Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > New Zealand

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Some people who give up eating meat and poultry continue to eat fish in the belief that it is a healthy food and that fishing is less cruel and environmentally destructive than farming. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fish cruelty

There is no question that fish caught for food suffer. Numerous scientific reports have examined the question of whether fish feel pain and all recent investigations have supported the conclusion that they do. In July 2004 the European Food Safety Authority issued a report on slaughter in which they examined the killing of farmed fish. They concluded that "many existing commercial killing methods expose fish to substantial suffering over a long period of time." They also noted that "asphyxia/asphyxia in ice . . . and bleeding out/exsanguination are not humane methods for killing fish." Asphyxia – being starved of oxygen - is the method by which wild, trawled fish are killed. It is a horrible death – far worse, indeed, than that faced by most land animals.

Environmental Destruction

Commercial fishing of the oceans has decimated both fish stocks and the aquatic environment. Herring, cod, hake, redfish and mackerel are the fish species that are most commonly exploited commercially across the world - some of which are close to becoming extinct as a result of overfishing. There are several methods used for commercial fishing:


Trawlers, some the size of football fields, work non-stop across the oceans' fishing grounds, backwards and forwards in a never-ending process which scoops up huge quantities of fish and destroys the sea bed and the creatures that live there. Nets like huge tapering bags are used, and the mouth of the bag can be 224 ft. wide! It is kept open by huge, metal-bound trawl (otter) boards that can weigh tons. They are dragged across the ocean floor and crush and grind to destruction anything in their path.

A variant is the beam trawl, where a long metal beam is fixed to the underside of the net's opening. Flotation devices keep the mouth of the net open and dangling from the beam are 'tickler' chains which drag along the bottom, forcing almost every creature from its hiding place into the mouth of the net.

Between 60 and 80 million tons of fish are caught from the seas of the world each year by trawling. The total for all methods is about 100 million tons. Fish that are too small, non-target species or species with no commercial value are discarded. This can include almost every creature from the sea or sea bed - sea urchins, brittle stars, crabs, dolphins, seals and sea-birds.

As shrimp nets are dragged through the water, they catch every living creature in their path - trapping both shrimp and unwanted fish and sea turtles. Sea turtles caught in shrimp nets are held under water until they drown. Thousands of endangered sea turtles are killed in this way every year.

The ecological balance of the oceans is disturbed when the catch rate exceeds the natural reproduction rate. This is overfishing. All 17 of the world's major fisheries have either reached or exceeded their limits. The North Sea is cleared of a quarter of it's fish every year.

Drift Netting

Drift nets hang like curtains from the surface of the sea. Constructed from thin but strong monofilament nylon, they are virtually invisible to all sea life. They can be up to an incredible 30 miles long. The target fish are often tuna but as dolphins tend to congregate where tuna swim, they too die in large numbers. Rays, sharks, sea birds and small whales all become entangled in these ghostly nets.

It is not uncommon for nets to become detached in rough weather and float away to kill large numbers of animals and birds. When weighed down with dead bodies they sink to the bottom but once the carcasses have rotted, they float back to the surface and continue their destruction. Thousands of dolphins, porpoises, small whales, sea lions and walruses are killed by drift nets each year.

After years of campaigning, drift nets were banned by the EU from 1 January 2002 in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Sadly, the Baltic Sea was exempted after lobbying by Demmark, Sweden and Finland who continue to use this destructive fishing technique with their 350 vessels.

Purse Seine Netting

A purse seine net is suspended from the surface, the bottom of it many fathoms below the surface. The boat pays out the net in a complete circle so the effect is like that of a tube of netting hanging down, surrounding the target shoal of fish. A kind of drawstring at the bottom of the net is pulled tight so the net represents a purse with an open top but a closed bottom. The top is then also closed and the net hauled inboard. Again, tuna are the main target but again, dolphins also get trapped and drown.


Many birds, including razor-bills, cormorants, and puffins, feed mainly on sand eels, sprats and small herrings, all of which are heavily exploited by fishermen. In 1994, overfishing in the North Sea was believed to have caused about 100,000 birds to starve and the problem seems to be worsening.

Commercial fishermen often blame the low numbers of fish on local wildlife and demand ‘culling’ to solve the problem. As a result, seals have been killed in their thousands - 51,000 in Russia and 250,000 in Canada in 1996 and there are similar demands being made in Britain. In February 1999, a proposal was presented to the US Congress by the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fishermen and ‘resource’ managers to shoot Pacific harbour seals and Californian sea lions along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to protect the dwindling stocks of salmon and steelhead and to reduce competition for fish between these pinnipeds and humans.

Fish - a healthy option?

Fish is often claimed to be a healthy food but the flesh of fish often stores dangerous contaminants, such as PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals and even radioactive materials. PCBs and dioxins are suspected of causing cancer, nervous system disorders and foetal damage. Toxic metals in fish like cadmium, mercury, lead and arsenic can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and mental retardation to cancer. They can be especially dangerous to unborn children. Fortunately, the healthful substances found in fish can be obtained from plant sources which contain no risk of contamination. For more information see