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"But you eat fish, don't you?"

ABOUT FISH

For some reason, fish is the last item to leave the menu of many would-be vegetarians. It appears to be the least objectionable item among the flesh foods. Let's look at the reasons why this is so and then examine the case against fish and the case for vegetarianism.

Fish appears to be not so bad, or even good, from a health standpoint. Most of the well-publicized evils of meat come from its high-fat content; and fish is low in fat. Moreover, populations with a high-fish diet also have a decreased rate of heart disease. Recently, we have found that fish oil actually appears to have beneficial effects on heart disease.

Fish, secondly, does not seem to be that bad from an environmental point of view either. Fishing does not cause soil erosion; it does not encourage groundwater depletion; no forests were cut down to allow fish to graze. So, what is wrong, from an environmental point of view, with eating fish?

It does not even seem to be such a bad food from an ethical point of view either. Isn't the main ethical problem with animal products in general, that they involve putting animals in stifling conditions on "factory farms," where animals are mutilated, crowded, and kept in confined conditions for their entire lives? Fish, by contrast, live out their entire lives in complete freedom, being killed only at the end.

Let's take a look at these arguments, one by one.

Nutritional Hazards of Fish

The argument that fish is a low-fat food is correct but misses the point of the vegetarian objections to meat on nutritional grounds. There is more wrong with meat than just fat. Excessive protein, and lack of fiber, are equally great problems. Fish is low in fat, and that's good; but it is excessively high in protein, and has zero fiber--and that's bad.

It's worth reviewing some of the evidence about high-protein diets. First of all, high-protein diets are overwhelmingly linked to osteoporosis and loss of calcium from the bones. Not only does calcium excretion increase as protein consumption increases, thus resulting in negative calcium balance; calcium excretion also increases as the kind of protein shifts from vegetable to animal protein. Eskimos, for example, take in 2500 milligrams of calcium each day in the form of fish bones, and suffer from rampant osteoporosis--worse than Americans suffer from. This is a consequence of their fish-centered high-protein diet.

Secondly, high-protein diets are strongly associated with kidney disease. They can do damage to the kidneys and reduce the ability of the kidneys to function by perhaps half over a lifetime of abuse. There is also a direct correlation between animal protein consumption and kidney stones.

Thirdly, high-protein diets are well correlated to several forms of cancer. High-protein diets are a leading dietary variable connected with the lymphomas, with kidney cancer, and even with colon cancer. Experimental evidence suggests that protein promotes cancerous growths of all kinds.

Fish contains no fiber and thus eating it compounds all the various problems--from constipation to colon cancer--connected with lack of fiber. Finally, fish is high in cholesterol. In fact, in terms of calories consumed, fish has about twice the amount of cholesterol than does pork or beef. Some seafoods, such as crab, shrimp, and lobster, contain even more cholesterol. Studies in which persons switched from a beef / egg diet to a diet high in chicken and fish have repeatedly shown that there is no drop in serum cholesterol levels.

The blood-thinning properties of fish oil (which are shared with aspirin, incidentally) have been widely trumpeted as a possible "magic bullet" against heart disease. But thinning the blood has other unpleasant properties. Eskimos, for example, who eat lots and lots of fish, are known to suffer from fatal nosebleeds; and they also have an increased risk of dying from strokes. Fish oil is high in cholesterol and fat and appears to promote gallbladder disease.

And this does not even touch the problems of eating contaminated fish from polluted waters. So much for the health benefits of fish.

Fishing and the Environment

What about the environmental effects of fishing? It is true that fish do not consume the resources which most livestock agriculture does. However, the argument that fishing is environmentally friendly is on a par with the argument that hunting is environmentally friendly. In both cases, humans hunt naturally occurring species without growing crops to feed them. Ecologically speaking, this argument may be correct, but has an extremely limited application.

Hunting was in fact the predominant form of meat production until about 10,000 years ago. At that time, hunting was replaced by agriculture because there were too few animals available to be hunted to sustain even the limited population of the day (some have estimated the total human population may have been 3 million at this time). Even with this limited population, hunting had resulted in the decimation of numerous species. So pervasive were the effects of this hunting that numerous species became extinct; not only species which were directly hunted, but many other species indirectly related to the hunted species as well. Even in prehistory, humans had a devastating and negative impact on the environment (albeit over tens of thousands of years) due to hunting.

