The Complicated Ethics of Eating Fish

The ethics of eating fish are lost on most consumers because they rarely stop to think about what—or who—they are eating.

ethics of eating fish

Explainer Diet Health

The ethics of eating fish are lost on most consumers because they rarely stop to think about what—or who—they are eating. Pescetarian diets are romanticized and seen as essential to our health. And fish are referred to as objects and not individuals. So, why don’t vegans eat fish? And more importantly, can eating fish be ethical? 

Can Eating Fish Be Ethical?

The ethics of eating fish are measured by two main components: sentience and justice. Sentience, or the capacity to feel pain and suffering, is the standard moral argument that ethical vegans present as their reason for not eating meat or fish. By their logic, killing or rearing any animal for meat and other purposes is contributing to a life of suffering and is therefore immoral.

Recent studies have shown that fish feel pain and, more specifically, that the absence of cortex is not enough to deny the overwhelming factual support for fish sentience. Research has also found that fish have nerves that relay the experience of pain and have a similar capacity for emotions as any other vertebrate. Apart from that, many species of fish have demonstrated excellent memories, and they also form close friendships and community bonds. 

Larger questions of justice are also brought up when discussing the ethics of eating fish. The problem is that, as it stands, humans lump millions of species into one “not human” category. Their nonhuman classification then justifies anything that happens to them because they are animals, not humans. 

This process of “othering” appears in many different contexts. For example, during colonialism in India, the British viewed themselves as civilized humans and Indians as primitive savages, thus justifying whatever happens to them. In modern-day America, white people have been historically considered superior, and their social status is still used as a benchmark for how we view humanness.

The same binary exists between fish and other animals. Their consumption is justified by humans because we see ourselves as superior. However, there is no basis for humans’ moral superiority, and so it is being revisited. 

Why Is Eating Fish Bad?

Eating fish is bad because of the suffering it causes billions of fish every year. Fishes are sentient and intelligent beings, integral to the earth’s ecosystem. Our current fish consumption patterns are not sustainable, and research has predicted that there will be no fish left to catch by 2048. The interaction of flora and fauna keeps our oceans thriving. With much of the fish going extinct, the ecological balance will change, resulting in depletion of available oxygen and other potential climate impacts. 

Most of the fish available for human consumption is the product of fish farming, also known as aquaculture, a practice by which fishes are systematically bred for consumption. A number of studies have shown what is wrong with fish farming: it harms the soil, pollutes the oceans with the antibiotics and other chemicals required, breeds fishes in filthy settings, and is also not good for our health

Fishes are also caught from the ocean through longline fisheries, purse seining, and trawling. Each of these practices catches non-target species of fish alongside the fish they are trying to catch. This is called bycatch and it causes large-scale death of marine life and ecosystem imbalance, with many predatory fishes like sharks caught in fishing nets. 

Why Don’t Vegans Eat Fish?

Veganism, by definition, seeks to exclude the consumption of any sentient animals or any foods derived from animals. This includes fish. A vegan diet traditionally relies on plant-based products, including grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. 

Ethical vegans believe that eating fish is unjust, harmful to animals, humans, and the planet. They also recognize the individuality of fishes and understand that being human does not justify complete control over the life of another being who thinks and feels as we do. Their philosophy is very wide and not only addresses the ethics of eating fish but goes on to prescribe total liberation for animals, the planet, and human beings. Many ethical vegans are also part of the consistent anti-oppression movement and, for that reason among others, empathize with the struggles of billions of fishes around the world.

Other Reasons to Stop Eating Fish

Apart from ethical reasons, there are many other reasons why you should stop eating fish.

Environmental Impact

Fish farming has a significant impact on the environment. With profits as their goal, industrial fisheries make use of intensive agricultural practices that put a large number of fishes in very small areas. Farmed fish are fed antibiotics and pesticides. Chemical waste settles down on the ocean floor, along with the fishes’ excrement, causing significant damage to the marine systems and sea beds.

Many farmed fishes are also carnivorous fishes, which means that it takes at least five smaller fishes to produce one fish for human consumption. This causes even more pressure on our marine ecosystem and does not give it time to regenerate.

Many fishes bred for consumption also escape into the ocean and breed with wild fish populations. Their weak genetic composition results in offspring who die off quickly, threatening the wild population’s existence. That is why fish farming in any form is not sustainable. Its success always comes at the expense of local marine ecosystems.

Health Considerations

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the health ramifications of eating fish. The presence of mercury in fish continues to be a concern. It is nearly impossible to avoid the consumption of mercury when eating fish, and pregnant women are advised to not eat fish to protect their babies from mercury contamination.

Also, contrary to popular belief, fish can actually be a harmful source of omegas fatty acids. This is because most popularly consumed fish contain a small amount of Omega-3 and a dangerous amount of Omega-6, which can cause cardiovascular diseases, among other conditions. 

The presence of harmful chemicals in fish like dioxins, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE), and dibutyltin can cause thyroid cancer, weaken our immune system and cause a host of other reproductive and developmental problems.

Animal Welfare

Fishes are some of the most exploited animals on earth. The global fishing industry, which is responsible for the deaths of billions of fish every year, is largely unregulated, in part because fishes are not commonly seen as beings who think, feel, and suffer.

On fish farms, these beautiful beings who can otherwise swim for miles are confined in unnaturally small spaces, causing them a lot of stress. Disease outbreaks and infections with parasites are common. During slaughter, many fishes are still alive, conscious, and aware of what is happening to them. In some places, fishes are even eaten alive

In fish slaughterhouses, many fishes bleed out for several minutes and even hours before they die. The usual method of stunning, like freezing them in ice, is rarely effective and generally adds to the stress. Undercover investigations have shown some of the more extreme acts of cruelty towards fishes, like cutting up and beheading fishes while they are still alive. What’s worse is that many commercial-grade fishes are never even consumed. About 2 billion pounds of fish are discarded every year in the U.S. alone. 

What Will Happen If Humans Stop Eating Fish?

If humans stop eating fish, the welfare of farmed fish, wild fish, and marine animals would improve in many ways. Firstly, marine ecosystems long-exploited by the fishing industry would have the chance to regenerate. Secondly, fish farms would be phased out, making way for more accessible plant-based alternatives. Much of the environmental destruction caused by the fishing industry would stop, and the world would no doubt be a more just place.

Ending fish consumption would also give wild species a chance to recover. It would be a step towards addressing income inequality, as the majority of the global fish supply is owned by mega-corporations who refuse to pay their workers a fair wage. The transition away from industrial fishing would also divert billions of dollars to planet-affirming actions, like sustainable plant-based farming and alternative seafood. 

New Beginnings

Reconsidering the ethics of eating fish, at this point, is necessary. Start by adopting a plant-based diet and educating people about the ethics of eating fish. Learn more about what fish farming is doing to the environment and consider cutting fish out of your diet for good.

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