Fish are often the last animals whom aspiring vegetarians eliminate from their diets. I know several people who describe themselves as vegetarians and vegans but who still eat salmon once or twice a week, as if salmon were some kind of aquatic broccoli. Some fish-eaters are convinced that fish is a health food, despite the many studies that have shown fish to be routinely contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals. But there’s a more fundamental reason why people treat fish like another kind of vegetable: Fish are really different from us. They don’t have facial expressions that we can recognize.Thanks to the lungs vs. gills issue, most of us haven’t spent much time interacting with individual fish. Fish are cold-blooded, with scales instead of soft feathers or fur. Fish can’t scream when they’re hurt.
For some, it seems that thinking of an animal as stupid makes it easier to justify that animal’s death for their dining enjoyment. But every year, we learn more about fish intelligence. A long-standing fallacy states that fish have a memory span of only three seconds. This myth was decisively debunked on the television show MythBusters when a goldfish was trained to negotiate an underwater obstacle course and successfully completed the course unaided more than a month later. Another goldfish named Comet learned how to fetch like a dog. Some species of fish even use tools, like the fish who use leaves to transport eggs to a safer location.
OK, so fish are smart, but some might still justify eating them by assuming that they don’t feel pain in the same way that we do. But the scientific consensus is that fish have nervous systems and brains that perceive pain in similar ways to mammals and birds.
Given that fish do feel pain, how humane are our methods of capture and slaughter? A recent study on wild-caught fish lays out some facts: Fish caught in trawling nets are often crushed to death by other fish, and some species suffer excruciating decompression injuries when the net is hauled up from deep water—their eyes or guts may literally pop out of their bodies. Trawling nets may be towed for hours, subjecting fish to extended suffering. Fish caught on long lines may struggle in panic for hours or days before the lines are hauled in, and larger fish are impaled with sharp gaffs so that they can be hauled over the side of the ship. Many fishing methods result in numerous deaths of nontarget fish species as well as sharks, sea turtles, birds, and mammals—all euphemistically referred to as “bycatch.”
Once the fish are hauled aboard, no law requires that they be slaughtered humanely. Some will die of suffocation, some will be disemboweled while still conscious, and some will die very slowly on a bed of crushed ice. Fish may be conscious and in severe distress for more than an hour before they succumb.
Fish experience pain and stress during their capture and death—possibly far exceeding that of many cows and pigs in slaughterhouses. And, as the saying goes, there are lots of fish in the sea. A recent analysis estimates that Americans consume 12 billion fish every year, which is more than the combined total number of chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs we eat. That’s a lot of suffering. Fish aren’t cuddly, and they don’t have good PR like dolphins do, but no animal deserves this kind of agony.
Fish suffer and die in silence, far from public view. If you have compassion for animals and you eat fish, ask yourself this: Is it right to support the suffering of fish with your dollars?