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What’s Wrong with Eating Fish?

Animal rights and environmental reasons not to eat fish



Sardines at a fish market

David Silverman / Getty Images

The reasons for not eating fish range from animal rights concerns to the effects of overfishing on the environment.

Fish Do Feel Pain

Some may question whether a fish is capable of feeling pain. If watching a fish struggle at the end of a fish hook is not enough evidence, numerous studies have shown that they do feel pain. [Note: This is not an endorsement of animal experimentation, but the ethical objections to vivisection do not mean that the experiments are scientifically invalid.] For example, a study by the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh revealed that fish reacted to exposure to noxious substances in ways that are comparable to “higher mammals.” The reactions of the fish to these substances, “do not appear to be reflex responses.” A study conducted at Purdue University showed that fish not only feel pain but will remember the experience and react with fear afterwards.

In the Purdue study, one group of fish was injected with morphine while the other was injected with a saline solution. Both groups were then subjected to uncomfortably warm water. The group injected with morphine, a painkiller, acted normally after the water temperature returned to normal, while the other group “acted with defensive behaviors, indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety.”

The Purdue study demonstrates that not only do fish experience pain, but their nervous system is similar enough to ours that the same painkiller works in both fish and humans.

Other studies show that crabs and shrimp also feel pain.


Another objection to eating fish is partially environmental and partially selfish: overfishing. While the array of fish available in the supermarket may lull some into believing that overfishing is not a serious problem, commercial fisheries around the world have been collapsing. In a 2006 study published by an international team of 14 scientists, data indicates that the world’s supply of seafood will run out by 2048. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that “over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.” Also,

In the last decade, in the north Atlantic region, commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock and flounder have fallen by as much as 95%, prompting calls for urgent measures.

The drastic reduction in certain species could have dire consequences for entire ecosystems. In the Chesapeake Bay, the mass removal of oysters appears to have caused significant changes in the Bay:

As the oysters declined, the water became more cloudy, and sea grass beds, which are dependent on light, died off and were replaced by phytoplankton that does not support the same range of species.

However, fish farming is not the answer, either from an animal rights standpoint or an environmental one. Fish raised on a farm are no less deserving of rights than those living wild in the ocean. Also, fish farming causes many of the same environmental problems as factory farms on land.

Whether the concern is about the decimation of a food supply for future generations, or about the domino effects on the entire marine ecosystem, overfishing is another reason not to eat fish.

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