The world’s oceans are under assault from multiple enemies — plastics, chemicals and overfishing among them. With fish, human exploitation, including overfishing, is the major cause of declining marine species, with some declining in numbers by 74 percent between 1970 and 2010.1
Demand for seafood, meanwhile, continues to increase, with global per capita fish consumption rising to more than 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) for the first time in 2016 — double the level of the 1960s, according to a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report.2
The FAO urged “more work to rein in overfishing,” noting that one-third of commercial fish stocks worldwide are being fished at biologically unsustainable levels, which is triple the level of 1974. The methods used for fishing can make a difference in their impact on nontarget species, and one that’s embroiled in controversy is electric shock fishing, otherwise known as “pulse fishing.”
Dutch fishing vessels have been found using the electrocution method in a marine sanctuary called Dogger Bank, located in the North Sea. Dogger Bank is a protected marine area under EU law because it’s home to a wide variety of sea life and habitats.
Pulse Fishing — Banned in Many Parts of the World — Being Used in UK Marine Reserve
Pulse fishing is primarily used to catch flatfish, such as sole, which live in the seabed. Conventionally, beam trawling, which involves the destructive practice of dragging chains across the seabed to cause flatfish to jump up into waiting nets, has been used for this purpose.
Pulse fishing, which involves electric pulses to shock the fish, causing them to leap into nets above them, is widely touted as a more sustainable method that causes less disruption to the seafloor, requires less fuel to tug the electrodes and also reportedly reduces bycatch because sole are more susceptible to the electric shocks than other marine species.3
However, Bloom Association, a French environmental group, pointed out in a January 2018 report that this method of fishing is banned in much of the world, as it was in Europe until 2006, when the EU decided to allow it for “experimental purposes” in 5 percent of the fleet.
“This ruling went against scientific advice, only to satisfy the pressure exerted by a private interest group: the Dutch industrial beam trawl fleet. The use of electricity in the wild has serious environmental and socioeconomic consequences: Not only is the seabed impacted by huge industrial nets, but all marine life is now electrocuted,” Bloom reported.4
While the Dutch fleet was supposed to be allotted 15 vessels for the experimental pulse fishing method, their numbers have ballooned to more than 80, which catch 92 percent of sole caught by Dutch trawlers.
“There is nothing experimental about this fishery, it is a full-fledged commercial operation and its environmental impacts, while under-researched, are potentially very harmful,” Charles Clover, executive director of Blue Marine Foundation, told The Epoch Times:5
“The mind boggles as to how the Commission and European Fisheries Ministers have permitted electric fishing on the Dogger Bank, which is legally protected under EU law because of its unique and important habitat.”
The Blue Marine Foundation and Bloom filed a complaint with the EU Commission, alleging that the Dutch vessels are illegally trawling in the Dogger Bank, putting vulnerable marine life at risk. Jeremy Percy, executive director of the Low Impact of Fishers of Europe (LIFE), told The Times:6
“It is a travesty that powerful vessels, using a fishing method that is banned in many parts of the world, are not only permitted under a dubious derogation to use this gear to fish in UK waters but also in marine protected areas.
We have long campaigned to have this method banned on the basis of the firsthand accounts of other fishermen . . . who have witnessed the devastation the use of it causes as it shocks fish into the nets of these trawlers.”
What Are the Dangers of Pulse Fishing?
While there’s no doubt that beam trawls cause immense damage to the seafloor, the use of electric pulse fishing as a sustainable alternative is highly debatable. While proponents tout its efficient nature and lower fuel requirements (compared to tugging heavy chains), this, opponents say, is part of its downfall.
“Reducing costs in a situation of chronic overexploitation is a seductive argument to convince European fishers to equip their vessels with electrodes. Unfortunately, this fishing method is so effective that above all, it promises to accelerate the exhaustion of marine resources and ruin the fishing sector in the medium term,” Bloom reported.7
Electric pulse fishing has already been banned in China, Vietnam, Brazil, the U.S. and Uruguay because of concerns that it harms or kills most fish while degrading habitat. Again, proponents paint pulse fishing as using weak electric pulses to gently startle fish into nets. The reality, however, is much more severe; the current used is the same as that used by electroshock weapons like Tasers.
According to Bloom, “This type of current causes such violent, uncontrolled convulsions that 50 to 70 percent of large cods are left with a fractured spine and internal bleeding after the shock.”8
Reportedly favorable research supporting pulse fishing has focused on the economic performance of fishing vessels (i.e., reduced fuel costs) while ignoring the potentially devastating consequences on ecosystems. Research suggests, for instance, that electricity may:9
- Weaken the immune system of worms and shrimp, making them more vulnerable to pathogens
- Turn once-thriving marine ecosystems into “graveyards” or “garbage dumps”
- Cause massive destruction to the marine environment by towing industrial gears
- Cause desertification of the ocean
- Have unknown effects on eggs, juvenile marine life, reproduction, plankton or rays and sharks, which are electro-sensitive
As for being a more “selective” form of fishing, as proponents claim, Bloom explains, “[E]lectric ‘pulse’ trawlers are not selective at all. For 100 kg (220 pounds) of fish caught, 50 to 70 kg (110 to 156 pounds) are discarded (including plaice, dab and soles). In comparison, sole netters discard only 6 kg (13 pounds) of fish per 100 kg of fish caught.”10
Why Is the EU Subsidizing Illegal Fishing Methods?
