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Fish Are Not Swimming Vegetables

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Fish Are Not
Swimming Vegetables

by Dawn Carr
art/Eric Spitler

A few months ago, I was passing by the meat market in Chinatown when I was struck by an odd sight. Hanging from large hooks in a shop window were blobs of orange flesh. I went up to the shop to investigate and stared in horror for a moment as it hit me: these were cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish are highly intelligent and social animals of astonishing beauty. Cuttlefish are not fish at all, but cephalopods, closely related to squids and octopuses. They are the "quick-change artist" of the sea, able to change color and pattern with lightning speed and precision as a means of both communication and camouflage. Divers have found cuttlefish to be inquisitive and clever animals.

Apparently, these kaleidoscopic mollusks turn a sickly flat orange when dead. As I stood outside the shop, I thought about these sensitive animals with their pattern changes and eyesight that far surpasses our own. I imagined the great groups of cuttlefish coming together to mate and their graceful spawning dance. These exquisite and mysterious animals were here transformed into hunks of lifeless flesh.

I was struck by all the people walking quickly by, not noticing the dead cuttlefish. I thought how profoundly sad it was that these people might never know about the captivating former lives of the elegant animals who hung there, but might instead know them as just another piece of flesh at the end of their fork.

The greatest diversity of animals live in the seas. The majority of animals killed for human consumption come from our oceans.

Most of what we hear about sea "food" we get straight from the industry itself--not exactly a reliable source. Occasionally, a behind-the-scenes glimpse will slip through. We'll hear a little about the dangers of "overfishing" and the need for "conservation of resources," warnings of mercury and dioxin contamination, and calls for bycatch reduction. (Bycatch is the industry name for the non-target fish and other animals that are caught by commercial fishers. Generally these unwanted animals are tossed back overboard, dead or dying.) This news is generally followed immediately by words of reassurance and denial from the seafood PR machine.

But these little glimpses behind the scenes leave the biggest part of the story untold: Fishing fleets and factory trawlers are violently snatching animals from the sea. While it is true that seafood consumption is dangerous for our health and that commercial fishing is devastating to the environment and to the other animals that get caught up in fishing gear, the fact is that it is the fish who pay the highest price. We have all heard about dolphin-safe tuna, but what about the tuna themselves? From the lobster thrashing in the boiling pot, to the pollock tumbling endlessly in a trawler's net, billions of sea animals suffer needlessly every year.

In fact, just today, more than 45 million sea animals will be killed at the hands of U.S. fishing fleets and fish farmers. Most of these animals will die slow and painful deaths.

And they do feel pain, of course. Fish, like all animals, have a biological necessity to feel pain. A fish may not seem as appealing a character to some as a sea turtle or a dolphin, but they still feel the pain of the hook and the anguish as they suffocate to death.

Humans are not accustomed to thinking of fish as individuals but rather as a "resource" to be "harvested." Even the word "seafood" is an indication of how we have stripped these magnificent animals of all identity and value beyond their usefulness to us. But the fact remains that the dead lump of flesh in the seafood case was once a fascinating and beautiful animal who suffered a traumatic death.

Fish may seem very different from the land-based animals who are familiar to us. But theirs is a world of extraordinary diversity, beauty and wonder. While fish may not always express themselves in ways that we can easily recognize, those who have come to know these animals have experienced their individuality firsthand.

Sylvia Earle, one of the leading marine biologists and ocean explorers of our time, has spent thousands of hours diving and knows a thing or two about the denizens of the deep. "A fish is not a fish is not a fish," says Earle. "They are all different as individuals. Some are more shy, some are more aggressive, some are more curious. Some kinds of fish, like groupers, have a particular kind of personality that makes it very tough to eat fish once you've gotten to know them on a one-to-one basis. I certainly don't eat anyone I know personally anymore."

Fishing Methods

The commercial fishing industry has come up with a variety of gruesome methods to extract sea animals from their homes.

Trawlers drag enormous nets through the water, scooping up everyone and everything in their path. For hours, netted fish, turtles, rocks, and trash are tumbled together. By the time they are hauled aboard, many of the animals in the nets are scraped raw and bleeding.

The nets are hauled in and the fish are dumped in heaps on deck; most suffocate or are crushed to death by the fish that follow. Others are stabbed with a pitchfork and tossed into piles like hay. Later their throats and bellies are slit open, many of them still fully conscious.

Gill nets hang like gigantic curtains in the ocean, trapping all animals that swim into them. Fish get caught by their gills and fins and can suffer for days. Some struggle so desperately, with the netting cutting into their delicate gills, that they bleed to death. Lost gill nets continue to kill animals indefinitely, a wall of destruction drifting through the waters.

