By Richard Schwartz
Jewish vegetarians argue that Jews should eliminate, or at least sharply reduce, their consumption of animal products because the realities of animal-based diets and agriculture are sharply inconsistent with basic Jewish mandates to take care of our health, treat animals with compassion, preserve the environment, conserve resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace.
However, many people who abstain from eating mammals and birds continue to eat fish, sometimes arguing that problems associated with the production and consumption of other animal products do not apply to fish. After all, they reason, fish are not raised under extremely cruel, confined conditions on factory farms; unlike the raising of livestock, fishing does not cause the erosion and depletion of soil, require the destruction of forests to create pastureland and land to grow feed crops, and require huge amounts of pesticides and irrigation water; also, fish is generally lower in fat than other animal products, and is often erroneously considered a healthy food.
Let us consider vegetarian arguments as they apply to the "production" and consumption of fish:
1. Compassion for animals
Too often, we tend to class fish with plants rather than with animals. Yet, unlike edible plants, fish are vertebrate animals with highly developed nervous systems. Dr. Donald Bloom, professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University, reminds us that "the scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically, and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals." Fishing is not painless for fish by any means. When fish are hauled up from the deep, the sudden change in pressure on their bodies causes painful decompression which often leads their gills to collapse and their eyes to pop out. As soon as fish are removed from the water, they begin to suffocate. Hooked fish struggle because of physical pain and fear. As Dr. Tom Hopkins, professor of marine science at the University of Alabama describes it, getting hooked on a line is "like dentistry without novocain, drilling into exposed areas."
Fish that are "farmed," as opposed to caught, do not have an easier existence. Most trout, catfish, and many other species eaten in the United States are raised in modern "fish factories," where they are subject to the same intensive, crowded conditions as land farm animals. Modern aquaculture trends involve large-scale, highly mechanized fish production, much like the chicken industry. Like crowded broiler chickens, fish are crammed in enormous pools called "raceways," where they are pushed to gain weight far faster than is natural. Experiments aim to find the greatest number of fish that can be raised per cubic foot of water in order to maximize profits. Under these very crowded, unnatural conditions, fish suffer from stress, infections, parasites, oxygen depletion, and gas bubble disease, akin to "the bends" in human beings. To prevent the spread of diseases among the fish, large amounts of antibiotics are used.
It's also worthwhile to point out that fish are not the only animals to suffer because of people's appetite for their flesh. Egrets, hawks, and other birds who eat fish are often shot or poisoned to prevent them from eating fish at large open pools where fish are raised. In one documented case, a California company with a U. S. Fish and Wildlife permit to shoot 50 birds annually in the late 1980s was estimated to kill 10,000 to 15,000 birds, including many species not listed on the permit. Also many non-target animals, including sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds, and other fish, die horribly in commercial fishing nets.
Fish is often considered a healthy food. However, while fish is generally lower in fat than other animal products, it has no fiber and virtually no complex carbohydrates or vitamin C, contains excessive amounts of protein and none none of the protective phytochemicals and antioxidants found only in foods of plant origin. The average American consumes far more protein than required, and much less fiber than is necessary. The overconsumption of protein, in particular, has been linked to several health problems, including kidney stones and osteoporosis, while the lack of fiber may contribute to several diseases related to the digestive process, such as diverticulosis and colon cancer. Also, not all fish are low in fat; salmon, for example, has 52 percent of its calories as fat.
Fish does possess the heart-protective omega-3 fatty acid, EPA (eicosopentaenoic acic), but EPA is made by both fish and humans from the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and that in turn is made in the chloroplasts of green plants (e.g. algae, spinach). ALA can be obtained from many plant foods, including green leafy vegetables, flaxseed, canola, soybean, and walnut oils, tofu, pumpkin, and wheat germ and these plant foods generally come without the nutritional hazards of fish.
The greatest health hazard from eating fish, however, comes from the depradations we humans have caused in their natural environment. Fish and shellfish are repositories for the industrial and municipal wastes and agricultural chemicals flushed into the world's waters. Consider PCBs, a synthetic liquid once widely used for industrial purposes. Recognized as carcinogenic in the late 1970's, their production was barred in the UNited States, though their use in this country in the United States and worldwide continues.
A six-month investigation by Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports magazine), concluded: "By far the biggest source of PCBs in the human diet is fish.... As PCBs linger in the environment, their composition changes, and they gradually become more toxic...these more toxic forms are likely to be found in fish.... PCBs accumulate in body tissue. The PCBs that you eat today will be with you decades into the future." Consumers Union found PCBs in 43 percent of the salmon, 25 percent of the swordfish, and 50 percent of the lake whitefish they checked.
