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What’s Wrong With Fish?

Updated: Apr 21

fish swimming in the ocean

What's Wrong With Fish?

One of the most common questions I hear when individuals want to eat more plants or go fully plant-based is "What's wrong with fish? I thought fish was good for you?"

I get it. Before I went vegan, fish remained on my plate for its "health benefits." Little did I know that I was eating more than the essential fatty acids, which give fish their health claim to fame. I was also ingesting microplastics, pollutants, mercury, and potentially antibiotics. Keep reading to learn why fish can be harmful to our health and the planet's health.

fish swimming in the ocean

Wild-Caught or Farm-Raised, Which is Better? {hint: neither}

Whether fish is wild-caught or farm-raised, it has detrimental effects on the planet, and may also negatively impact your health. Fish make it to the grocery store in one of two ways: commercial fishing or aquafarming. Most of the fish consumed comes from aquafarms — fish farms that are either inland or on fenced-off cages in the ocean. You’ve probably heard of factory farms. Aquafarms aren’t much different, just the sea version of land factory farms. Fish spend their entire lives confined in tightly packed spaces. The water in which they live can be very toxic with antibiotics, pesticides, parasites, and feces. One study reported that a 2-acre fish farm can produce as much waste as a town of 10,000 people. This is not only unhealthy for the environment since this toxic waste spreads to surrounding areas in the ocean, killing off wild fish, but it’s unhealthy for the fish living in the waters. Can you imagine swimming in your own feces for up to two years, the average lifespan of many fish? Video footage of salmon raised in aquafarms does not show the pretty pink hue you see in the supermarket. It shows a pretty sad-looking fish lacking in color. The pink-hued salmon is most likely from synthetic dye to make them look more appealing to us.

How do aquafarm fish grow? Wild fish. In fact, just one pound of salmon requires five pounds of wild ocean fish. Aquafarm fish get their fish from industrialized fishing (the main cause of ocean habitat destruction, overfishing, and innocent bycatch like turtles, whales, and birds getting caught and dying in fishing gear).

commercial fishing boat

Commercial Fishing

This brings us to industrialized or commercial fishing … commercial fishing uses either trawling or longline fishing to catch fish. Neither is environmentally friendly. Trawling is when fishing boats drag giant nets across the ocean floor, scraping up fish and anything else in its path, wreaking havoc on sea life and habitats. The United Nations estimates that up to 95 percent of global ocean damage is a direct result of bottom trawling.

Longline fishing is when boats drag long fishing lines, up to 50 feet long, through the water with several hooks on them. As you can probably guess, these lines are not selective in what they catch and kill. Many unintended species like different fish, sea birds, turtles, and whales get caught as bycatch. Also, these lines often get lost in the ocean where they continue to kill innocent sea life long after boats have left.

Is Fish Healthy?

Because fish can’t distinguish between food and plastic, and because 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, microplastic can be found in commercially caught fish. More research needs to be done on what the dish called “fish with microplastics” does to our health, but we do know that plastic exposure, in general, can be disruptive to hormones, cause cancer, and impair neurological health. Fish can also be a source of heavy metals, which is why expectant women should limit their consumption of fish high in mercury.

Fish are the main dietary source of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are industrial chemicals that were manufactured from 1929 until 1979 when they were banned due to their detrimental effects on health. PCBs have been shown to cause adverse health effects like causing certain types of cancer, negatively impacting the immune system, negatively affecting the nervous system, and disrupting the endocrine system. Small amounts are found in meat and dairy with the most coming from fish.

Fish do indeed provide protein, but protein can be easily obtained from plants (beans, peas, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds). Fish also provide omega 3 fatty acids, probably the number one reason people eat fatty fish. We need these essential fats for our cell membranes, brain, and nervous system and we can't make them, therefore must get them through food. They help regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, as well as immune and inflammatory responses. Fatty fish is one source of omega 3 fatty acids, in particular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which are important for brain, eye and heart health to name a few. Plant foods like chia seeds, flax meal, hemp seeds and walnuts have a different type of essential omega-3 fatty acid called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) that can be converted to DHA and EPA. The problem is that the conversion is extremely low, between 1-10 percent, which isn't much. While I could recommend chia, flax and walnuts all day long because of their healthy fats as well as their fiber, vitamins, minerals and plethora of antioxidants, they're not the most reliable source of omega 3's since conversion to DHA and EPA is low and varies between individuals.

What to do?

As you can see, fish consumption goes beyond healthy omega 3’s. While fish may be a good source of omega 3's, it doesn't come without the risk of consuming microplastics, pollutants, and heavy metals. Also, the fishing industry practices are not sustainable for our planet. Since fish get their omega 3's from algae, we can do the same. Consuming an algae-based omega 3 supplement (and bypassing the "middlefish") provides the omega 3's we need without the toxic substances. In my personal practice, I recommend chia seeds, flax meal, hemp seeds and walnuts to provide some omega 3's as well as tons of other nutrition like plant protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. However, for those eating solely plant-based, I also recommend an algae-based supplement as reassurance. In particular, I love the brand Fresh Field because they get their products third-party tested, adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices, and help to protect the oceans by being 100 percent certified plastic negative (see here for more information). Use the discount code "purelyplanted" to received 15% off your order (note, a small portion of your purchase will support the work of this blog).

P.S. The book, "What a Fish Knows" is a fascinating read if you'd like to learn more about fish. They're super intelligent sentient beings.

Questions about any of the above? Please comment below or feel free to email me


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