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Ten reasons why fish, fish oil and other seafood products are not what they seem

by photographer and researcher Dos Winkel for the Sea First Foundation

We often hear and read that fish and fish oil pills are particularly good for our health, and that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. This is far from the truth. The only benefits there are of fish and seafood consumption are to the fishers, the fish processing industry and the seafood retail industry.

Many people are beginning to understand that we need to cut down on or cut out our meat consumption, and they are turning to fish as a ‘healthy’ alternative. But now fish is coming under fire. This is therefore a difficult message to bring across.

“The modern fishery is the most destructive and thoughtless human activity ever”

David Takayoshi Suzuki, Canadian geneticist and environmental campaigner. Holder of 22 honourable doctorates.

Over fishing

Of the European fish stocks, 88 percent are either over fished or at the point of collapse. If we want to save stocks for future generations and keep the industry going, the European fishery fleet must be severely reduced by 2013. However, there is little reason for optimism. The various European fishery ministers are not in agreement with this, and it was these same ministers who ignored the 2012 quotas recommended by scientists and allowed catches to exceed these by 40%. Nothing is likely to change in 2013 despite the lobbying of about 130 European NGOs, including the Sea First Foundation, and the truly best efforts of the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki. Ultimately, it is the fishery ministers who take the decisions.

Using a computer model, marine and fisheries biologists have shown that if we continue fishing as we are doing at present, the seas will be empty of commercial fish by 2048. Their findings were confirmed in a United Nations report produced by economists – not conservationists – in 2010. The UN report estimates that date as 2050 and goes on to say that drastic changes need to be made.

This means reducing the world’s 20 million fishing boats to 7 million, a reduction of 13 million vessels. This includes all the large factory ships. Given the level of subsidies, decreasing the size of the fishing industry makes economic sense. A staggering EUR 27 billion is spent worldwide on subsidising fisheries. If 13 million vessels were decommissioned and 35 million fishers put out of work, it would only cost about EUR 20 million to invest in retraining and alternative employment. EUR 20 million investing in the future compared to EUR 27 billion keeping a redundant industry afloat. A good proportion of the investment could be made in farming seaweed, a good nutritional alternative to seafood, and a sustainable industry.

The 2050 cut-off is for all commercial fish species in all the world’s seas. Sustainable fishing methods may have been practiced in the Atlantic Ocean and in large parts of the Pacific Ocean for centuries, but over the last few decades, Europe has changed this. Now that European waters are almost empty, the fisheries are going further afield to find fish. This sometimes means “stealing” the food from the people who need fish as a source of protein. EU countries pay governments of developing nations for fishing licences, and fish away their food. In many countries with high levels of corruption, the local fishers do not receive one single cent and even lose the fish that would normally sustain their livelihoods. And where do those fish end up? On the plates of the European consumer where seafood is a choice and not a necessary source of protein.

A related and equally serious problem is that about 35 billion kilos of fish is caught every year to be processed into fishmeal for farmed fish, pigs, chicken and fur animals. See point 5 below.

photo by Dos Winkel
photo by Dos Winkel


Annually about 45 billion kilos of fish are caught and thrown overboard as waste because they are not the target species or are not permitted to be caught. This is by-catch. By-catch also includes millions of marine mammals such as dolphins; sea turtles; birds; and of course fish. All these animals are caught in nets and fishing lines and die. Using satellite images, scientists have calculated that there are enough long lines in the oceans to encircle the earth 550 times. That is more than 22 million kilometres of fishing lines! Many are over 100 kilometres in length. The fish and other animals that get hooked die a terrible death. They often fight for more than 24 hours for their lives. As the intended catch, mostly tuna and swordfish, are becoming rarer, the lines are becoming longer.

A significant part of the Dutch fleet, and the largest part of the Belgian fleet – often consisting of “runaway” Dutch fishers – are still beam trawl fishing. This method consists of dragging heavy chains along the seabed which catch any and all animals that live there. Unfortunately, it destroys the entire seabed ecosystem and up to 96% of the catch is by-catch.

Sustainability labels

The best known sustainable fishery label is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This label was started by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Unilever, both of which were concerned by the dramatic reduction in fish stocks as a result of fishing practices. However, the MSC’s ideas about sustainable fishing are not shared by some conservation agencies, including the Sea First Foundation. There are many reasons for this, and one is the awarding of MSC certificates to fishers who practice the destructive beam trawl and long line methods. Another reason is that the factor of animal welfare is not taken into consideration at all.