And then there's long-lining, one of the most gruesome ways that fish are taken from the sea. Long-lining is used for catching larger fish like tuna and swordfish and involves lines that can be miles long rigged with thousands of baited hooks pulled behind the ships. Tuna, among the ocean's fastest swimmers, are large, powerful animals who suffer horrors before they are chopped up for sushi or tuna casserole. In long-line fishing, the tuna often swallow the bait and are thus hooked by their guts or throats, so that in their desperate struggle to escape, they are tearing up their own insides. Hooked fish can suffer this agony and terror for many hours before the ship draws in the lines.

When selecting a can of tuna in the grocery store, this is not what consumers see--they see a cartoon tuna fish whose dearest wish is to be hooked in the throat, gutted, and crammed into a can for their dining pleasure.


Aquaculture (or factory farming of fish) accounts for approximately 20 percent of the fish consumed worldwide. Almost half of the salmon and 65 percent of the freshwater fish consumed today spend their lives on fish farms.

In an effort to squeeze as much profit out of the farms as possible, just as for animals kept on land-based factory farms, fish are confined to tanks or ponds in crowded, unnatural conditions. With that comes infection and parasites, so fish farmers use antibiotics to decrease infection.

There are two basic types of aquafarms: inland fish farms and coastal pens. In both cases, the fish suffer from the stresses associated with overcrowding and captivity, including oxygen depletion, damage to their delicate fins and snouts, outbreaks of disease and boredom. Confinement causes fish extreme frustration as it prevents them from engaging in their natural behavior.

At a farm I visited in Illinois, tilapia were kept in shallow glass raceways lined up in a shed. When I walked in, I was immediately struck by the intense odor. The water that the fish were living in was so contaminated with waste that the animals could not even be seen unless their backs poked out of the water as they were pushed around by all the other fish competing for space. The smell from the water was so strong that I could barely stand to be in the building. But the fish were living in that water, eating in that water. These miserable animals were crammed together, unable to see through the thick water and choking in their own waste. Tilapia are generally raised for human consumption.

However, about one-third of all fish caught worldwide are just turned into fishmeal and fed to animals raised for food. Some of them are fed back to other farmed fish!

While fish farmers like to tout aquaculture as an alternative to depleting wild fish populations, many of the fish species that they farm, like salmon and shrimp, and are fed both farmed and wild-caught fish. According to a Worldwatch Institute article ("Blue Revolution: The Promises and Pitfalls of Fish Farming," April 1998), it takes 5 pounds of ocean fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish.

Aquafarms release waste, pesticides, and other chemicals directly into fragile coastal waters destroying local ecosystems. According to an article in the journal Science ("Fish, Money, and Science in Puget Sound," Science, 9 February 1990), a 2-acre salmon farm produces as much waste as a town of 10,000 people.


Other animals pay dearly for our seafood habit as well. Billions of non-target animals such as sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds, seals, and fish die horrible deaths in commercial fishing nets every year. Marine mammals and turtles that become entangled in nets are often trapped underwater and drowned. According to the United Nations, nearly 25 percent of all marine life caught annually--30 million tons--is thrown back into the ocean dead or dying.

The shrimp industry is one of the worst offenders. Not only is shrimping devastating to the shrimp (who endure an agonizing death by suffocation or crushing), it has also been estimated that for every pound of shrimp killed, more than 20 pounds of other sea animals perish (Carl Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish," Scientific American, November 1995).

Health Risks

Eating fish is not only unnecessary for us, it is dangerous for our health. Like the flesh of other animals, fish flesh contains excessive amounts of protein, fat, and cholesterol and has no complex carbohydrates or fiber. Fish flesh can accumulate extremely high levels of toxins--PCB's, mercury, and arsenic--which can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage to impaired mental development and cancer in those who eat it. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, seafood is the biggest cause of food poisoning in the U.S.

How different would our treatment of these animals be if we simply stopped viewing them as a resource to be harvested and began regarding them as individuals who make up vast and varied communities, as they truly are?

It can be all too easy to shield ourselves from the anguish that animals endure, as most of it occurs out of sight. We can deny that there is a problem while we pick bones from our teeth, but the truth remains: Every time we lift a fork to our mouths, we have a choice to make. A single plate of shrimp or a flounder filet represents the needless suffering of animals. Consumers may not have to untangle dying octopuses from nets or club salmon to death themselves, but when they opt to eat sea animals, they pay someone else to do their dirty work. By choosing a vegetarian diet, we take personal responsibility for the reduction of suffering in the world. We can reject the destruction caused by aquafarms and fishing fleets and avoid the danger of illness from contamination by simply choosing plant-based foods and encouraging others to do the same. A vegetarian diet allows the animals of the sea to live their lives free from our hooks, nets and harpoons and allows us the satisfaction of knowing that we have made a difference.

"Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore."
-- Franz Kafka, to a fish

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