There are standard
questions that vegetarians are often asked. Perhaps the most frequent one is,
"How do you get enough protein?" Another common question is, "Do
you eat fish?"
Many people, including some who call themselves
vegetarians, think fish are less capable of suffering than mammals and birds.
These would-be vegetarians may avoid eating mammals and birds while continuing
to eat fish, sometimes arguing that the problems associated with the production
and consumption of other animal products don't apply to fish. After all, they
reason: fish aren't raised in the cruel confinement of factory farms; unlike the
raising of "livestock," fishing doesn't cause soil erosion and depletion,
require deforestation to create pastureland and land on which to grow feed crops,
or require huge amounts of pesticides and irrigation water; also, fish flesh is
generally lower in fat than other animal-derived foods and is a healthy food.
All of these assumptions are either wrong or problematic.
Let us consider typical vegetarian arguments that address treatment of animals,
health risks, and environmental sustainability, as they apply to fish "production"
and consumption. Even though by definition fish (and other aquatic animals) have
never been considered part of a vegetarian diet, the reasons to avoid their consumption
as you will see are compelling.
COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS
and animal rights advocates have long debated whether or not fish can feel pain.
Among the overwhelming evidence that fish can suffer is a recent report by a team
of marine biologists at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute. The report was published
by the Royal Society, one of Britain's leading scientific institutes. The researchers
found that rainbow trout possess pain receptors and react to a harmful substance
(in this case, acetic acid) with "profound behavioral and physiological changes
. . . over a prolonged period, comparable to those observed in higher mammals."
The researchers concluded that their findings "fulfill the criteria for animal
pain." Their conclusion is also consistent with common sense: fish, like
other animals, need to be able to feel pain in order to survive.
Methods of catching and killing fish are clearly abusive. When
are hauled up from a considerable depth, the sudden change in pressure on their
bodies causes painful decompression that often causes their gills to collapse
and their eyes to pop out. As soon as fish are removed from water, they begin
Hooked fish struggle because of pain and fear.
As described by Tom Hopkins, professor of marine science at the University of
Alabama, getting hooked on a line is "like dentistry without Novocain, drilling
into exposed nerves."
Fish who are "farmed"
rather than caught experience more-prolonged suffering. Today in the United States,
(to maximize profit,) most "farmed" trout, salmon, catfish, and other
fish are raised in the same sort of intensive crowding found in commercial chicken
and pig operations. Like the chicken-flesh industry, fish "farming"
involves large-scale, highly mechanized production. Thousands of fish are crammed
into ponds, troughs, or sea-floating cages, so that fish farmers can raise the
greatest possible number of fish per cubic foot of water. In most cases, each
fish is allotted a space scarcely larger than their body.
fish are fed pellets designed for unnaturally rapid weight gain. Under these abnormal
intensely crowded conditions, fish suffer from stress, infections, parasites,
oxygen depletion, and gas bubble disease (similar to "the bends" in
humans). In an effort to prevent the spread of disease among the fish, producers
give them large amounts of antibiotics. Even so, many fish die before slaughter.
For economic reasons and to reduce fish feces, most farmed fish are starved for
days or weeks before they're slaughtered.
Fish are not the
only animals to suffer because of people's appetite for their flesh. Egrets, hawks,
and other birds who eat fish commonly are shot or poisoned to prevent them from
eating the captives of these large open pools. Also, many sea turtles, dolphins,
sea birds, and invertebrates suffer horrible deaths in commercial fishing nets.
Many people who eat fish erroneously believe
that it's a healthy food. In a 1997 survey commissioned by the National Fisheries
Institute, more than half of the 10,000 surveyed households cited health benefits
among their primary reasons for eating fish.
What are the actual
health effects of consuming fish? Fish flesh contains omega-3 fatty acids which
appear to be heart-protective. However, there are healthier plant-based sources
of these acids, especially flax seeds, and, in lesser amounts, canola, soybean,
walnuts, tofu, pumpkin, and wheat germ. Further, these plant foods provide health-promoting
fiber and antioxidants. And they don't contain the toxic heavy metals and carcinogens
found in fish flesh.
In any case, the possible benefits of
omega-3 fatty acids are largely limited to people at risk of heart disease, and
for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The largest study of cholesterol levels,
carried out in Framingham, Massachusetts, showed that people with cholesterol
levels below 150 have virtually no such risk. Because people on well-planned vegan
diets generally have cholesterol levels below 150, the best way to maintain cardiac
health is to follow such a diet, thereby ensuring that artery blockages don't
occur in the first place.