The certification criteria of many other sustainable fishery labels are often even worse.


Shark killing and tuna

One third of all the shark species in the world are threatened with extinction. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. In 2006, this was 120 million, but the numbers have declined in parallel with the resulting decline in shark numbers. It is European rather than Chinese fishers who supply most of the sharks’ fins to the Far East. Most of these are Spanish, but Dutch fishers are equally responsible. The fins of the sharks are cut off while they are still alive, and the shark is thrown overboard. A horrific death. Sharks’ fin soup is a status symbol in China and in other countries in the Far East. The sharks’ fin industry is worth billions and for many fisheries is a highly lucrative sideline.

The populations of most shark species have declined by at least 90%. Removing predators from ecosystems in such large numbers has led to enormous imbalances in the populations of other sea creatures. Killing sharks is thus a huge part of the unsustainability of fishing.

While there has fortunately been change in European legislation recently and some species are now protected, these measures are still largely insufficient.

Tuna is also a seriously threatened fish species. Bluefin tuna is as good as extinct, so fisheries are turning to other tuna species resulting in the overfishing of these. If you do not eat a panda sandwich or Bengal tiger stew, why eat tuna when they are equally threatened.

(For further information (in Dutch) about tuna, see: http://www.noble-house.tk/html/nederlands/vissen_dos_winkel/Bescherm_de_tonijn_tonijn_is_toxisch_te_overbevist_en_sterk_bedreigd.html, a joint campaign for tuna free restaurants by Aman Prana and the Sea First Foundation.)

Aquaculture and mangrove forests

Mangroves are crucial habitats for many species of fish and are the home of many endemic species. Mangroves are forests of bushes and trees that live in salt water. They grow in shallow water, their roots covered in algae, seaweeds, oysters, sponges and anemones. Young fish hide among the roots when danger lurks. They live in relative safety until they are big enough to head out to open sea. These nurseries are crucial to hundreds of species of sea life.

All over the world mangroves are being cut down to make way for prawn and fish farms. The animals in these farms are crammed together in small spaces leading to all sorts of behavioural and other problems. Apart from the animal unfriendly practices, this is neither an efficient nor a sustainable way of growing food as the density of the animals means that they must be given heavy doses of antibiotics and medicines to avoid the spread of disease and pests such as fish lice. At present, about 50% of the world’s prawns come from farms. The level of chemicals used to ‘protect’ the prawns means that the surroundings of the farms are so heavily contaminated that the workers, who earn a pittance, often get sick. As do the inhabitants of the area who are dependent on the contaminated groundwater. The groundwater contamination may reach a radius of 100 kms! At a certain point the groundwater is contaminated to such a degree that even the prawns are unable to survive. This takes about four to five years, and the whole farm is moved to a new location. This means more clearing mangroves to make space and leaving a contaminated desert behind.

The disappearance of mangroves is leading to the disappearance of many fish species. In the Dutch Antilles for example, the population of large fish around the north coast of South America has dramatically decreased as a result of over fishing and the destruction of mangroves.

Farming fish in open water, such as salmon in Norway and Chile, also causes major problems. The seabed around the pens becomes “dead zones”, areas where there is no sea life at all. This is caused by the large quantities of excrement that is contaminated with medicines and antibiotics.

Most farmed fish are carnivorous. They can only survive on a diet of animal-based foods. Most of this food is derived from wild caught fish. Peru and Chile both have a large fishery industry for this purpose. As wild caught fish are transported great distances, such as from Peru to Norway, to feed farmed fish, the industry is responsible for large quantities of emissions. To produce one kilo of farmed salmon, you need two to six kilos of wild fish. Fish farming thus exacerbates over fishing. This means that farming fish is anything but sustainable.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar


There are several forms of pollution that affect our land and marine environments. These include chemical pollution (toxins); non-biodegradable materials such as plastic; radioactivity and radioactive waste; aquaculture (outlined above in point 5); noise pollution; and CO2 emissions (acidity – outlined below in point 9).

Chemical pollution

The most common chemicals are dioxins, dioxin type PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, and flame retardants. Most of these materials are man-made, though some are found naturally in small amounts. There are many substances that are found in large quantities in the marine environment and these include toxic and carcinogenic flame retardants. These are found in fish and in particular in fatty fish.

