The Trouble with Seafood

Fish populations have never been so imperiled, but vegan alternatives have never been more plentiful. Here's the best vegan stuff.
Last Updated: August 16, 2017

What’s wrong with eating fish? Consuming fish not only entails animal cruelty, but it is also bad for the ocean and potentially detrimental to your health.

Animal Cruelty

There is persuasive evidence 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: as they are pulled to the surface, depressurization can cause their organs to burst, or their stomachs to protrude from their mouths.

One of the foundational concepts in animal rights is “speciesism,” the idea that humans often unjustifiably exclude certain animals from moral consideration. Put simply, if a cute fuzzy animal and a not-cute animal are equally capable of suffering, it’s an example of speciesism to only come to the cute animal’s aid. Of all the animals that are commonly eaten, 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.

There are any number of reasons why people tend to ignore the capacity of fish to suffer starting with the fact that, because they live underwater, they’re generally unseen by us as they live out their lives. That they are also cold blooded, have weird eyes, and are covered with scales doesn’t help arouse our compassion either.

And yet the science is clear that fish are highly evolved vertebrates that can demonstrate thinking skills and empathy, and that they are neurologically wired to feel pain. All of this has only come to light comparatively recently, and the first book to tackle this subject head-on was not published until 2016 (Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows.) 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 it generates, fishing is a global environmental menace that threatens our oceans. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.” The world’s fishing fleets are systematically stripping the oceans of sea life, thus quickly offsetting a delicate balance and destroying ecosystems that have existed since prehistoric times.

What’s more, fraud and mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry. The industry has a web of practices in place to systematically evade efforts to enforce catch limits and human rights standards. Consumers who go out of their way to buy “sustainable” seafood may well be purchasing fish from imperiled fisheries. One UCLA study found that 47% of sushi purchased in Los Angeles was mislabeled.

Farmed fish do not offer greater sustainability than wild-caught fish. Many farmed fish are genetically modified, and are fed diets laced with high doses of antibiotics. As a result of their crowded undersea cages, fish farms are often rife opportunistic parasites like sea lice.

Everyone who eats fish should know about bycatch, the term to describe the unwanted animals who are netted or hooked, then typically thrown back into the water dead. Bycatch is ubiquitous in the fishing industry, and its victims range from turtles to sea-birds to porpoises. If you’ve heard of the term “dolphin-safe tuna” it’s because dolphins were frequently suffocating in nets laid by shrimp boats. In the shrimp industry, there can be up to 20 pounds of bycatch for each pound of harvested shrimp.

Contamination & Health Risks

Eating fish of any sort is accompanied by 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.

So, all in all, fish is a disaster in terms of both animal cruelty and the environment, and there are additional concerns surrounding human health. That said, there is one positive aspect to eating fish from cold ocean waters that’s irrefutable: these fish offer one of the few excellent sources of omega 3s, DHA, and EPA. There’s good evidence that these substances are associated with better brain health. Fortunately, Omega 3 is very easy to get: 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. If you can grind your chia seeds before consuming, this will significantly increase your body’s ability to absorb their Omega 3s.

Some of the Omega 3  you consume will be converted by your body 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, since these products are lower on the food chain than fish or fish-derived Omega 3 supplements, they’re less likely 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

If you’re ready to start phasing fish and shrimp out of your diet, it has never been so easy. A number of vegan products do a fantastic job of capturing the taste and textures of seafood.

There is even a cookbook devoted to vegan seafood recipes: Everything That Used To Have Fish is Now Vegan. All things considered, now is a great time to cut seafood from your diet. The reasons have never been so compelling, and the alternatives have never been so plentiful.