Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

7: A Tale of The Sea

Campaigning was at the heart of my new youth strategy when I began work at the Vegetarian Society and it was paying off. Junior membership rose from less than 200 to 6,000 in the three years from 1987 to 1990. I had a committed and enthusiastic team and we were influencing tens of thousands of young people, helping them to become vegetarian, helping to save animals.

To begin with, in the days before word processors, we tried to reply to every letter by hand on the day it was received, because it kills the enthusiasm of young people to wait weeks for a standard, typed reply. When it got that I was still in the office at 10p.m. or later, writing away, and the post was bringing 900 new letters every day, it was obvious the team would have to grow. It did and I became Youth Education Manager.

We were conducting school talks with a purpose-made video, Food without Fear, which was a winner at the New York Film and TV Festival. As a result of a campaign called 'SCREAM!!', which showed the reality of factory farming, interest in vegetarianism amongst young people blossomed and the number of school projects on the subject increased 10-fold.

Despite this, school caterers were not responding and were still largely offering meat and two veg. as school lunch. That led me to launch the campaign called 'CHOICE!’ aimed at increasing the number of schools offering a vegetarian alternative for lunch. It was a huge success, increasing the numbers from around 13 per cent of all secondary schools to 65 per cent. We all felt delighted that we were now influencing the nation as a whole.

As the membership grew so did the need for our own magazine and there was a real sense of achievement when Greenscene was launched, a 40-page magazine for young people. Eventually, when it was necessary to pass this on to someone else in the department to run, it was a sad day for me.

At the same time I was expanding my knowledge of the issues and this tempered any temptation there might have been to become complacent. Whatever success we were having it seemed as little compared with the overall world-wide trends and the universal mass slaughter of animals. As the 1980s progressed, developing countries began to adopt the West's appalling intensification methods and were encouraged to model themselves on us. Environmental destruction accelerated and I could feel, ever more firmly, the reverberations of human footprints, metaphorically stamping across the creatures and habitats of the world. A little was getting better, but an awful lot was getting worse.

Along with many concerned environmental scientists, I felt the globe was approaching a watershed when it would be too late to reverse the devastation and misery which humankind was increasingly spreading. It was as though our touch was poisoned by some virus and everywhere we went, everything we handled, we left in a worse condition than when we found it. Governments took research and found ways of belittling it; they were given information and warnings and ignored them; they had the knowledge and resources to change people’s destructive habits but used those resources to increase the destruction. That’s how it was then, that’s how I felt then and nothing has changed.

The rape of our oceans typifies the relentless progress towards greater destruction of creatures and ecosystems. We have the knowledge to predict the outcome of this onslaught and yet we do nothing to prevent it.

In March 1994, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) published a paper, State of the World: Fisheries and Aquaculture, which should have sent a shudder running around the world. It stated that of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds, nine were facing potentially catastrophic declines in some species, while the remaining areas were already being exploited to the limits of their capacity. When a sober and restrained organization like UNFAO uses the word ‘catastrophe’, it probably means that the four horsemen of the apocalypse have already been seen taking tea at the Ritz. However, instead of outrage, the reaction was jingoistic nationalism and the ensuing debate was not about corrective measures but about rights and quotas.

The main cause of the crisis is overfishing, but the stocks are under pressure for other reasons, not least industrial and agricultural pollution, tourist and fish farm developments and the gradual poisoning of the entire marine ecosystem by highly toxic chemicals, with heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, (PCBs) at the top of the list.

To understand the scale and speed of the destruction it’s important to look at the rate of decline in fish stocks. In 1950, the known catches of fish around the world amounted to 22 million tons. By 1989 they had risen to 100 million tons. For the following three years they dropped to a maximum figure of 97 million tons despite huge investment in new ships, expensive satellite navigation systems and fish finders and the purchasing of rights to exploit the coastal waters of developing countries. Inherent in this decline is a warning which seems to go unheeded - the seas cannot sustain the onslaught for much longer.