As a result of human pollution of
aquatic environments, eating fish flesh has become a major health hazard. Industrial
and municipal wastes and the agricultural chemicals flushed into the world's waters
are absorbed by the fish who live there. Big fish such as tuna and salmon eat
smaller fish so, in general, the bigger the fish, the greater the accumulation
of toxic chemicals throughout their flesh. Pollutants that concentrate in fish
include pesticides; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); toxic metals such as lead,
cadmium, chromium, and arsenic; dioxins; and radioactive substances such as strontium
90. Because of biological magnification during movement up the food chain, pollutants
can reach levels as high as 9 million times that of the water in which they live.
These pollutants have been linked to many health problems, including impaired
behavioral development in children. Nursing infants consume half of their mother's
load of PCBs, dioxin, DDT, and other toxic chemicals. These toxins have been linked
to cancers, nervous system disorders, fetal damage, and many other damaging health
effects. Dr. Neal Barnard, director of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
(PCRM), describes fish as "a mixture of fat and protein, seasoned with toxic
Higher mercury levels in mothers who eat
significant amounts of fish have been associated with birth defects, mental retardation,
seizures, cerebral palsy, and developmental disabilities in their children. A
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis released in 2004 indicated
that about 630,000 of the 4 million children born annually in the U.S. are at
risk of impaired motor function, learning capacity, memory, and vision - due to
high levels of mercury in their bloodstreams.
The Food and
Drug Administration and the EPA have advised that groups most sensitive to mercury
- women of childbearing age and young children - should not eat swordfish, king
mackerel, or shark because they're high in mercury. Removing fish from the diet
eliminates half of all mercury exposure and reduces one's intake of other toxins.
"Farmed" salmon contains even more contaminants than flesh from wild-caught
salmon. As Reported in Science, an analysis of over 2 tons of flesh from salmon
"farmed" in different countries indicated toxic levels of PCBs, dioxins,
and banned insecticides such as toxaphene. The risks are so great that the EPA's
guidelines, suggest that no one should eat flesh from "farmed" salmon
more than once a month. The authors of the Science report warn that girls and
young women should eat even less because pregnant women can pass on fish-flesh
contaminants to their fetuses, impairing mental development and immune-system
function. Two studies published in the journal Chemosphere in 2003 also reported
elevated levels of PCBs, and certain chemicals, including flame retardant, in
flesh from "farmed" salmon. Most salmon in U.S. markets today are farmed.
easy to understand how industrial toxins accumulate in the flesh of ocean-dwelling
fish, but how did farmed salmon get so contaminated? Most farmed salmon are fed
pellets made from fish hauled up from the polluted sea floor. It takes 3 to 4
pounds of wild fish to produce just one pound of "farmed" fish.
fish also are fed dyes to give their flesh a pink color, as well as massive amounts
of antibiotics to stave off bacterial diseases and sea lice. Farmed salmon are
fed more antibiotics, per pound, than any other animals reared for slaughter.
This contributes to increasing numbers of drug-resistant bacteria, making it more
difficult to treat some human diseases.
In a six-month investigation,
Consumers Union found that nearly half the fish tested from markets in New York
City, Chicago, and Santa Cruz, California were contaminated by bacteria from human
or nonhuman feces. In addition, fish often contain disease-causing worms and parasites.
Even when carefully handled and continually refrigerated, dead fish rapidly rots.
Fish often stay on trawlers for long periods before being brought to markets.
Fish flesh contains large amounts of protein. While most people
think this is positive, the average American consumes excess protein, which has
been linked to a number of health problems, including kidney stones and osteoporosis.
Unlike fats and carbohydrates, protein can't be stored by the human body. Any
consumed protein that exceeds the amount that can be used on a given day is broken
down and excreted. After someone eats concentrated protein, such as a salmon steak
or fish fillet, their blood must be cleansed of protein wastes, such as urea,
ammonia, and amino acid fragments. Since cleansing requires calcium, the excess
protein from fish causes the loss of calcium through the urine. Continued year
after year, this calcium loss may result in thin bones that easily fracture: osteoporosis,
a condition that affects 15 million Americans. Due to lower acid production, vegetable
protein generally causes much less calcium loss.
none of the protective phytochemicals found only in plant-derived foods. Also,
fish flesh has no fiber and virtually no complex carbohydrates. Lack of fiber
may contribute to a number of diseases related to digestion, such as diverticulosis
and colon cancer.
