Delicious vegan seafood products.

Fish and Seafood: Health, Ethical, & Environmental Concerns

What’s wrong with eating fish? The fishing industry wreaks havoc on the oceans, and most methods of catching fish are enormously cruel. On top of that, seafood is often contaminated with heavy metals and other substances that can harm your health. Let’s now take a deeper dive into all of this.

Fishing and Animal Cruelty

Convincing evidence demonstrates that fish can feel pain and even show fear. Most commercially-caught fish die from suffocation. Fish caught in deep waters suffer worst of all. When pulled to the surface, depressurization can pop out their eyes or burst their internal organs.

A fundamental concept of animal rights is “speciesism,” the unwarranted exclusion of certain animals from moral consideration. Humans commonly give preferential treatment to animals based on their appearance rather than their capacity to suffer. Of all animals, chickens and especially fish suffer the most from speciesist thinking. Throughout its history, the animal protection movement has directed few resources towards advocating for these animals.

People exclude fish from moral consideration for a number of arbitrary reasons. The strongest of these may be that, because fish live underwater, we rarely see nor think about them. Cold-blooded scaly animals with strange eyes don’t tend to evoke compassion from people.

Yet studies make clear that fish possess meaningful cognitive abilities and can even display empathy. What’s more, research into their neurological wiring confirms that fish feel pain. All of this has only come to light comparatively recently. No book systematically investigated this topic until the 2016 publication of Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Feels. A 2017 study published in Nature indicates that fish rely on social interaction and community to deal with stressful occurrences.

Environmental Concerns

Fishing fleets pose grave threats to ocean ecosystems. Massive trawlers systematically and indiscriminately strip the oceans of sea life. According to the World Bank, “Almost 90 percent of global marine fish stocks are now fully exploited or overfished…”

What’s more, the seafood industry commits rampant fraud and deliberate mislabeling. Further, the industry relies on a web of practices to evade catch limits. Consumers who pay a premium for “sustainable” seafood can still end up with fish taken from imperiled fisheries. A large meta-study conducted by Guardian Seascape in 2021, involving more than 9000 seafood purchases from thirty different countries, identified 40 percent of samples as mislabeled.

Everyone who eats fish should know about by-catch. The term refers to the unwanted animals who are netted or hooked, then typically thrown back into the water dead. By-catch is ubiquitous in the fishing industry, and its victims range from turtles to sea-birds to porpoises. The shrimp industry can cause up to 20 pounds of by-catch for each pound of shrimp it nets. If you’ve heard of the term “dolphin-safe tuna” it’s because dolphins commonly suffocate in nets laid by tuna boats. About 4 million dolphins have died in tuna nets since the 1950s.

Fishing and Slavery

The fishing industry has a long history of human trafficking and slave labor, doubtless largely because it operates on ships out of reach of local authorities. Numerous recent exposés have focused on the plight of fishing boat workers, including these from The Guardian, The Conversation, and NPR.

Since governments seem powerless to address the issue, it’s up to you to take matters into your own hands by refusing to buy fish that is potentially caught using slave labor.

What About Farmed Fish?

Farmed fish are likely even less environmentally sustainable than wild-caught fish. That’s in large part because they’re typically fed with ground-up wild-caught fish.

Additionally, many farmed fish are genetically modified, their feed laced with high concentrations of antibiotics. Intensely crowded undersea cages enable opportunistic parasites like sea lice to thoroughly infest many fish farms.

Contamination & Toxicity Risks

Eating fish of any sort creates worrisome health risks. Large carnivorous fish species like tuna and swordfish invariably contain high levels of mercury—a heavy metal detrimental to brain function and fetus development. Any form of mercury is bad news, but the methylated mercury present in seafood is especially toxic. According to the EPA: “Nearly all methylmercury exposures in the United States occur through eating fish and shellfish that contain higher levels of methylmercury.”

As the world’s oceans become increasingly polluted, eating fish becomes fraught with ever-increasing health concerns. A January 2017 article in The Telegraph began:

Seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year with dozens of particles becoming embedded in tissues, scientists have warned, in findings described as ‘sobering’ by the Prince of Wales.

Given the massive volume of plastic dumped daily into our oceansabout eight million metric tons a yearwe can only expect seafood contamination risks to grow.

vegan fish and chips
An order of vegan fish and chips from Dublin’s Pretend restaurant.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Eating fish from cold ocean waters does offer one irrefutable benefit: these fish contain substantial amounts of omega 3s, DHA, and EPA. These fat molecules are all associated with better brain health.

Fortunately, there are rich vegan sources of these fats. Chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are all rich in omega 3s. You can therefore improve your Omega 3 status on the cheap by incorporating any of these foods into your daily diet. Chia seeds are great in cereal, mixed into soy milk, or used as an egg-replacer. Just a couple teaspoons a day can boost your omega 3 intake to levels that experts recommend.

Your body can convert Omega 3 into DHA and EPA, two important brain nutrients. But people vary widely in their ability to create DHA and EPA from Omega 3, so you may want to supplement. Not so long ago, fish products were the only reliable source of DHA and EPA. Fortunately, you can now purchase vegan supplements that are made from algae rather than fish. What’s more, vegan omega 3 supplements are much less likely than fish-derived supplements to contain appreciable amounts of mercury, plastics, and other contaminants. Three popular vegan brands are DEVA, Amala Vegan and Ovega-3.

If you do take a DHA and EPA supplement, you should still consume chia, flax, or walnuts daily. It’s important to get the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) fats these foods contain, and very few other vegan foods contain these fats in significant amounts.

Vegan Fish Products & Recipes

Ridding your diet of seafood is easier than ever before. Take a look at these excellent vegan seafood alternatives:

Want a cookbook entirely devoted to vegan seafood recipes? Pick up a copy of Everything That Used To Have Fish is Now Vegan.

Going Fish-Free

Ridding your diet of seafood makes tremendous sense. The reasons are more compelling than ever, and the alternatives have never been so plentiful.

Your choice of vegan fish alternatives will only improve over the coming years. Down the road, expect a new generation of vegan fish products based on microalgae that will offer compelling nutritional advantages.

For Further Reading: please see our Vegan Food Guide, my Why Go Vegan essay, and my advice on How to Go Vegan.
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