There have been numerous previous warnings but international fishing is uncontrollable, and amounts to little more than anarchy. When restraint has worked for one species it has been at the expense of others. Once, along the north-east coast of Britain, there were seemingly endless shoals of herring. By the 1950s the first signs of decline were obvious, but uncontrolled fishing continued. In 1978 a halt was called, by which time the shoals had been virtually destroyed. Only now are east-coast herring making something of a comeback. But such powers of recovery can’t be relied upon.

The 1970s cod war, in which Iceland unilaterally extended its fishing grounds by imposing a 200-mile (322-km) limit around its shores, was a sign of things to come. It was brought about by the profligacy of the British fleets, largely from Grimsby, Hull and Fleetwood, at that time the largest fishing ports in the world. Fish was a cheap, plentiful and little-valued commodity and much of it wasn’t even eaten but finished up in fertilizer factories.

The fish fertilizer factories are still in existence, along with dozens of other ‘industrial’ users of fish for products such as catering oils, feed for farmed fish and other animals, and even oil for candles, and as much as 50 per cent of all fish caught in the northern hemisphere may end up not on someone’s plate but in the polish they use to shine their shoes. Some species, such as sand eels and ling, are caught in their millions of tonnes for just these purposes.

The Icelandic action to exclude British trawlers was presented as an action to preserve fish stocks and placed them on the moral high ground. It was a deceit. In 1985 Icelandic trawlers took 400,000 tonnes of cod from their waters, but even without the predations of the British fleet, stocks continued to shrink. By 1993 the allowed catches were reduced by almost a half to 220,000 tonnes. Still stocks declined. For 1995, allowed catches have been cut to 163,000 tonnes in the fading hope that numbers will recover.

Part of the problem is the method of fishing used to catch cod - trawling. Nets like a huge sock are used and the mouth of the sock can be 70 metres wide. The top is kept open with buoyancy devices and along the bottom are tickler chains, designed to drive fish from their hiding places on the bottom and up into the mouth. To keep the net open, huge, metal-bound, wooden ‘otter’ boards are fixed on either side of the opening at an angle so that as they are dragged through the water they naturally pull the mouth of the net open. They can weigh tonnes and crush and grind to destruction anything in their path. They effectively plough the sea-bed to a depth of several centimetres, destroying all life in their path. And they do it day after day in their thousands, to and fro across the same fishing grounds.

The most recently publicised battles for fish have been between Spain and Canada off Newfoundland, and between Spain and Britain’s Cornish fishermen off the Bay of Biscay. The Canadian experience is even more frightening than Iceland’s and again involves cod. In 1990, catches totalled 400,000 tonnes and yet a year later they were down by almost a half. In 1992, they amounted to just 70,000 tonnes and in the following year, they were just a few thousand tonnes. The environmental costs are incalculable and will affect a myriad of other creatures who form part of what was once a finely-balanced ecosystem.

All across the world, countries are at each other’s throats over the right to exploit particular stretches of water. A dispute over resources is the classic ingredient of warfare and we are seeing this develop around the globe.

In the summer of 1994 I sailed on a trawler to see the fishing process - not a deep-sea vessel but one of the smaller, English south-coast fishing fleet. The method is identical, it is just the scale which is different. Once the otter boards and nets have been ‘shot’ (lowered), all that serves as a reminder of what’s happening on the sea-bed are the taut wire hawsers which drag the net behind the slowly moving vessel. The stench of diesel fuel and putrefied fish slime is a constant accompaniment.

Once fish enter the net, they are tunnelled down it into a narrow sleeve known as the ‘cod end’. The first fish in are dragged along for hours and may 'drown' because in the crush, as other fish pile on top of them, their gills are unable to extract oxygen from the water. Then, as they are hauled up through hundreds of metres of water, the difference in pressure can cause their eyes to balloon out or their swim bladders to burst.

A common grouse amongst the deckhands and the skipper was ‘fish quotas’. These were introduced under the EC's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) on advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and are known as Total Allowable Catches (TACs). Under this scheme, fisher-men are told how many of each species they may catch, but once they have reached their limit for one type of fish they are allowed to carry on fishing for other types. Often different species swim together, such as cod and haddock, so even though the quota for haddock has been reached they are still caught together with the cod. There have been numerous press and TV reports of trawlers with secret holds in which these illegal catches are hidden, but the more usual course is to return them to the sea. None of them survive. The official EC figure for discarded haddock is over 40 per cent of all those caught, but other, independent estimates, put the figure at 60 per cent.

