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In Defense of Fish Consumption

In Defense of Fish Consumption

Jacky Hayward | Chef's Blade

Of all the meat-restrictive diets there are, pescatarianism is the one I understand most. Last week, I encouraged you to eat meat, but I do understand why some people don’t eat land creatures such as chicken and cows. Not eating fish, on the other hand, makes a lot less sense to me.

Nutritionally, fish is one of the richest foods in Omega-3 fatty acids, which promote a healthy heart and are reported to reduce the risk of cancer in addition to other health benefits; sustainably, there are many fish that can be consumed without harming the environment; and ethically, fish do not have the developed conscience that certain land creatures, such as pigs, do.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, has recently launched a campaign to stop people from eating fish. Their campaign attempts to re-brand fish as “sea kittens,” because kittens are cute and no one would want to eat a kitten. As we over-fish our fish and our fish farms become less and less sanitary places, a movement to stop eating fish has begun, and this is one such example. But hold up, PETA! There’s a problem with your campaign: Kittens don’t like water.

Jokes aside, PETA’s goal to educate fish consumers about the harm their consumption is doing to our underwater friends is well-placed. Mark Bittman, in a recent New York Times article, spoke out against how we consume fish. Bittman, always an avid eater of fish has noticed, as has every person who reads the labels on their fish, that the fish we eat more often than not these days come from farms. Global consumption of fish has doubled since 1973 – 90% of this growth stemming from developing countries. We’ve also begun to over-fish the wild populations and had to find a solution to meet the fish consumption demand – fish farms.

This movement to aquaculture, sometimes called the blue revolution, while it superficially stops us from fishing wild fish, has us feeding fish with edible food that could be used to feed people; very often, farmed fish are fed smaller foraged, wild fish. What is particularly frustrating about this is that most fish don’t convert a high percentage of the food they consume into edible flesh. It takes three kilograms of foraged fish to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon, while it take 20 kilograms of foraged fish to produce one kilogram of farmed tuna.

There is, however, some “good” aquaculture. China, which accounts for around 70% of the world’s aquaculture, focuses on herbivorous fish, which consume water plants. This practice, which is often small-scale, is not only sustainable but environmentally sound. Industrial aquaculture, on the other hand, is very different. Most fish farms use fish meal, which is made from wild-caught smaller fish, to feed the larger fish; one-third of the world’s wild caught fish is reduced to fish meal in addition to a quarter of the wild-caught fish being thrown back, dead, as “bycatch.” Considering the inefficiencies of farm-raised fish in converting feed mass into human-consumable food mass, using wild-caught fish to raise farmed fish is terribly inefficient. In addition, farm-raised fish pollute waters via their fecal waste and degrade the land near to where they are farmed.

Still, the point is not to stop eating fish all together – sorry, PETA, I like fish too much and I get grumpy without ‘em. We do need to change the fish we eat and the ways we raise fish. Long-term, through preservation practices, we can help wild fish populations grow to their original sizes. This means new laws reducing bycatch and regulations on how much fishermen can catch in a certain fishery, a limit which would be a scientifically-determined percentage of the harvest. For consumers, this means consuming smaller, more bottom-of-the-food-chain fish, like sardines and anchovies, more frequently, while only consuming more top-of-the-food-chain fish, like wild-caught cod and salmon, once a month. Put another way, we’ll be eating tastier wild-caught fish while also preserving our ability to eat this fish.

PETA’s efforts to convince me to stop eating fish by dubbing them “sea kittens” have failed, but their heart is in the right place. I’ll make sure to only eat wild-caught fish and up my consumption of sardines and anchovies.