“If we were to one day encounter a form of life more powerful and intelligent than our own, and it regarded us as we regard fish, what would be our argument against being eaten?” ― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
I remember, around age 10, my stepfather taking me fishing in a small coastal town in Tasmania. I remember feeling somewhat squeamish watching him pierce a worm onto the hook, but remained passive. Within a few minutes of casting, the tension in my line tightened and to my horror I had caught a flat head. He unhooked it, though it in a bucket and stabbed it in the head. I watched the creature wither around in the bucket for many more minutes. Overcome with what I now understand to be empathy and guilt, I stormed off to sulk in the car.
Around age 13, I spent the pocket money I had saved, on buying a fish tank. I went to the pet shop and bought all the accessories I needed to give my goldfish a happy home. The sound of the running water and watching fish swimming and interacting with their environment, was soothing to me. I was quite anxious around this age and would spend many hours before bed, watching my pet fish. When one of them died, I was unable to look at their dead body and had to ask my little sister to get it out and put it outside.
I have a vague memory, or maybe it was a dream, but for reasons I can’t remember, we had a goldfish that we could not keep. I remember telling my father, “Why don’t we just flush it down the toilet?” My father shot me a look as if he could not conceive of his eldest daughter was capable of such a callous thought and stammered, “That’s inhumane.”
A few years ago, I witnessed a viral video of two boys who had caught a fish, laugh as they raped it in the mouth. This footage and the “likes” it attracted was so heinous and traumatising to me, I called a telephone crisis service for support – too embarrassed to be seen by friends and family as caring for the integrity of non-human victim of sexual assault.
And in the first six months of seeing Patrick, we celebrated Salmon Saturdays.
Our regard for fish and other sea creatures, if it is possible, is even more disturbing than our regard for farm animals. Indeed, within the mainstream, one can call oneself an animal loving vegetarian and be asked if that includes fish. Peter singer writes;
Indifference to the suffering of fish is widespread even in societies where most people are concerned about animals. Otherwise, how could people who would be horrified at the idea of a slowly suffocating a dog, enjoy spending a Sunday afternoon sitting on a riverbank dangling a barbed hook in the water, hoping that a fish will bite and get the barb hooked in its mouth – whereupon they will haul the fish out of the water, remove the hook, and allow it to flap around in a box beside them, slowly suffocating to death? Is it because a fish is cold and slimy rather than cold and furry? Or that it cannot bark or scream?
The Age Old Question: Do Fish Feel Pain?
There is a common belief that because fish have primitive central nerves systems, they do not feel pain, or even think. Indeed, in 2002 in Reviews in Fisheries Science journal, Professor James Rose (University of Wyoming) reported fish cannot feel pain as an awareness of pain requires activity in a very specific regions of the cerebral hemispheres, regions that fish do not possess. These findings received worldwide coverage. However, recently there has been an influx of research disproving such theories.
- A study in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society, Dr Lynee Sneedon and co (University of Edinburgh) reported findings of quite the opposite. They injected bee venom and acetic acid into the lips of captive rainbow trout and found that they rubbed their lips onto the gravel at the bottom on the tank and performed a rocking motion that is common in mammals who appear to be in pain. A control group was injected with saline solution, did not display these abnormal behaviours. Then when the experimental group of fish were given morphine, they resumed feeding, as one might expect them to do if they had been in pain and the drug had relieved the pain. They concluded, “The structure of the fish brain is varied and rather different from ours, yet it functions in a very similar way.”
- The same researches also disproved the theory that fish have three second memories when they trained Australian freshwater rainbowfish to find a hole in a net and observed they had learnt after five attempts (the fish were able to find the hole reliably following five attempts). They also observed that fish are capable of learning from other fish, cooperating to catch food and knowing their relative social order or “pecking order”.
- A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that fish who are exposed to painful heat later show signs of fear and wariness, indicating that fish both experience pain and can remember it.
- Culum Brown of Macquarie University, who reviewed nearly 200 research papers on fish’s cognitive abilities and sensory perceptions, believes that the stress that fish experience when they’re pulled from the water into an environment in which they cannot breathe may even exceed that of a human drowning. He says,
“Unlike drowning in humans, where we die in about 4–5 minutes because we can’t extract any oxygen from water, fish can go on for much longer. It’s a prolonged slow death most of the time.”
Aquiculture and Wild Fishing
One could be excused for exempting fish from a vegetarian diet on the premise of not supporting factory farming practices – until you realise fish are not exempt from factory farming. Fish farming, or aquiculture, has driven down the price of fish and created just as much, if not more, environmental degradation that factory farming with land animals. Around a third of fish and other seafood consumed globally is farmed. To give an idea of the magnitude of the tens of thousands of fish involved in this highly intensive production, it is estimated that the weight of farmed fish produced exceeds that of the global production of beef. Fish such as salmon are farmed in cages or nets in such close proximity it has been likened to putting each 30 inch salmon in a bath pub of water (standard bath pubs are 60 inches long, 32 inches wide).
Wild fish live much better quality of life which means their meat is valued much higher than their farmed counterparts, but their slaughter is just as inhumane. “Long lines” off the back of fishing boats hook the likes of swordfish and yellowfin tuna, weighing hundreds of pounds, they struggle for hours trying to escape before they are hauled into the boat and struck with pickaxes. Gill nets, are left drifting into the sea, the top attached to floats, the bottom weighted down. Fish swim in and are caught into the net, they may struggle so violently they injure themselves and bleed to death. Others swim in and unable to swim out they remain trapped for days. When the boat returns and hauls the gill net in, fish often suffocate on the deck of the boat. Finally, ocean trawlers drag along the bottom of the sea. Fish captured in these nets are dragged around for hours, pushed against the wall of the net as shown in the picture above. Their scales may be ground off in this process and if they survive this ordeal, those that live in deep waters may die of decompression, their swimbladders ruptured, their stomachs forced out of their mouths and their eyes bulging out of their sockets. They may be cut up alive on factory ships.
“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery” – Charles Darwin
References and Resources
Most of the information within this post was extracted from: The Ethics of what we Eat – Peter Singer and Jim Mason
Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer
To read about the environmental detriment of eating fish and other seafood: https://wordpress.com/post/thoughtfulveganblog.wordpress.com/1057