Many studies have been carried out on the effects of these toxins on human health, but they have only examined these toxins individually or as groups of substances. Bilau (2008) studied dioxins in food, but recommends that the effects of combinations of toxins on human health be examined. We currently know very little about this.

Most European dioxins originate from industrial waste incineration processes that involve chlorine such as metal casting, bleaching of paper pulp, and the processing of particular pesticides and herbicides. Other large producers of dioxins include waste incineration plants. The amount of dioxins in the North Sea may have decreased significantly over the last decades, but North Sea fish still contains much more dioxins than fish from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Between 95% and 98% of dioxins found in the human body are ingested through food consumption. They are mostly found in animal products, and in fish in particular. The biggest problem with dioxins is their high chemical stability. Once they have entered a living organism, they nestle and remain there for a very long time. They thus accumulate in the food chain, and the higher they are in the food chain, the higher the concentration. Fatty fish are generally at the top of the food chain and have ingested all the accumulated dioxins from all the animals they have eaten. The people most vulnerable to dioxins are pregnant women and newborn babies. As opposed to common advice, pregnant women should avoid eating fatty fish (see point 7). Current European guidelines for the maximum safe levels of dioxin in our diets note that fish contain much more toxic dioxins than other foodstuffs: 20 times more than meat and milk; 10 times more than eggs.

Mercury is usually present in predatory fish in the form of methyl mercury, which is more toxic than ordinary mercury. It is found in the skin, muscles and organs of the fish, and not only in the fatty tissue. Anyone eating two portions of tuna sushi a week runs a real chance of health problems.
It is incomprehensible why nutritional centres and governments shrug off the fact that fish and other animal fats contain so many toxins. Toxins are toxic and can be detrimental to human health even in the smallest quantities. Keeping the fish and meat industries going is apparently more important than human health.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar

Non-biodegradable materials

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean is an area at least the size of Western Europe that contains an enormous amount of plastic waste: the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This is probably a conservative estimate as some put the size at twice the size of the United States. The Garbage Patch contains a huge amount of floating plastic rubbish. Plastic accumulates and is kept going by the maelstrom of the Pacific Ocean gyre that is created by the trade winds. The periphery of the gyre is in continuous movement and is higher than the parts towards the centre. This has the effect of concentrating the plastic “soup” ever further which remains swirling around the vortex in the middle. These garbage patches have been found in all the world’s oceans. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study in 2006 showed that every 1.5 square kilometres of sea contain 46,000 plastic particles that range from lost slippers to miniscule particles. Countless birds, lobsters and seals get caught in the plastic rings of six-packs, plastic bags or nylon cords. Many seabirds such as petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses, just like sea turtles, eat everything. Many die because a large object such as a plastic bag gets stuck and blocks the throat or digestive tract. But many animals simply weaken because the small pieces of plastic fill the stomach taking away the feeling of hunger. The brain does not send the signal to eat, and the birds die of starvation. Ninety-eight percent of all examined dead birds had plastic in their stomachs, on average 30 pieces of plastic.

Millions of fish and marine mammals see the floating pieces of algae covered plastic with their chemical additives as a tasty snack. Many fisheries operate in these areas and the fish end up, plastic, chemicals and all, on the plate. Toxic plastic is thus an extra threat to human health. Eighty thousand different types of toxins have been found in the plastics.

Radioactivity and radioactive waste

Just ten years ago, radioactive dumping in the sea was still an enormous problem. This form of pollution though has decreased dramatically in the past few years. Dumping of radioactive materials, for example, by the nuclear plant in Sellafield in England has decreased by 75%.

Current European dumping is no longer a threat to marine plants and animals, and has little effect on people who eat them. However, what is a danger to sea life is the enormous amount of cooling water used by nuclear power plants on the coast. As the water is taken from the sea to cool the plant, all the life in it is taken too and dies. This includes fish larvae and eggs. Little is known about the extent of the damage due to the lack of research. This affects the North Sea, Irish Sea, Baltic Sea and Sea of Japan. Countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom and France have several nuclear power plants located on the coasts. The disaster in Fukushima in Japan (2011) has given us a glimpse of the consequences.

Noise pollution

People rarely think about noise if they think about marine pollution. Still, noise is a huge problem for millions of animals every year. Sources of noise include oil exploration and drilling, pile driving to place windmills, shipping and sonar. Millions of whales, dolphins, seals and other sea creatures will die in the next few years as a result of the sonar used by the American navy alone, on top of the sonar used by other countries. Military exercises will be carried out in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in particular. The US navy uses sonar to trace submarines and since 2002 when President Bush gave the US navy permission to use sonar in 80% of oceans, is a growing threat.

