I think it’s true to say that most vegetarians and vegans find it easier to give up meat than fish. It’s not hard to see why. Given a terrible choice, even the most sensitive could probably more easily kill a fish than a mammal. They are more alien to us than cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. And, perhaps more significantly, they are silent creatures, who cannot articulate pain and suffering. But they do feel pain – that’s now well established. Official recognition of this fact comes from the government’s own advisory group, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), which has recommended that, due to the overwhelming evidence that they do feel pain, farmed fish should be granted similar legal protection to other farmed animals at the time of slaughter. There are currently few regulations governing the killing of farmed fish, only the loosely worded generalisation that they should be ‘spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering’.
There is also mounting certainty that crustaceans experience a much richer emotional life than was previously recognised. A researcher in France announced last year that crayfish (small, lobster-like animals) can experience anxiety following a stressful situation, whilst other scientists around the world have reported that crabs and shrimp show signs of distress after painful stimuli. This research adds further weight to the call from Animal Aid and other organisations for crustaceans to be added to the Animal Welfare Act, which currently only covers vertebrates.
Another reason why fish might be more of a temptation is that they have a reputation for being a health food. This is particularly true of oily fish, who are seen as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish has also been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
But it’s worth pointing out that a vegan diet is even more emphatically linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. And neither is there any problem with a lack of omega-3 in a plant-based diet – though a bit more care is necessary. The main sources of plant-based omega-3 are not obvious foods for everybody to include in their diet. As noted before, they are walnuts, linseed (flax), rapeseed, hempseed and dark green leafy vegetables. Soya milk and tofu are further sources. And there are always supplements if you are worried. One obvious move is to use rapeseed oil rather than sunflower for cooking.
There are also, of course, health risks associated with fish. They may contain mercury, which can affect the developing nervous systems of infants. Freshwater and farmed fish may have high levels of chemicals due to polluted waters, particularly dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The former occur as a result of polluted waters and the latter because farmed fish are fed chemicals to prevent the diseases caused by overcrowding.
Approximately one billion people worldwide rely upon fish as a main source of protein, and it is a valuable food for many of the world’s poorer communities. But in all, fish provide roughly only 1% of global food supply and 5% of protein. And there is little prospect of increasing this because there are simply not enough available fish to do so. In fact, overfishing has become a real problem, with fish availability threatened in many of the world’s oceans.
If you enjoy the taste of fish, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a growing array of convincing vegan substitutes available. This includes the VBites ‘Making Waves’ range, which features fish-free fingers, fishless cakes and vegan ‘tuna’ pate, and is available from many health food shops.
To find out more about the impacts of fishing on animals, the environment and your health, you can read Animal Aid’s report Dark Waters.