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ethics

Vegetarians Who Eat Fish Are Actually Onto Something

I've never understood why certain vegetarians think it's OK to eat fish until I realized that fish brains look like beans, and lack the developed neocortex that makes them incapable of pain.

Lloyd Ellman

The tide is rising and the runty victim of my first fishing trip in ten years is staring up at me as I steel myself to crack it between the eyes with a claw hammer.

The US Humane Society's thrilling "Welfare of Farmed Fish at Slaughter" says that "percussive stunning"—a.k.a. hitting it in the head—"can induce immediate and irreversible insensibility" and result in "less pain, stress, and undue suffering." It's easier said than done: A surfperch is slippery and alarmingly alive when you get it up close.

I'm out besmirching Malibu's pristine sands to decide if pescetarianism—a vegetarian diet supplemented only by fish—has more to it than guilt-free sushi. We've all met the vegetarian who casually mentions that he or she eats fish. Logic aside, it's a fairly common mindset with arguments based on ethics, environmentalism, and health.

For those arguing their pro-fish stance from an ethics standpoint, it tends to start with biology. Fish brains are structurally different from our own. They look like beans and lack the developed neocortex that causes mammals (ourselves included) to feel pain. Nociceptors, sensory neurons that react to bodily damage, are rare or completely absent in fish, especially top-level predators like sharks. Although fish brains react to injury and harm in familiar ways, the experience is different from our anthropocentric idea of "pain."

We've all met the vegetarian who casually mentions that he or she eats fish. Logic aside, it's a fairly common mindset with arguments based on ethics, environmentalism, and health.

When researchers at Norway's University of Tromsø shocked Atlantic cod, they found that the stimuli were "aversive to fish on the basis of the general organization of the fish nervous system." The cod reacted with "tail flicks" and "rubbing"—behaviors we might associate with pain—but resumed normal behavior shortly after.

Suffering, related to but different from pain, depends on a degree of self-awareness that fish likely don't have. To oversimplify, a fish would have to think, Well, this sucks for me to experience suffering and the evidence just isn't there. Instead, think of a fish as computers that react to a constant stream of stimuli in specific ways.

Essentially, fish are "other." Not animals exactly, not self-conscious, and incapable of pain. It's an argument with historical roots: Both Judaism and Catholicism regulate fish separately from "meat." (It's cream cheese and lox, not cream cheese and roast beef.) By classifying them separately from animals, pescetarians argue that killing a fish is more ethical than killing, say, a chicken.

Fish is damn good for you: In 2008, an article in the British Medical Journal declared "a Mediterranean diet is associated with a significant improvement in health status." Traditionally, diets don't get this sort of ringing endorsement from the medical establishment, but researchers determined that eating like Zorba the Greek reduced mortality, cancer, and degenerative brain disease by nearly ten percent.

Two hundred years ago in Sardinia, this diet was a product of necessity. Now it's a path towards losing weight and postponing death. Janis Jibrin, author of The Pescetarian Plan, writes, "Eat fish and you'll protect your heart…stay smarter and happier and—no joke—have a better sex life." Supposedly, the diet can help sufferers of erectile dysfunction.

"Americans are in the throes of twin epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The main cause of these diseases, as well as colon cancer and other types of cancer, is an unhealthy diet…Pescetarianism not only goes a long way to preventing these diseases, but even reverses them," she says.

Essentially, fish are "other." Not animals exactly, not self-conscious, and incapable of pain.

Traditionally, fishing was an alternative to the institutional abuses of modernized agriculture. Our country's assembly line, profit-maximizing meat industry is an impressive tragedy for animals, workers, and consumers. Constant trimming for efficiency has birthed the highly profitable, deeply unsavory system we know and love.

It's also a nightmare for our environment.

Satellite photos of cow feedlots look like oceans of shit, because they are. Waste management is an inconvenient afterthought for owners; pools of feces leach into surrounding ecosystems and fart clouds of climate-destroying methane gas go untreated.

But nature's "last wild food" has problems of its own. Overfishing, responsible for catastrophic depletion of entire wild populations, is a public non-issue. The endangered—and delicious—bluefin tuna could reasonably go extinct within our lifetimes, but it's still a $220 million industry. (Tip: go to the fanciest sushi bar you can find and ask for Bluefin Ōtoro, then imagine eating a white rhino.)

Forward-thinking fish eaters realize that aquaculture is the way of the future. Today, 50 percent of the world's fish is raised on farms. Some are gargantuan pens in open water, some are plastic tubs in Iowa barns, some are tightly integrated and sustainable ecosystems. Aquaculture is a fledgling, imperfect industry, but farmed fish are better at converting feed to meat than any other animal and will be the protein source of earth's future.

So, on the beach with a hammer in one hand and a dead fish in the other, I'm conflicted: Fish are alive, but not the way we are. They are different from other animals, but not so different. They solve problems with our food system and create others.

But we humans, Americans specifically, are fatter than ever and need relief from our dogshit diets and chronic illness. Fish can help.