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What About Fish?

Several weeks ago, a client mentioned as an aside that she had recently become a vegetarian because of the role animal agriculture plays in global warming. Almost immediately afterward, she added that she still eats (and serves) fish. Others I know who consider themselves vegetarian also eat fish on occasion.

Why do people view fish as second-class animals? Perhaps it’s because they are so different from us. They lack skin and hair; they inhabit an environment that, for its hospitability to humans, might as well be Mars; and they move without legs or wheels or skis. Yet fish are, in many ways, like us. They care for their young. They can recognize that they are seeing themselves in a mirror. They feel pain.

Even some people who wish to avoid supporting the egg and dairy industries consider fish an acceptable alternative. As one of my sisters put it several decades ago, it’s better to get protein from consuming a fish who has lived a natural life until being caught than it is to get protein from eggs laid by hens who are squeezed so tightly among their cousins that none of the birds can lift their wings, or from dairy products stolen from cows through machinery clamped onto their tender, swollen udders.

As ethical vegans know, however, that is a false equation. There’s plenty of protein to be had from peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, edamame, and soy products. Moreover, it’s less and less likely that the flesh of a fish purchased at a restaurant or supermarket came from a happy animal swimming blissfully through a watery paradise.

About half of the fish sold in the United States came from an overcrowded factory farm where fish are corralled into areas carved out of oceans and other waterways. And, just like on chicken and dairy farms, where animals are standing in, slogging through, and falling down into their own and other’s fecal waste, the fish are coursing through foul, heavily polluted water with no escape. They are plagued by lice.

My sister’s comment about preferring to get her protein from an animal who had lived freely until just before her death also did not take into account how closely intertwined commercial fishing is with the meat industry. More than a third of the fish taken from the oceans—mostly smaller fish, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and menhaden–is ground up and fed to pigs, chickens, and “farmed” fish, not humans. Although ratios vary by species, more pounds of fish flesh go into these animals than is produced when the animal is slaughtered for human consumption. By one estimate, the conversion rate is 3 to 5 pounds of ground-up fish for a single pound of fish flesh on someone’s plate.

People who think of fish as an environmentally friendly alternative to other kinds of meat have another think coming. Commercial fishing operations are responsible for dumping almost half the plastic that now contaminates the ocean. The endless miles of plastic netting spread through the water—enough to circle the earth 80 times—captures an astounding 300,000 whales and dolphins a year, according to Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd Global in the 2018 documentary Let Us Be Heroes—The True Cost of Our Food Choices (available to watch free on YouTube). Like the many marine mammals who lack food because of underregulated commercial fishing operations, every fish who is captured and hauled up from his home and left to suffocate on a ship’s blood-slimed deck—as many as a trillion beings a year—is, like you and me, an individual who wants to live another day.

What About Fish?

Christine Jackson, LICSW

Christine Jackson has been a therapist for fifteen years and maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. She has been an animal advocate for over four decades.

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APA Reference
Jackson, C. (2020). What About Fish?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Jan 2020
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