1999, nearly 16,000 tons may have been taken from British Columbia alone. Of that, very little of the fish is actually used because a large portion of this fishery exists solely for the eggs, most of which are sold to Japan as a delicacy. These fish are not used as a staple or to feed the hungry. The roe sells for as much as $100 a pound.

The deeply disturbing part of this fishery is that after the eggs are cut from the pregnant females (most of the time while they are still alive), the rest of the fish is trashed. Also trashed are the non-pregnant females and the males, resulting in a sharp decline in the population left at sea. Some of the carcasses are used for fertilizer, but most is either dumped at sea or buried in landfills. All this edible herring is wasted because there is no money in feeding the hungry for the producers, only in feeding the rich. Of the total herring caught for the roe fishery, 95% of the catch winds up being thrown out after the eggs are removed.

Over the last ten years, the Canadian herring roe fishery take has averaged 35,000 tons per year with a value of $60 million. The Alaska herring catch is 50,000 tons per year. You can see there is considerable financial incentive to continue this lucrative and destructive fishery.

The amounts of other kinds of fish that are wasted are truly staggering. In aquaculture, the controlled raising of fish, about 30% of the population often dies. When fishes are turned into filets, 40% to 60% of the fish is discarded. Thirty percent of the fish cut up into steaks or canned is discarded. The processing of fin fish wastes 30% to 60%, crab wastes up to 85 percent of the animal and shrimp processing generates 40% to 80% waste.

The environmental toll of these practices is enormous. The huge growth in some seagull populations is attributed to them feeding on fish waste and many sea mammals are in danger because of the disruption of their food sources. The effect on the entire food chain is incalculable.

When will greedy fisheries stop looking at the sea as a limitless free source of profit? I can tell you when. It will be when we stop buying their fish.

When will fish be regarded as a life form and not as just a meal? We forget that they are living beings, most likely with the ability to feel pain. Even cows legally have to be stunned before we slaughter them. Why do we treat all marine animals so poorly? They are among the Earth's most amazing creatures. It may have something to do with the fact that they are not considered cuddly and do not make sounds we can hear. This attitude should change and a new respect should be fostered for the creatures of the sea.

We must carefully examine the assumptions and rationalizations that have kept us feeling safe and comfortable for all our lives. We must look beyond the can and the cellophane wrapper and fully consider what it took to give us the foods we have been taught to prefer. Maybe we can create own preferences instead of accepting those of our parents and the television (our other parent).

As with most environmental issues, you and I can turn the tide. If you are disturbed by what you have learned about the way we use the life in our oceans, stop eating it. Unless you have some specific health issue you are treating, your body can live without it. And we haven't even considered the fact that many fish, particularly the bottom dwellers and nearshore fishes, contain many of the toxic materials in their flesh we are dumping into the seas.

When you think you feel like eating fish (yes, it is a created feeling, not a physical need), try some of the vegetarian fish dishes prepared from soy and wheat. You can find them in the frozen food section of your local health food store.

Our power to heal our world is enormous. But our fears and confusion are great. Don't try to figure it all out. You can't. Simplification is usually the best course, both for our bodies and for our planet. Remembering the web of life and that we are just one strand in it may help reduce the craving for fish and other forms of life. It must be possible to end the waste.


1. It can be very difficult to research this issue. If you do, use some keywords like "herring waste," "fish waste" and "offal."

2. The Environment News Service reported on the heavy toll that overfishing is having on the herring in British Columbia at

3. Read a Greenpeace report on bycatch and discarded fish at  

4. Follow the National Resources Defense Council campaign to restore ocean fisheries at

5. Read the Canadian roe herring management plan for 1999 at   You will need Adobe Acrobat to view it.

6. Read a Canadian report on the challenges of using the fish waste at . You can't just spread this stuff around.

7. Read the United Nations Agricultural Statistics Handbook about products from slaughtered animals at .  Find out what you (and your pets) are really eating.

8. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them it is time to heavily regulate the fishing industry. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at   or you can search by state at . You can also find your representatives at  

9. Visit the McDougall Wellness Center for help with your diet at

10. Visit the Vegan Action Info Page to learn about eliminating all animal products from your diet at 11. Visit the World Guide To Vegetarianism at  

Jackie Giuliano, Ph. D., can be found in Venice, California, overwhelmed by the awareness of all the waste. He is a Professor of Environmental Studies for Antioch University, Los Angeles, and the University of Phoenix Southern California Campuses. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at  and visit his web site at

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