Sonar consists of extremely loud sound impulses that bounce signals off large objects, reflecting them back to source. It deafens whales, causing them to become seriously disoriented. The result is that they either shoot to the surface of the water far too quickly thereby dying from the ‘bends’ (blood embolisms), or they try to escape the noise by throwing themselves out of the water and stranding. Most of the animals that happen to be too close to the source of the sonar simply die because their ears and brains explode. These animals sink to the bottom of the ocean and nobody knows how many animals have been killed by this type of noise pollution.

In 2004, the Bush administration signed a law that gave loopholes to the American navy in environmental laws. Then in 2008, he signed an ‘Executive Order’ in which he permitted the navy to be exempt from the environmental laws governing threatened species.

Between 2010 and 2015, millions of marine mammals and other sea life will knowingly be sacrificed by the US Navy in its ‘Warfare Testing Range Complex Expansions’.  These are warfare testing programmes which will be significantly expanded in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The National Marine Fisheries Services has already given permission to kill sea mammals in more than a dozen marine warfare testing programmes and it is preparing a new request in which it itself estimates that 11.7 million marine mammals (32 species) will perish. The growing number of licences that are issued for sonar testing programmes in more than 12 areas of USA territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico will exterminate many species of marine mammal and other sea life.

Toxins in fish

By not eating fish you avoid ingesting many toxins such as PCBs, dioxins, dioxin based PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and flame retardants. Fatty wild fish in particular are highly toxic. The toxins are all highly carcinogenic and, even when ingested in small quantities, can cause cancer. In 2008, research at the University of Ghent in Belgium showed that about 50% of all PCBs, dioxins and dioxin based PCBs is derived from seafood, while only 1-2% of our diets are seafood! However, the Netherlands Nutrition Centre Foundation claims that the Belgian study is not correct and that only 12% of all dioxins in the food of people in the Netherlands is derived from seafood. This is probably because the Dutch eat less seafood than other Europeans. Either way, both organisations clearly indicate high levels of toxins in seafood.

While most of the toxins in seafood are checked individually and are at present below the European permitted levels, little research has been done into the effects of an accumulation of toxins ingested from seafood, that is, all the toxins together. The more fatty the fish, the more toxins the fish contains. This is because many toxins are lipophilic. This means that they enter the fatty tissue of the host and remain there. Another aspect is that the higher the fish is on the food chain, the more toxic. Predators such as tuna, swordfish and shark have accumulated all the toxins from the animals that they have eaten such as the smaller fish lower in the food chain.

Despite this, it is often said that consuming fatty fish is important to human health because of the fatty acids that it contains. In the case of omega 3 fatty acids, these are not produced by fish themselves. These are ingested by fish in their food and taken in through their gills during breathing. Omega 3 is actually contained in single cell plankton algae which enter the fish’s body through food and breathing. People can still consume omega 3 while avoiding eating fish by eating plant based foods that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) such as purslane, walnuts, linseed oil, rapeseed oil and many other vegetables and nuts. Omega 3 derivatives (EPA and DHA) can also be obtained from algae based pills and products found in health food stores and from farmed algae and seaweed.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar

photo by Dos Winkel
photo by Dos Winkel

Food poisoning

Food poisoning from eating fish and seafoods such as prawns, oysters or mussels is by far the most common form of food poisoning.

Ciguatera poisoning is mostly caused by eating tropical fish. This condition is mostly found in areas of coral reefs, but also arises among people who have eaten fish imported from these regions. Ciguatera is poisoning caused by a toxin that is produced by dinoflagellates, a type of toxic algae. These dinoflagellates are found in coral, plankton and seaweed. These are eaten by herbivorous fish that are in turn eaten by larger carnivorous fish. The most common source of ciguatera poisoning are barracuda, sea bass, snapper, moray eel, parrot fish and trigger fish, though other species can also cause serious poisoning. Ciguatera toxin is highly heat resistant so it is not neutralised by cooking.

Ciguatera poisoning mostly causes stomach, intestinal and neurological symptoms. The most common of these are: nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, muscular pain, numbness and hallucinations (Wikipedia). The most common symptom among serious cases is the cold allodynia, whereby patients have a hot, burning feeling when they touch something cold. It is also possible that the toxin is passed on through sexual intercourse or breastfeeding. The symptoms may last weeks, and sometimes even years. They may reoccur after many years, triggered by various factors such as the consumption of fish or alcoholic drinks.