The same thing can be said of fishing today. The fishing habits of the world could not sustain the world's population at more than a small fraction of the per capita meat consumption of the U. S. and other developed countries. Yet even this limited yield is having a serious negative impact on the environment of the sea. The total fish catch has been declining for years now due to overfishing, making fishing an increasingly expensive and environmentally damaging hobby.

Moreover, there is one resource we need which fishing does consume, and that is fossil fuel energy. Commercial fishing is very energy intensive; it may require as much as 20 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy from fish. This is a ratio which makes fish 50 to 100 times as energy-intensive as production of plant foods, even when those plant foods are produced under standard Western agricultural methods. At best, then, fish is merely less damaging than other forms of meat production. The truth is that fishing on any large scale just won't work. Fishing must either remain a very small and statistically insignificant form of food, or become environmentally damaging and draining in important ways when it is expanded to include any significant portion of the population.

The Ethics of Killing Fish

Finally, we come to the ethical arguments about fish. Killing fish is all right, we suppose, because the fish live natural lives before they die; and besides, fish eat other fish. I think that if we put these arguments in their proper perspective they would appear considerably different. Because fish are not kept on factory farms, and fish are carnivorous, then it is all right to kill fish? People are not kept on factory farms either, and people eat other animals. So is it all right to kill people, and then eat them?

Actually, fish are being kept on "fish farms" in increasing numbers today, raising significant ethical and environmental issues. But even if all fish were caught in the wild, what difference would it make?

Because an animal suffers less in one form of food production does not mean that it is all right to inflict suffering on that animal in order to eat that animal as food. We are vegetarians (those of us who are ethical vegetarians, anyway) because we think that the torture and slaughter of animals is wrong. So if someone says that a little torture and slaughter is O. K., then where do we put them? Or what if someone says that torture is wrong, but not slaughter?

No. Suffering is suffering. If it is wrong to inflict suffering, and especially if there is a simple, easy, painless way to avoid inflicting suffering, then we ought not to inflict suffering. Stopping the killing of animals for food is a principled and easy way to avoid the infliction of suffering.

Nor does the carnivorousness of most fish matter. The fact that suffering exists in the world does not give us an excuse or license to go out and create more suffering. No: we should instead stop inflicting suffering, and thereby decrease the amount of evil in the world by that small portion for which we are responsible.

Incidentally, the suffering which fish endure in being caught is considerably greater than the suffering which they would endure by being eaten by a bigger fish (which is probably minimal). While fish may stop flopping around fairly quickly after being caught and hauled on board a shipping vessel, they can and do survive for an hour, or often several hours, before dying of suffocation. Imagine having your head held under water as you struggle for air. Now imagine that this continues until you finally, in desperation, gulp down water in your lungs, and pass out from asphyxiation. Now, finally, imagine that the period of time in which you are struggling for air lasts for an hour, or several hours.

"Sport" fishing also involves the cruelty of hooking the fish in its mouth. As the fish struggles for its life, the hook tears into the flesh in the mouth. The mouth is a very sensitive area in most fish, so this causes intense pain.

Does this qualify as "torture and slaughter" of an animal? I think it does. I do not think that this is an activity which compassionate people engage in when they have a simple and clear path to avoid such torturing and slaughtering. I further submit that we can easily avoid participating in such barbaric activities by the simple expedient of not spending our money on purchases of animals tortured and slaughtered in this way, and by refusing to participate in the eating of animals killed in this fashion. And if you object to killing of animals for food at all, vegetarianism is the logical solution.

To summarize: fish is not a healthy food because it is high in protein, and high-protein foods have hazards just as real as high-fat foods. Fish is not an environmentally sound food, but rather an historical dead end which must have serious destructive effects if practiced on a large scale, just as hunting is likewise an historical dead end. Finally, killing fish for food is just as barbaric as killing any other animal for food. Indeed, in some ways the death of fish is even more horrifying, and certainly takes longer, than the slaughter of chickens or cows. Murder is murder, death is death, evil is evil. If we want to oppose evil the least we can do is to stop participating in it. This is the first step, and the greatest step, in our emergence from the barbarism of prehistory.

--Keith Akers

 

 

 
Up ] But How Do You Get Enough Protein? ] Factory Farming ] The Most Important Thing You Can Do for the Environment ] Chicken is not a Vegetable ] Spiritual Traditions and  Vegetarianism ] [ But You Eat Fish, Don't You? ]