Farming Versus Ocean Fishing: Is Ethical Seafood Possible?

“It’s caught by line, not net, so it’s far more ethical”; “if it’s farmed it’s okay because there isn’t any wasted by-catch.”

Most of us a are brought up believing that eating fish is essential for a healthy brain and that eating fish is somehow kinder than eating land-animals. It’s understandable then that we like to find ways to justify such eating habits.

But is this really the case? And should the choice be between eating farmed fish because dolphins and whales aren’t being killed too; or ocean fish which have at least had freedom up until death?


Salmon is one example of a fish most commonly farmed rather than ‘fished’. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology recently found that salmon bred and raised at fish factory farms are forced to grow at such an accelerated rate that over 50% of them are going deaf.

Led by the University of Melbourne, the study found that these intensively-farmed fish, forced to grow unnaturally quickly, develop severe inner-ear deformities; this affects more than 95% of fully-grown factory-farmed fish globally.

Showing that this problem is widespread, the study included fish in Norway, Chile, Scotland, Canada, and Australia and found that the deformity was extremely common—but only in farmed fish.

Dr. Tim Dempster, the study’s co-author, said:

“These results raise serious questions about the welfare of farmed fish. In many countries, farming practices must allow for the “Five Freedoms,” which are freedom from hunger or thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express (most) normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress. Producing animals with deformities violates two of these freedoms: the freedom from disease, and the freedom to express normal behaviour.”

Another study by Royal Society Open Science found that a significant proportion of farmed salmon suffer from severe depression. The fish are referred to as ‘drop outs’ because they float lifelessly in the dirty tanks they reside in.

In these drop-out salmon, scientists measured significantly higher levels of the stress-response hormone cortisol and observed increased activity in the serotonergic system, which is a key regulator of mood, respiration and sleep. The gravity of this is severe: studies of humans suffering from poverty and other socioeconomic hardships have shown the same physiological changes.

And the problems with farmed fish don’t stop there. Poor tank hygiene means that parasites which feed on the blood, skin and slime of the fish, are rife in the water: in 2016, an outbreak of sea lice occurred from Sweden to Norway to Chile. Half of Scottish salmon farms are infested with this parasite.



Things aren’t better in the world of ocean fishing.

75% of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted, so it’s really no surprise that we could see fishless oceans as early as 2048.

And it’s not only the fish who we eat that suffer from fishing. As many as 2.7 trillion animals are pulled from the ocean every year. This is in part because, for every one pound of fish caught, roughly 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. That’s dolphins, turtle, sharks, whales all being killed for no reason at all. For instance, 40-50 million sharks are killed yearly in fishing lines and nets. Scientists have previously warned that as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels, too.

Fish too will be thrown away; the process of fishing is highly inefficient. Up to 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are simply thrown away – probably back into the ocean, dead.

This seems like a lot of unnecessary death and suffering – in both fish farms and out at sea – considering that we can get our omega 3 elsewhere.

The conclusion: the most ethical way to eat seafood, is simply not to. Try Linda McCartney’s scampi bites or Quorn fishless fingers for a sustainable fishy meal which will save the lives of our ocean friends.