While fish is generally lower in fat than
other animal-derived foods, not all fish is low in fat. Fifty-two percent of the
calories in salmon flesh are from fat. In the case of many fish, such as catfish,
swordfish, and sea trout, almost one-third of the calories are from fat. While
fish fat is generally unsaturated and therefore doesn't increase cholesterol in
the blood of consumers, it does contribute to the build-up of toxins. Studies
show that diets heavy in fish do not reverse arterial blockages. In fact, blockages
often continue to worsen in patients who regularly eat fish.
Another very serious, and escalating, problem is
the impact that fishing and fish "farming" have on the environment.
Modern commercial trawlers are the size of a football field, with huge nets (sometimes
miles long) that scoop up everything in their path. They can take in 800,000 pounds
of fish in just one netting. Trawlers scrape up ocean bottoms, destroying coral
reefs. Half of the fish and other sea creatures (including some protected species)
obtained through commercial fishing are fed to animals reared for food, including
"farmed" fish. Each year, about 30 million tons of aquatic animals,
maimed, dying, or already dead, are simply tossed back into the ocean.
fishing fleets are rapidly destroying aquatic ecosystems. As a result, the number
of large predatory fish has dramatically declined over the last 50 years. Once-huge
populations of tuna, swordfish, and cod have dwindled to mere remnants. Dalhousie
University biologist Ransom Myers has stated, "Unless we seriously control
industrial fishing worldwide, many of the species will go extinct." The ocean's
biodiversity rivals that of tropical rainforests. In effect, humans are clear-cutting
these environments. Waters that once teemed with life are now so barren that they've
been compared to a dust bowl.
Plummeting fish populations have
ripple effects throughout the marine ecosystem. Predator-prey relationships have
been disrupted. For example, a decline in pollack in western Alaska has caused
a 90 percent decline in Steller's sea lions, who are now listed as endangered.
Because of the decrease in sea lions, who are orcas' primary prey, orcas have
been eating more sea otters. As a result, sea otters have declined by 90 percent
As vessels scour increasingly fished-out waters,
international confrontations are increasing. Russians have attacked Japanese vessels
in the Northwest Pacific. Scottish fishers have attacked a Russian trawler. Norwegian
patrols cut the nets of three Icelandic ships in the Arctic, and the crews exchanged
shots. The United Nations has reported a sharp increase in piracy and armed robbery
directed toward ships, many of them fishing vessels.
too, has a significant negative impact on the environment. First, native fish
are displaced as introduced fish invade spawning grounds and compete for food.
Interbreeding pollutes the genetic pool. According to the National Fisheries Research
Center, "aquaculture" has contributed to 68 percent of fish extinctions
Fish "farming" also depletes natural resources.
Modern commercial fishing is extremely energy-intensive. It requires as much as
twenty calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of energy from fish.
Moreover, where fish are grown in artificial ponds, vast amounts of water are
required to replenish oxygen and remove wastes. Rearing a ton of fish for slaughter
requires eight tons of water. Producing one pound of flesh from captive fish requires
three to four pounds of flesh from wild fish, so people who eat farmed fish contribute
to the decimation of free-living fish populations.
also results in enormous pollution. The intense accumulation of wastes from fish
farms can pollute the local marine environment and spread illnesses. Researchers
at the University of Stockholm have found that pollution from fish farms can extend
to an area much larger than the farm itself. In Scotland, for example, caged salmon
contaminate coastal waters with untreated waste equivalent to that produced by
8 million people.
Because it requires massive water use, "aquaculture"
routinely is conducted on coastal land that is the prime breeding and spawning
ground for many free-living fish. Much coastal land has been cleared of forests,
swamps, and rice patties to make room for fish "farms."
given to farmed fish harm nearby seas and oceans. When farmed fish, laden with
antibiotics, escape and breed with free-living fish, aquatic ecosystems may be
thrown out of balance because of the mating of wild and farmed fish. Escaped fish
raised in intensive confinement may spread disease to free populations of fish.
The "production" and consumption of fish flesh causes
great suffering to fish and other animals, harms human health, threatens aquatic
biodiversity, wastes natural resources, and invites international conflicts. A
shift away from eating fish is both a societal and moral imperative.