Those that are still alive when they are thrown back present a particularly sad spectacle. They form a silver trail astern of the boat, thrashing their tails spasmodically as they try to dive below the waves, only to float back up again. Gulls swarm above them, snatching an easy meal. Some research puts the global proportion of caught fish returned to the sea as high as 30 per cent. Also shovelled back with the debris from the net is a selection of every crawling, creeping and swimming creature which goes to make up the complex environment of the seabed. They, too, are dead or dying.

The introduction of fish quotas had little to do with conservation in the first place, but was rather an attempt to ration out the spoils in order to avoid conflict. It seems to have, if anything, made matters worse all round.

Fish don’t feel pain! Who could ever have conceived of such a lame excuse to justify a total absence of controls over how fish live and die? And who would have believed that so many people could be taken in by it? Fish have a complex central nervous system and part of its function is to send messages of pain to the brain. It is part of a survival mechanism without which fish could not have evolved.

One of the fish which cascaded on to the deck of the trawler I sailed on was a shiny, darkly-mottled plaice the size of a tea tray, its bright orange spots gleaming in the sunlight. It wasn’t gutted but tossed into a tray with other flat fish. After two or three hours I heard it literally croaking. A deckhand, witnessing my distress, nonchalantly clubbed it, presumably to death. Some eight hours later I looked down at the pathetic dead creature in an alien environment and was horrified to see its mouth and its gill covers opening and closing. Such is the tenacity of life and the survival abilities of plaice that it was still alive, enduring a suffocation which had already lasted over 10 hours.

As northern waters are fished out, species such as the plaice are giving way on the fishmonger’s slab to more exotic types from all over the world, such as the parrot fish. In fact over 40 per cent of European fish sales are now ‘exotics’.

Diving on the Malindi reef in Kenya and on the largest reef in the northern hemisphere off Belize, I’ve seen the undersea world from which these exotics are snatched. I have offered tasty tit bits and patiently waited while beautifully coloured parrot fish have found the courage to approach me and accept them. I have seen the tell-tale puffs of sand which betray the perfectly camouflaged hiding-place of rays and I have startled schools of dashing yellowtails into flight. It is a wonderfully colourful and fragile world.

But rather than learn from those practices which have devastated our home waters, Governments and corporations are exporting the same ethos to these delicately balanced ecosystems in the developing world. In the open seas, where no permission is needed, there is a bonanza of totally uncontrolled fishing where net size, fish size and catches are without limits. Humankind has never been short of ingenuity when it comes to killing, and the methods of catching and killing fish are no exception. They even extend to dynamite and poison. And a new, even more damaging phenomenon has suddenly appeared called 'biomass fishing’. Nets of the tiniest gauge scoop up all living creatures in one destructive haul.

Where fishing grounds fall inside territorial waters, the rights to exploit them are bought cheaply from Governments desperate for hard currency with which to service their loans from Western banks. Those buying the fishing rights are often the same ones who made the loans in the first place and so the financial merry-go-round of dependency and impoverishment continues, as it has for decades.

One of the most damaging methods of fishing is the drift net. Constructed from thin but strong monofilament nylon, these nets hang down from the surface in what has become known as ‘walls of death’ and can stretch up to 50 kilometres in length. They trap squid, tuna and salmon, but also bring death to dolphins, small whales, turtles, seals, rays and sharks. Traditionally the favoured method of the Japanese and Taiwanese in the Pacific, they have now spread to the Atlantic and have been eagerly taken up by European fishermen as they start the search for new species. The posturing between Spanish and British West Country fisherman was over precisely this issue. Jingoism obscured the fact that these nets are responsible for the death of at least one million small whales and dolphins every year.