As there is no known treatment for Ciguatera poisoning, treatment is simply to ease the symptoms with medicines such as pain killers. Prevention is the best cure, and the only way to avoid contracting Ciguatera poisoning is by not eating reef fish.

Scombroid food poisoning is another common form of food poisoning contracted from eating seafood. It is a type of histamine poisoning and is most often seen after consuming tuna, mackerel, sardines, yellowtail snappers and abalone. It can be caused by the poor refrigeration of seafood. The symptoms arise quickly after consumption and include tingling or a burning feeling in the mouth; rashes on the face and upper body; thudding headache; hives and itchy skin; nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Seafood can also be contaminated with listeria. This is a bacteria that also grows in low temperatures. Listeria is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and the elderly. They are advised not to eat pre-packed smoked fish such as salmon, trout, eel or mackerel. Pre-packed smoked fish has a long shelf-life which gives the bacteria the time to multiply into dangerous quantities.

Apart from ciguatera and scombroid poisoning, fish contain many other micro-organisms that may cause food poisoning. It is also advisable to not feed your dog or cat fish as they too can become seriously ill.

Acidity: CO2 and O2

Oceans are the main source of oxygen on earth. Up to 70% of all oxygen is produced by marine plants. They absorb CO2 (carbon dioxide) and convert it into O2 (oxygen), as do all land plants. We therefore breathe because of the ocean! Most of the earth’s plants live in the oceans. These include seaweed, algae and phytoplankton (plant-based plankton).

The oceans are the earth’s main carbon sink. But given the levels of CO2 emissions, the phytoplankton is unable to process it all and convert it into O2. CO2 and other emissions such as those produced by intensive cattle farming, are making sea water increasingly more acidic. The lower Ph values are dissolving calcium, and scientists are afraid that all coral polyps will be died out by 2050. The level of CO2 in seawater is already 383 ppm (parts per million), while the safe levels for coral polyps is around 320 ppm. The chalky skeletons of the polyps start dissolving at 360 ppm. We have already far exceeded this! Along with pollution and overfishing, acidification is one of the most main reasons why coral reefs are dying all over the world.

Other animals are affected too. Those at the base of the food chain that have calcium carbonate shells, such as shellfish and molluscs, are becoming unable to form shells. Warming temperatures as a result of the high CO2 emissions are also creating problems of coral bleaching. Fish are a good buffer as they absorb a lot of dissolved calcium through their food and breathing through their gills. They convert the calcium into calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which they then excrete back into the sea. However, overfishing has decimated fish populations the world over and we can no longer rely on fish to help prevent coral dying as a result of increasing acidity. We need every fish there is to stay in the sea. Every fish that is removed is one too many.

Smalle fish photo by Dos Winkel
Smalle fish photo by Dos Winkel

Animal welfare

This may be the last point listed, but is really the most important reason why we should avoid eating fish. Animal welfare is an enormous problem in the fishing industry. Every year up to three trillion animals are caught and suffer a terrible death. Research into fish welfare and fish’s ability to feel pain has been thoroughly studied over the last 15 years. When I started research into the destruction of the marine ecosystem about six years ago, there were only a few dozen research activities into pain. There are now more than a thousand such studies.

Under European law, animals that are slaughtered for consumption must be either killed within one second, or must be stunned to the extent that they feel nothing prior to death. While this is not carried out in practice to the extent that we would like is sad enough, but, at the very least, there is legislation with which to deal with poor practices. This legislation does not apply to fisheries or to fish farming, and there is no other legislation. We know that fish have both an extremely well developed central nervous system (brains and spinal chord) and a well developed peripheral nervous system with pain receptors (nociceptors) that go right to the tips of the fins and around the mouth. Fish thus feel pain well and feel the same stress and fear that birds, reptiles and mammals do. And they are still treated like inanimate objects. The slaughtering methods of fish are truly appalling and some fish take hours to die. If only we could hear them scream we would certainly take more care of them.

If you would like to know more, please see:

  • De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), Dos Winkel, Uitgeverij Elmar
  • Do Fish feel Pain, Prof. Victoria Braithwaite, Oxford University Press
  • A very important study: Worse things happen at sea: the welfare of wild-caught fish, Alison Mood (download as PDF)