Several years ago, one of my colleagues took a scuba diving trip in the British West Indies that changed her life. – By Jason Haker
DURING her trip, Ann Marie met a friendly little fish – named Alexander by the local dive guide – who waved his fins to say hello and swam with the divers as they explored the water. At times, Alexander was so close to Ann Marie that she could have kissed him. When the divers ventured out of Alexander’s territory, he waited patiently for them until they returned.
Alexander made a lasting impression on Ann Marie – and on her diet. She stopped eating fish and other sea animals.
Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to get so up close and personal with a fish. If we did, I think a lot more of us would leave these animals off our plates.
Studies have shown that fish are smart animals who form complex social relationships and “talk” to one another underwater. Fish can count and tell time, they are fast learners, they think ahead and they have unique personalities.
Fish also feel pain, as all animals do, and they suffer horribly on the journey from sea to supermarket. In her book Do Fish Feel Pain?, biologist Victoria Braithwaite says that “there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals”.
When a former PETA US staffer went out on a commercial Norwegian gill-netter, she witnessed fish vomiting up their guts on the boat’s deck, their eyes bulging from the change in pressure. Fish were violently ripped out of the tangled netting. Their gill arches were slit, and they were tossed into a bin, where they twitched and gasped, slowly bleeding to death.
At fish slaughterhouses and markets, fish are suffocated, skinned and cut in half – all while they’re conscious and able to feel pain. Workers use knives to cut off fins and shave off scales and pliers to peel away strips of skin from conscious, struggling animals. Dozens of fish are crammed together in buckets, struggling for oxygen. Skinned fish writhe on the cutting table.
Indiscriminate fishing practices hurt other animals, too. In long-lining, one of the most common fishing methods, ships unreel up to 120 kilometres of line bristling with hundreds of thousands of baited hooks. Some hooked animals struggle for hours until the boat reels them in. Other fishers use kilometre-long nets that stretch across the ocean, capturing every animal in their path. Scientists say that nearly 1,000 marine mammals – including dolphins, whales and porpoises – die every day after being caught by “mistake” in fishing nets. Another study found that commercial fishing trawlers kill thousands of sea birds – including endangered albatrosses – every year in one fishery alone (in the Benguela Current, off South Africa).
Eating fish can endanger our health as well. Many types of fish are surprisingly high in saturated fat. Fifty-five per cent of the calories in salmon come from fat. For swordfish, that figure is 30 per cent. In both cases, about 25 per cent of the fat is saturated.
An article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argues that the purported benefits of fish have been overstated. One study involving men with angina found an increased risk of cardiac death among those who consumed fish oil. A Harvard study found that consuming fish and fish oil raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Fish flesh is also frequently contaminated with mercury, DDT, PCBs and dioxin – toxins that have been linked to medical conditions such as cancer and nervous system disorders. If you want to boost your heart health, safer sources of cardio-friendly omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, flaxseed oil, spinach and soybeans as well as vegetarian supplements made from microalgae – which is where fish get omega-3s in the first place.
Be kind to fish – and to yourself – by leaving fish off your fork. Alexander and his finned friends would surely thank you if they could.