Other pollutants that concentrate in sea creatures include pesticides; toxic metals including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic; dioxins; and radioactive substances such as strontium 90. Because of biological magnification during movement up the food chain, these pollutants can reach levels as much as 9 million times that of the water in which the fish live, and they have been linked to many health problems, including impaired behavioral development in young children. Nursing infants consume half of their mother's load of PCBs, dioxin, DDT, and other deadly toxins.
Consumers Union's tests also showed that nearly half the fish tested from markets in New York City, Chicago, and Santa Cruz, CA, were contaminated by bacteria from human or animal feces. In addition, fish often are loaded with disease-causing worms and parasites. Many of the diseases fish harbor can only be treated in humans with antibiotics. However, because of the way fish are raised - in crowded conditions on "aquatic" farms - fish factories give these same antibiotics to the fish to preserve their "crop." increasing numbers of bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs, making the treatment of some diseases more difficult in humans.
3. Environmental Impacts
If we aren't worried about the impact eating fish will have on our own health, we should be concerned about the impact fishing has on the earth's health. Modern commercial fishing use vast "factory" trawlers the size of football fields, with huge nets sometimes miles long that swallow up everything in their path. The result is that thirteen of the world's seventeen major fisheries are depleted or in serious decline, and the other four are considered "over exploited" or "fully exploited."
The World Conservation Union lists over 1,000 fish worldwide as endangered or threatened. Over 100 Pacific salmon communities are already extinct and dozens more are seriously depleted. Researchers have found the biodiversity of the oceans rivals that of the tropical rain forests, but today we are effectively "clear cutting" these precious underwater environments with our appetite for fish. Some waters that were once teeming with life are now so barren they have been compared to a "dust bowl."
Depleted fisheries have ripple effects throughout the entire marine ecosystem. Major predator-prey situations have been changed. For example, a decline in pollock in western Alaska has caused a 90 percent decline in Steller sea lions which caused the National Marine Fisheries Service to give them the designation of "threatened" in 1990 and "endangered" in 1997. Loss of sea lions deprived killer whales of their primary source of nutrition and they have shifted to eating sea otters. As a result, sea otters have also declined by 90 percent since 1990, resulting in a surge by their prey, sea urchins. The ecological principle that "everything is connected to everything else" is dramatically illustrated here.
The environmental impact of aquatic farming is also cause for concern. First, wild stocks are displaced as introduced fish invade spawning grounds and compete for food. Interbreeding pollutes the genetic pool. A study of forty extinct fish species by the National Fisheries Research Centre in the U. S. indicated that species introduced at aquatic farms helped wipe out 68 percent of the indigenous species.
Second, fish farming depletes natural resources. Modern commercial fishing is extremely energy intensive. It requires as much as twenty calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy from fish. Production of fish food is fifty to one hundred times as energy intensive as production of plant food, even when the plant foods are produced with modern technology.
Moreover, where fish are grown in artificial ponds, vast amounts of water are required as the medium of growth, to replenish oxygen, and to remove wastes from the aquatic system. Raising a ton of fish on an aquatic farm requires 8 tons of water, almost the 8.5 tons of water needed to raise a ton of grain-fed beef. At a time of increasing droughts and demands for water to meet many essential needs, this is very significant. This great need for water has caused further environmental destruction too, as aquaculture is routinely conducted on coastal land cleared of mangrove forests, the prime breeding and spawning ground for many fish. To date, about half the world's mangrove forests have been cleared, drained, or filled to make room for fish farms.
4. Seeking and Pursuing Peace
The Jewish sages, commenting on the fact that the Hebrew words for bread and war come from the same root, stated that shortages of grain and other resources makes war more likely. The truth of their words is illustrated by the increasing battles over increasingly scarce fish in many areas. A United Nations official describes the situation on the high seas as "the emerging anarchy in the oceans." With so many vessels scouring increasingly fished-out waters, squabbles and confrontations are expanding. Russians have attacked Japanese vessels in the Northwest Pacific. Scottish fishers have attacked a Russian trawler. A Falkland Islands' patrol chased a Taiwanese squid boat more than 4,000 miles. Norwegian patrols cut the nets of three Icelandic ships in the Arctic, and exchanged shots. The UN reported a 10 percent escalation in piracy and armed robberies directed toward ships, many of them fishing vessels.
In summary, the "production" and consumption of fish is harmful to human health, causes great suffering to the fish, threatens the ocean's biodiversity, wastes resources, and makes national conflicts more likely. Hence, an end to, or at least a sharp decline in, the consumption of fish and other animal products is a societal imperative and arguably a Jewish imperative.