The EU has issued far more licenses for electric pulse fishing than its initial 5 percent limit would bear. “At this level this is essentially permitting a commercial fishery under the guise of scientific research,” the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) stated.11
What’s more, public subsidies totaling at nearly 6 million euros (about $6.9 million) have been used to develop pulse fishing fleets in the Netherlands. “These public subsidies have been abusively granted for ‘research’, ‘innovation’ and ‘better practices,'” according to Bloom. “European institutions and member states need to stop using public funds for ecologically and socially harmful fishing practices.”12
The amount of electricity being used on the pulse fishing vessels isn’t being monitored, either, to ensure the currents used aren’t excessive. Already, fraudulent activity like using smaller netting than is allowed or fishing in zones that are supposed to be closed for the season, have been reported.
The practice also threatens small-scale fishers, which were once the only outlets that could operate in areas close to coasts. The electric pulse vessels are lighter than other trawlers, allowing them access to previously inaccessible areas. “This unfair and unreasonable competition is worrying, because it rings the death knell for small-scale fishing,” Bloom noted.13
Why Fish Farming Isn’t the Answer
It’s estimated that within the next 10 years, farm-raised fish will make up the majority of fish consumed by humans. There are already 100 species being farmed,14 and while this may sound like a sustainable alternative to catching wild fish, it poses many of the same problems plaguing industrial land-based livestock operations, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Fish farms are basically CAFOs of the sea, subject to overcrowding, concerns over marine animal welfare and disease transmission, including to wild fish. Sea lice, tiny parasitic crustaceans that feed on salmon skin and mucous, are just one problem. At one fish farm in Scotland, it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the salmon were suffering with sea lice.15
Sea lice spreading on fish farms is putting wild salmon stocks at risk. Wild salmon from Blackwater River, which is near the Scotland fish farm, have been found to be heavily infested with sea lice, for example. Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland has blamed the industrial farm for the infestations, as the salmon must pass by the farms on their way back from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Scottish Salmon Company has attempted to block the public release of photos showing their diseased salmon and even claimed losses of more than $1.3 million in 2016 because of sea lice and other disease. Despite this, they reported profits of over $38 million in 2017.16
Piscine reovirus, or PRV, is another salmon disease that is devastating farmed and wild salmon. PRV causes heart and skeletal muscle inflammation (HSMI) disease, which can be deadly to salmon. One study of salmon in British Columbia, Canada, revealed the proportion of PRV infection in wild fish was related to exposure to salmon farms.17
Even land-based salmon farms are problematic,18 as the facilities pump water from rivers into their hatcheries, then pump it back out to the river once it’s contaminated with dissolved organic matter (DOM) — a mixture of liquid excrement, food residue and other salmon excretions, along with disinfectants and antibiotics.
Nutritionally speaking, farmed salmon are also a far inferior choice to the wild variety. For starters, their pens are often placed near shore, which means they’re close to land-based sources of pollutant runoff. In addition, they’re fed a diet of ground-up fishmeal, which may lead to concentrated levels of PCBs.
In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the journal Science, PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be eight times higher than in wild salmon.19Farmed salmon also lack the correct ratio of healthy fats that many people are seeking when eating a “healthy” fish meal.
How to Find Sustainably Fished Seafood
Because much seafood is polluted, I only recommend eating safer seafood choices such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herring. All of these are at low risk of contamination, yet are high in healthy omega-3 fats. You’ll also want to opt for sustainably harvested wild-caught fish as well.
One of the best options toward this end is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo, which features the letters MSC and a blue check mark in the shape of a fish. The MSC logo ensures the seafood came from a responsible fishery that uses sustainable fishing practices and meets the following standards:20
- Fish stocks are sustainable — there are enough fish left in the sea to reproduce.
- Environmental impacts are minimized — fishing operations must be carefully managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the marine ecosystem.
- Effective management — the fishery must comply with relevant laws and have a management system that allows it to respond quickly to changes in the status quo.
The Dutch pulse trawl, sole and plaice fishery applied to be assessed against the MSC Fisheries Standard, but it fell short on meeting the second standard (minimum ecosystem impacts).
“The fishery is therefore not recommended for certification,” MSC wrote in 2016, adding “the draft assessment concludes that there is currently insufficient knowledge of the impacts of electric pulses on seabed ecosystems to state with certainty that pulse fishing does not have any significant impacts.”21