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“But you can eat fish, right?” Lots of vegans and vegetarians have been asked this well-meant question and it reveals an important truth: when it comes to speciesism, the more a creature looks and acts like a human, the easier it is for most humans to appreciate it.
Small creatures that live in the water somehow seem less important than big creatures that live on the land, like us.
So fish get a particularly hard time – not breathing like us or moving like us, they are harder for us to relate to.
I’ve noticed this in myself over the years. As a kid, I raged about slaughterhouses, fly-posted about vivisection and spoke out against fox-hunting. My visceral horror was stirred up by thoughts of cows in abattoirs and cats in labs, and foxes in pieces. I’m sure I cared about fish and sea mammals, but I don’t remember feeling it the same way.
I do remember finding other people’s hypocrisy odd though. School friends were proud when the tuna in their sandwiches was ‘dolphin-friendly’ – meaning it was caught using methods that didn’t also kill dolphins. That’s great, I’d say, but what about the tunas?
One guy wore a ‘Save the Whale’ badge but ate fish and chips every Friday night. The double-standard seemed so glaring to me. Another friend who adored his pet dogs nevertheless bragged about ‘catching’ – ie killing – fish at the weekend.
I couldn’t get my head round it. I’d never heard of speciesism at the time. I just assumed I was a weirdo. Being a vegan in 2019 – especially with access to the internet – is a walk in the park compared to those days, trust me.
Even now I notice some fishy double-standards. There are people who campaign against fish abuse at SeaWorld yet eat fish fingers from intensive farms. These dreadful places kill fish in far worse conditions than SeaWorld.
Then there are the people who say we must stop using so much plastic because it hurts the fish…even though they chomp on the flesh of these fish.
A voice for the fish
Looking back, I do remember one time I spoke up for the water creatures. I was 12, and my aunt had taken me to a marine park. After a worker had proudly got dolphins to perform a whole series of tricks, he asked if anyone had any questions. I raised my hand and tore him, his work and the whole marine park to pieces. I still remember my aunt’s face.
Vegan advocacy as a whole is very focused on land animals: we concentrate on the animals killed for their meat, their milk, their eggs or their fur. Rarely the fishes. I’m as guilty as anyone because I’ve written dozens of articles about animal abuse for The Guardianand other papers, yet only one about fish.
A recent investigation by Compassion In World Farming revealed horrific fish suffering
The suffering of fish
Their experiences are horrific. Fish that get caught in trawl nets are often crushed to death under the weight of other fish. Their eyes balloon out. If they survive that, they are either left to slowly suffocate or they are disemboweled with a gutting knife while still conscious.
Fish from factory farms are usually cut across the gills and left to bleed to death, electrocuted in a water bath, or smashed over the head with a blunt instrument.
Fishermen say the fish don’t feel pain but this has been disproved. Professor Donald Broom, a scientific advisor to the government, said: “The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”
Experts have found that lobsters may actually feel more pain than humans would. They say that lobsters, who can live up to 100 years in the wild, are ‘quite amazingly smart animals’. Yet restaurant diners often think nothing of picking one from a tank and asking for him to be boiled alive.
Fish aren’t stupid
The idea fish are stupid is stupid in itself. Researchers have shown that, contrary to legend, goldfish have longer ‘sustained attention’ spans than humans. Some fish woo potential partners by singing to them or creating art. Scuba divers tell beautiful stories of individual fish they have made friends with.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, a leading marine biologist, said: “They’re so good-natured, so curious. You know, fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they’re wounded.”
These are the creatures we kill on an unimaginable scale. The fishing industry measures the losses in tonnes rather than individual lives. The global wild fish catch stands at about 90 million tonnes, with a further 42 million tonnes coming from fish farms. Trillions of lives.
We might not mourn the cods and haddocks in the same way we do the cows, sheep, and pigs. We may feel it differently. But we can each speak out in our own way.
That’s why my New Year’s Resolution is to put fish in the spotlight. It’s time to do more than wear a Sea Shepherd hoody – though, like so, so many vegans, I’ve got one of those.
After Franz Kafka went vegetarian, he saw some fish and thought: “Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don’t eat you anymore.”
This is beautiful. Every vegan can relate. But wouldn’t that peace be all the more blissful if, as well as not eating them, we lent them our voice too?