by Mary Finelli, President and Founder of Fish Feel
Earth is home to more than 30,000 known species of fish, which is more than all the other species of vertebrate animals combined. Fish are inquisitive, personable, and truly fascinating. Did you know that they are fast learners with long-term memories and a keen sense of time? They can recognize other individuals, keep track of complex social relationships, and work cooperatively with other species.
Sadly, fish are among the most misrepresented and misperceived animals. For example, the absurd notion that fish have “a three-second memory” is debunked by the fact that migrating fishes, such as salmon, remember their way home years later and from thousands of miles away. Others also learn and remember skills. A goldfish named Albert Einstein is even noted for it in the Guinness Book of World Records! (See the Fish are Fintastic! fact sheet for more fun facts.)
Also contrary to popular myth, fish can suffer fear and pain, as has been scientifically shown. The nervous systems of fish are similar enough to those of birds and mammals to indicate that they can experience pain. Fish behave in ways that signify pain when they are subjected to stimuli that would cause physical pain to other animals. They learn to avoid unpleasant encounters, like electric shocks, and painkillers reduce symptoms of pain that they would otherwise display. (See the Fish Sentience fact sheet for acknowledgement of fish sentience by the scientific community.)
The Ignored Victims
Tragically, far more fish are exploited than any other category of animals, and they are subjected to some of the worst abuses. Yet, fish have the least legal protection and receive the least concern for their well-being, even from the animal protection community.
Fish are commonly turned to as an alternative to other meat, and fish oil is an extremely popular dietary supplement. Last year, global fish consumption hit a record high of 37 pounds per person per year. On average, people eat four times as much fish as they did in 1950.
It has been calculated that between one to three trillion fishes are commercially caught for food each year. Forty percent of the catch are animals who were not being targeted (“bycatch”), including whales, dolphins, and turtles. Industrial fishing practices are also wiping out critical habitat.
It has also been calculated that 37 billion to 120 billion farmed fish are killed globally for food each year. Aquaculture is aquatic factory farming, subjecting fish to intense crowding, foul conditions, parasites, and disease. Heavy reliance on antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals, along with fish wastes and residual feed, causes major water pollution.
For U.S. consumers, some 60 billion fish are killed each year (not including bycatch and noncommercial fishing). About half of the fish consumed as human food in the U.S. are farmed. While, on average, each person consumes one aquacultured fish a year, some 224 wild-caught fish are used as feed for them. So, according to Harish Sethu of Counting Animals, a vegetarian spares over 225 fish each year.
According to the organization, Fish Count: “Most wild-caught fish are likely to die from being crushed in nets or from suffocation, freezing or live dissection after landing. This process will probably take many minutes, or even hours. Most of the world’s farmed fish are also killed by slow and inhumane methods.” An undercover investigation of a U.S. fish slaughterplant found:
- Fish crammed into buckets, gasping for oxygen;
- Fish flailing to escape workers’ knives;
- Workers using pliers to pull the skin off of live fish;
- Skinned fish still moving and gasping on the cutting table;
- Live fish sliced and split in half;
- Workers tearing the heads off of live fish (see Skinned Alive: Cruel Catfish Slaughter Exposed)
Animal-based seafood is also problematic in that mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other toxins accumulate in animal tissues, which then are ingested by consumers. Fish oil can also contain these hazardous contaminants, and is prone to rancidity. The nutritional benefits of fish and fish oil, including omega-3 fatty acids, can instead be safely obtained from plant sources. Good sources of omega-3s include ground flaxseed, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soy products, hemp products, and walnuts. Supplements made of algae — the same substance from which fish obtain omega 3s — are also available. The great news is that many marvelous vegan seafood recipes and products are available. (See the recipe in this issue of VSDC News as well as the Vegan Seafood Resources.)
[Editorial note: Although the term “fish” is used throughout this article, the term “fishes” is increasingly being used to connote that fish are individuals. The term “fishes” is also commonly used to refer to a plurality of fish species.]