Another of the most obscene and rapidly increasing forms of fishing is ‘finning', carried out by several Asian countries. Sharks have largely escaped being eaten up to now because their flesh tastes strongly of ammonia. Unfortunately their fins don’t. So they are now caught in large numbers - estimates as high as 100 million annually are given by the Shark Protection League and killed solely to provide the raw materials for shark’s fin soup. They are dragged from the water, their fins are cut from them and they are dropped back into the sea to die from shock and drowning. These are creatures which have evolved for so long and so perfectly that they are almost free from disease. Their evolutionary success within their own environment is in sharp contrast to our own.

Meanwhile, as some species of animal are destroyed wholesale, others which depend upon them are reduced to hunger. Is it any wonder that more than 30,000 sea birds were washed up on the shores of the Shetland Islands in 1994, dead from starvation, and for the first time ever there are recorded accounts of dolphins off the British coast attacking seals? It is thought they are so desperate for food that they have turned on other mammals with whom they have lived in harmony for millions of years.

As the numbers of fish decline, the demands by the fishing industry to eliminate the ‘causes’ of declining fish stocks grow louder. In 1991, the Russians shot 51,000 seals in order to ‘protect’ their fisheries and there are demands for similar culls in Britain. In 1995 the Canadian Government sanctioned the slaughter of 250,000 seals because of their predation on fish stocks.

In the meantime the overfishing continues. In the North Sea, only one third of all cod and haddock survive longer than 12 months. Fish which would normally live for 10 years are being caught before they have even had time to breed.

The practice of catching immature fish has hit skate so badly that they have been exterminated from the Irish Sea. Their long life of 70 years or more and consequent late maturity has been their undoing.

In June 1995 the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea spoke out at a North Sea Protection Conference in Denmark. This is not a small fringe group without resources to check its science, but a body which comprises the world’s official scientific advisers. ICES’s conclusion is that the once teeming shoals of mackerel are now commercially extinct (i.e. too few to fish) and unless something dramatic is done, cod will become actually extinct (non-existent) within five years.

The cost of all this destruction is another problem. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the value of the world’s total fish catch is reckoned to be around US$ 70 billion, and yet the costs involved in running the fleets and marketing the fish is put at $124 billion. The huge discrepancy between the two is largely covered by subsidies. Not only are the oceans being devastated, but every one of us is paying for it to happen.

Unfortunately this isn’t the only problem. As a consequence of dumping sewage, heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs, mostly in northern waters, Dutch and German surveys have both found that around 40 per cent of flatfish are riddled with cancerous growths, ulcerations or skin diseases. Researchers have also established that PCBs, amongst the most toxic of all substances, are now distributed throughout the food chain of the world’s oceans. They are believed to have found their way into the fatty tissues of virtually every sea creature known to us. One of the effects of PCBs is to attack the immune system and permit diseases such as cancer to prosper.

In a separate piece of research by Greenpeace International, it was established that almost one third of fish eggs in the North Sea’s main spawning grounds are malformed and more than half show abnormalities in their genetic structure.

We are not separate from the world’s food chain but integral to it. The billions of pounds spent on quilted lavatory paper and underarm deodorants cannot alter our status as just another animal. The PCBs which lurk in fatty tissues elsewhere also lurk in our own and the problem is more acute for meat eaters than vegetarians and particularly vegans.

The current answer to the overfishing problem is aquaculture fish farming. But these intensified methods of production are no less damaging than the rape of the wild - and in many ways are dependent upon it.

One of the first species to be farmed was the salmon, a fish which has thrilled and excited us with its amazing migrations from ocean to stream and back again, so powerful and determined that it will leap over or swim vertically up waterfalls. What have we done with this wonder of nature? We have tried to breed out of it its amazing homing instincts and suspended it in netted containers in lochs and fjords. It is like caging swallows.

Dense population makes fish, like people, more vulnerable to the spread of disease. Sea lice have thrived in fish farms and have spread out through the surrounding water to infect wild fish. In some areas, stocks of wild sea trout have dropped by 80 per cent because of them. The toxic pesticide Dichlorvos, used to counteract the lice, is on the UK Government’s Department of the Environment’s 'red list’ as one of the 24 most toxic substances used in Britain. Effective down to concentrations as 0.1 part per million, it also wipes out crustaceans, shellfish and other marine life. It can cause cataracts in and the penned fish and 55 per cent of wild salmon are also developing them. A partially-sighted or blind salmon is not likely to fare too well in the survival stakes.

