Delicious vegan seafood products.

Fish and Seafood: Ethical & Environmental Concerns

What’s wrong with eating fish? Consuming fish entails animal cruelty, it’s bad for the ocean, and can harm your health.

Animal Cruelty

Persuasive evidence demonstrates that fish can feel pain and even show fear. Virtually every commercially-caught fish dies from suffocation. Fish caught in deep waters have it even worse. When pulled to the surface, depressurization can cause their organs to burst, or their stomachs to protrude from their mouths.

A fundamental concept of animal rights is “speciesism,” the unwarranted exclusion of certain animals from moral consideration. Typically, humans often give preferential treatment to animals based on their appearance rather than their capacity to suffer. Of all animals, chickens and especially fish are the most consistent victims of 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 they live underwater, we rarely see nor think about them. Cold-blooded scaly animals with strange eyes don’t tend to evoke compassion from people.

And yet the science is clear that fish exhibit thinking skills and 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

In addition to the massive animal suffering they generate, fishing fleets pose grave threats to ocean ecosystems. Massive trawlers systematically and indiscriminately strip the oceans of sea life. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.”

What’s more, fraud and mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry. The industry relies on a web of practices to evade catch limits and circumvent human rights standards. 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. In the shrimp industry, there can be up to 20 pounds of by-catch for each pound of harvested shrimp. If you’ve heard of the term “dolphin-safe tuna” it’s because dolphins commonly suffocate in nets laid by tuna boats.

What About Farmed Fish?

Farmed fish do not offer greater sustainability than wild-caught fish.

Many farmed fish are genetically modified, and fed diets laced with high doses 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. Fish can accumulate high levels of of mercury and carcinogens like PCBs. 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 volume of non-recycled plastic dumped daily, we can only expect seafood contamination risks to grow.

Fish taken from both lakes and oceans also contains 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.”

Tuna and other long-lived carnivorous fish invariably contain high amounts of methylmercury.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

One benefit to eating fish from cold ocean waters is irrefutable: these fish offer excellent sources 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 are full of this fat. You can therefore improve your Omega 3 status on the cheap by incorporating chia seeds 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 will boost your intake to levels that experts recommend. Grinding your chia seeds will significantly increase your body’s absorption of Omega 3s.

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 way reliable source of these two substances. Fortunately, you can purchase vegan supplements, derived from algae, that contain both DHA and EPA. 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.

Vegan Fish Products & Recipes

Phasing fish and shrimp out of your diet is easier today than ever before. A number of vegan products do a fantastic job of capturing the taste and textures of seafood.

Want a cookbook entirely devoted to vegan seafood recipes? Pick up a copy of Everything That Used To Have Fish is Now Vegan. All things considered, now is a great time to rid your diet of seafood. The reasons are more compelling than ever, and the alternatives have never been so plentiful.

For Further Reading: Vegan Food Guide, our Why Go Vegan essay, and How to Go Vegan.

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