Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Something's Fishy

So far the question I've been asked the most about my temporary vegetarianism is, "Are you eating fish?" and I thought it was an issue worth addressing in writing.  Why is it, exactly, that fish sometimes doesn't count as "meat?"  And are those reasons valid?

A quick Google search turned up a discussion among angry vegetarians saying that people who eat fish and call themselves vegetarians are "confused wannabes."  And Wikipedia, master of in-depth information on brand-new cultural institutions, reminded me about the word "pescatarian," coined in 1993, assumably to give the "confused wannabes" a pedestal of their own from which to judge.  All this of course begs the question why does everyone care so much?  And the answer to that, no matter who you talk to, seems to come down to at least one of the following issues:  human health, animal health, and environmental health.  Let's see how fish measures up against other animal proteins in each of them.

Human health:

The China Study comes to mind as one of the more commonly-cited writings on the dangers of a diet heavy in animal protein.  The high fat content in red meat, especially, has long been blamed for the rise in obesity and heart disease, and fish tends to get classified as something of a nutritional compromise between plant-based proteins, and animal proteins with higher fat contents. A recent Harvard study finds correlations between red meat and chronic diseases, but seems to indicate that protein from fish is not unhealthy.  Of course, it's hard not to take this opportunity to get back on the corn soap box and point out that what we feed the animals we eat may have more to do with the nutritional content than the type of animal itself.  A grass-fed hamburger will have much less saturated fat than a corn-fed one, whereas a (naturally carnivorous) salmon that's been fed corn- or soy-based feed pellets rather than the smaller marine animals it was meant to feed on will have significantly lower levels of those omega-3 fatty acids that the cool kids are all trying to get their hands on these days.  And all this messing with the animals' natural diets of course leads up to:

Animal Health:

I think for most of us, it's a lot easier to morally justify murdering a fish than, say, a pig.  But maybe I'm just saying that because I was a Charlotte's Web fan as a kid.  We'll see what happens when Finding Nemo's target audience comes of age.  It is true, however, that pigs are more intelligent than fish, and more able to process the physical and emotional distress involved in being turned into food.  It's been my experience that some vegetarians will make the occasional exception of fish at restaurants that lack vegetarian options for this reason.

Animal health is also a question of how the animal was treated before it died, and there's still a pretty decent chance that your tuna was perfectly happy and healthy swimming around in the ocean until the day it met up with a fishing boat.  Almost any land animal that ends up on your plate, however, had a pretty horrific life experience.  And the weird ways our food system has of housing and feeding the animals it processes, of course, has a lot to do with:

Environmental health:

This is probably the trickiest one when it come to fish, and the main reason I chose not to eat them during Lent.  If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know how much I love animal products that come from small, sustainable farms.  With land animals, our three hot-button issues tend to go hand in hand.  In general, the more humanely an animal is cared for, the healthier its meat will be, and the smaller a carbon footprint the farm that raised it will have.

Fish are a little different though.  No one can really seem to agree on the most "sustainable" way to raise fish, or if there even is one. According a recent Time article, "choosing sustainable seafood does relatively little to stop the depopulation of the oceans."


With the various pros and cons of wild fish versus farmed fish, it's hard to say which approach is better.  (And again, the answer to that may depend on the question of better for whom?)  In his book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" Paul Greenberg suggests that we should be focusing on "what" instead of "how."  He posits that we may have to say goodbye to certain types of fish we've come to love and driven close to extinction, and start eating different species that adapt better to farming practices and reproduce more quickly.

So what about you?  Why do you/don't you eat fish?


  1. Eating meat is necessary for life in my opinion, thats why we evolved to need it... the same way other animals eat whatever it is they are supposed to eat. It just sucks that we are screwing up this dietary necessity by diluting the nutrients it gives us, and pumping the meat full of a bunch of crap we don't need. If I was going to be a vegetarian it would be because I couldn't afford local grass fed meat and I think that would be a good reason. For the moment however, Ill continue dumping my money into places like TJs and hope for a super sweet farmers market that sells local meat for decent prices in the area. It could happen.

    I agree there are many problems with what we feed animals on land but the problem with fishing is that we don't try to figure out what is being overfished. If we did that and salmon for example, wasn't available for a season or two (gasp), then it could repopulate until you can fish for salmon again. There are age old anecdotes that have worked through time to prevent extinction of species but we are so removed from what we eat, we don't realize that the processes that bring you whatever you want whenever you want in our grocery stores really don't make any sense because most of them involve chemicals or processes that try to go against nature (i.e. pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc), when nature seems to know what its doing without all of that.

    Back to fishing- I know Icelanders have overfishing laws that seem to work pretty well. As usual, I think greed is the culprit. People can't just not get what they want when they want it in America. Simple laws to allow species to catch up after fishing or farming would make everyone and everything a lot more sustainable.

    1. But...if a certain kind of fish weren't available for a season or two...that would be so inconvenient! I can't live like that! ;)