Of course, the lice have started to show a resistance to Dichlorvos, so salmon farmers are switching to another chemical called Invermectin, the effects of which are unknown.

The sea-beds beneath the cages of fish farms and the surrounding areas are environmental black spots - literally. Faeces and uneaten food pellets form a sludge on which algae thrives. This can result in toxic ‘blooms’. It is necessary to move the cages regularly - and subsequently spread the problem elsewhere.

The awful irony of farmed fish production is their diet - from fish food pellets derived from the slaughterhouse but also caught in the wild specifically for the purpose. Try and work out the sense of that!

The finest indication we have of lack of concern for fish is the absence of regulations governing how they’re killed. With farmed fish that is a huge number - over 50 million each year in Britain. The proliferation of ways in which stunning and death are dispensed shows imagination, if nothing else. Some are hit over the head with a piece of wood called a ‘priest’, a word and a method borrowed from ‘sport’ fishermen. Others are cut behind the gills so they bleed to death. Increasingly, fish are passed through a tank containing water saturated with carbon dioxide. One of the most popular methods is to take salmon from the water and immediately immerse them in crushed ice, where they slowly suffocate. This, apparently, is the best way of maintaining flesh quality. It also prolongs the consciousness distress and suffering of the fish.

A study carried out by Bristol University’s Department of Meat Science examined all these methods and found them wanting. It discovered that fish were often fully aware of what was happening to them even when they were lying still, supposedly unconscious or dead from one or other of these methods. Perhaps if we imagine how we would feel being immersed in an alien world, where we can’t even breathe, we can begin to empathize with the plight of these creatures who are so often dismissed as cold and unfeeling.

Across the world aquaculture is largely used to produce expensive species for which people will pay plenty of money - prawns, shrimps, trout, salmon, yellowtails. And the coastal areas chosen for the farms are usually the mangrove swamps, seen as useless areas ripe for exploitation. In fact they provide the most productive and important habitat in the oceans. Ninety per cent of marine fish rely upon the amazing diversity provided by mangroves, particularly for spawning, and over 2,000 species of fish, crustaceans and plants thrive there. They prevent flooding, stop erosion, are the nursery of ocean life and are being ripped up faster than anyone can count. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Ecuador, Panama wherever you look, clearance is rampant. The sub-tropical regions of the world have lost 70 per cent of all mangrove forests since 1960, largely to fish farming. After a few years, farms have to move on, leaving behind desolation.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the reducing levels of ozone in the stratosphere may also have a dramatic impact on the oceans. The loss of ozone is one of the most worrying of many current environmental disasters. The Antarctic hole has been joined by a new one over the Arctic and smaller holes are appearing elsewhere. Not accidentally, I believe, people are encouraged to think that at worst all it will result in is a few extra skin cancers and cataracts. If only!

It is the greater concentrations of ultraviolet light which are penetrating to the Earth’s surface which are the problem. It is known that increases of 10 per cent can kill anchovy fry down to a depth of one metre, but for some periods of the year the figure is already 40 per cent. The real fear is that the increasing levels of ultraviolet will not only kill fish fry but also attack and destroy phytoplankton - the oceans’ pastures, the vegetable base of its entire food chain and the producer of 80 per cent of the world’s oxygen. The consequences are almost unimaginable.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, used in refrigeration and foam manufacture) play a major role in ozone depletion but the enormous scale of livestock production world-wide also makes a contribution. Methane emissions from cattle and nitrous oxide from fertilizers, largely used to grow animal fodder, both produce ozone-destroying chemicals.

Even if there were concerted world action tomorrow, it would be decades before the effects were felt. There are now restrictions on the use of CFCs and PCBS, but in both cases they will continue to be released into the environment for possibly a further 70 years. There are no proposals to curb the number of animals. It is these delayed effects which ensure that we will have stepped over the threshold of no return long before we realize it.

If we as a species can create such a devastating impact in so few years, what on Earth does the future hold? Fortunately, individuals can influence the outcome and the easiest step you can take to distance yourself from this global nervous breakdown is to stop eating fish and other creatures from the sea. Simple really!