Why Fish And Seafood Are As Important As Land Animals In The Vegan Journey
“Oh, you’re vegan. But you still eat fish, right?”
I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve been asked this question. It often comes from friends and family members who have already asked me this same question time and time again.
From what I’ve experienced, vegetarians get the question a lot too, although sometimes they have a more complicated answer.
It’s not unheard of for people to consider themselves vegetarian simply because they don’t consume the meat of land animals. But what about fish? Are they not part of the animal kingdom? Why aren’t they considered worthy of ‘animal’ status? Whether you’ve come to a plant-based diet or a vegan lifestyle for ethical, environmental, or health reasons, there really is no a good reason to disregard fish and seafood in your vegetarian or vegan practice or activism. Let me explain why.
Many of us aren’t as exposed to the impact of fish consumption on the environment as we are with land animals. But for those who already shy away from consuming animal products for environmental reasons, the global fish industry can’t be ignored.
Industrial fishing trawlers destroy everything in their path, including coral reefs and kelp forests, which are vital to ocean health and the sustainability of global fisheries. Bottom trawling involves dragging an enormous weighted net across the ocean floor, catching everything and discarding up to 90% as bycatch. Little wonder that bottom trawlers have been called the bulldozers of the ocean.
Trawling nets can also be dragged above the ocean floor, once again indiscriminately taking far more species than are desired. Long-line fishing, where a long main line (which can span over 30 miles, or 528 football fields) is strung out across the ocean connecting to a series of smaller lines with baited hooks, is also indiscriminate and destructive. Trawling and long-line fishers catch innumerable other species such as dolphins (a species that research suggests is self-aware), sea turtles, sharks, and others as ‘bycatch’ which are then discarded as waste. According to a 2009 study in Marine Policy, 40% of the global fisheries catch is bycatch, which is devastating for underwater ecosystems.
Add this to the acidifying effects of climate change and the pressures on global fisheries to feed a growing population, and scientists have bleak feelings about what the state of our oceans will be in the near future, with one influential study in the well-respected Science magazine suggesting that global fisheries will collapse around 2050.
"Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood," said co-author Dr. Stephen Palumbi. This is being exacerbated by the dropping oxygen levels in our seas, with a drop of about 2% occuring over the past 50 years that will make it more difficult for sealife to survive. Given that marine plant life produce approximately 70% of the oxygen that we breathe, maintaining good ocean health is vital (and yet another reason to steer clear of meat consumption, one of the greatest contributors to climate change). From an environmental standpoint, then, there are urgent reasons to reduce our global seafood consumption.
One of the main reasons fish tend to be left out of vegetarian (and sometimes even vegan) discussions is the prevalent myth that fish feel no pain. The idea that fish can’t feel pain was made popular by Dr. Brian Key, Head of the Brain Growth and Regeneration Lab at the University of Queensland. In his 2016 article in a special issue of Animal Sentience, Key argues that “fish lack the necessary neurocytoarchitecture, microcircuitry, and structural connectivity for the neural processing required for feeling pain.”
This line of thinking has become fairly mainstream, despite how contested these findings are. I’m often confronted by people who say there is no moral argument against killing fish because their brains don’t process pain in the same way as other animals. Of course, ethical vegans reject the consumption of animals because we believe that animals should not be exploited for our enjoyment, not because we’re making some arbitrary judgement of how much pain each animal might feel. But, for the sake of argument, does the idea that fish feel nothing hold much water?
The same special issue in Animal Sentience contained over 35 response articles from other esteemed experts and scholars, and only 3 were in agreement with Dr. Key. Those opposed, including world renowned neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio and fish expert Dr. Culum Brown, argued that there is no evidence that the cause of human feeling is confined to the cerebral cortex, nor that a human-like brain construction is needed to feel pain.
In an article in Animal Cognition, Dr. Brown argues that “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates. A review of the evidence for pain perception strongly suggests that fish experience pain in a manner similar to the rest of the vertebrates. Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.” Once again, for ethical vegans the question of pain is largely irrelevant. But the evidence increasingly shows that fish sentience and pain have been largely overlooked.
Lastly, if you’re making inroads into veganism by eating a more plant-based diet for health reasons, you may want to think twice about keeping fish in the mix. When people think of seafood, the first health concern that comes to mind is often mercury. Nearly all fish and seafood now contain varying levels of mercury, which is why pregnant or nursing women and young children are supposed to steer clear. I always wonder, if something should not be consumed by pregnant women and children, why should anyone eat it?
Women who aren’t now pregnant but may want to have children in the future also need to reduce their consumption of seafood, as it can take up to a year for mercury levels to drop and be safe for a developing fetus. In addition to mercury, you are likely to be ingesting one or more of the following: estrogen from birth control pills, radioactivity from the Fukushima disaster, lead, prescription drugs and antibiotics used to treat humans, and PCBs from all of the plastic in the oceans. The oceans have become the dumping grounds for many of our more toxic waste and substances, and this is ingested by the fish that we ingest. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? Gone are the days when seafood represented a clean source of protein.
Further, there is increasing evidence that plant protein is the healthiest choice for the human body (free of cholesterol, whereas certain shellfish like shrimp contain a high amount, 4x that of beef) and reduces risk of premature death relating to heart and cardiovascular diseases. Check out the documentary Forks Over Knives on Netflix for a more in-depth discussion of the ways in which animal protein and plant protein act in our bodies.
"We simply cannot afford to continue scraping the oceans clean as we’ve been doing."
I understand, fish and marine animals are often the last category of animal that people consider when transitioning to a veg or vegan lifestyle. It is very common for people to start off with pescetarianism, and then move to vegetarianism and veganism. I admit that this is the path I followed, too, and I recommend that people try it if they’re looking for a manageable way to transition. But it is important to actually transition and leave these creatures off the menu once and for all. We simply cannot afford to continue scraping the oceans clean as we’ve been doing.
We rely too heavily on the oceans as a carbon sink, and to produce the oxygen that we need each day. We also need to recognize marine animal sentience as well as the dangers of ingesting an increasing cumulation of toxins and synthetic substances. Do we really want to become like the birds on Midway Island, dying from too much plastic in our bellies? Not I, for one. It’s clear to me that fish and seafood should decidedly be part of any vegetarian or vegan practice.