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No More Fish by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 99 (Winter 2003/4)

Many who give up red meat feel a need to eat some fish at least for a while, but fishes are animals not vegetables. The Vegetarian Society has made a great effort to educate caterers in particular on this point by insisting that fish do not grow on trees nor sprout out of the ground. They stress that fish are real animals and they have found the name 'pesky vores' for those who still eat fish.

The subject of fish has become important these days on two points. One is that nutritionists have seized on the importance in the diet of fatty acids, mainly omega 3, for a healthy heart and they are advising that one should eat oily fish about twice a week. The other topical issue is that fish stocks are dwindling to the point that the EU is insisting on imposing restrictions on fishing. It is no longer possible to say "there are plenty of fish in the sea". On the contrary some species such as cod are facing extinction if fishing on the present scale is continued. Fishermen are having to accept quotas being imposed and no-take zones imposed to allow cod to replenish.

Fishermen view this with horror as an end to their livelihood, but fishing is no longer the simple occupation that it was 100 years ago. The number of fishing boats has declined but their size and technical efficiency has increased. Incredibly, trawler nets can be several kilometres long and be fitted with weighted boards that scrape the bottom of the sea and churn up the sediment. They destroy the whole environment of the sea bottom and destroy the habitat where some fish breed. It is also destroying the newly-discovered cold water corals in the North Sea and the Atlantic, which are just as spectacular as the corals found in warmer waters. On a typical 15 day trip, a trawler may sweep about 33 square kilometres of deep sea habitat. Corals reefs take centuries to develop and it is hoped to protect at least some of these newly discovered wonders.

The old way of fishing was to locate a quantity of the fish you wanted and throw nets overboard to catch them. Modern methods trawl up all the fish in a huge area including many unwanted types, some deep sea oddities and more popular ones such as dolphins that are being killed by this process. Endangered species have to be thrown back, so are other unwanted fish, but exposing them to the air has already killed them. They attack the sea in the same way that cattle farmers are attacking the rainforests. The seas are being plundered and ecosystems suffer. And the struggle magnifies as the fish stocks diminish. Incredible as it may seem, a style of fishing has been developed where an area is blasted with dynamite and the dead fish scooped up. In spite of these high tech processes, fishermen still rely on government subsidies, just as the farmers on land do.

Global warming is also affecting the numbers and distribution of fish stocks and European boats go farther afield, even to the coast of West Africa, where they deprive local populations of their scant food resources.

Fish are cold blooded and not pleasant to touch, so people do not grant them the same nature of feelings as they do to warm blooded, furry animals that we may enjoy stroking. This does not mean that they are devoid of feelings. Unlike plants, they have a nervous system and scientific studies have shown that they feel pain. Certainly, being caught by a hook in the sensitive area of the mouth must cause pain and hauling them out of the environment where they obtain oxygen through the water passing over their gills is bound to suffocate them. This is equivalent to air-breathing creatures being dragged under water and fish do not benefit from being stunned before death as farm animals usually are.

A solution to the problem of dwindling fish stocks has been to develop fish farming, that is breeding fish in huge caged tanks close to the shore. You can feed them, catch them more easily and select which type to breed according to market demand. Trout and salmon are preferred. This 'factory farming' of fish has the same disadvantage as the intensive farming of land animals, namely that diseases will spread rapidly and strong pesticides have to be added to the water to maintain the health of the fish. Some of this drifts down to the bottom of the sea, together with a concentration of faeces and excess food to pollute the area below the fishes. The decaying waste matter uses up the oxygen in the water and stifles other fish and vegetation.

Fish farming is also a flawed solution because oily fish such as salmon feed off smaller fish and it is necessary to catch fish from the open sea in order to feed the farmed fish. Fish is also used to feed land animals and it is calculated that a quarter of all fish production is fed to land animals. Some may be also be used as fertiliser for the land. We are plundering the diminishing stocks of fish not only as food unnecessary for humans but also to feed farm animals, the consumption of which is also unnecessary for our health. It looks as though we are being advised to eat fish for a healthier heart whilst condoning the eating of animal fat which is a great cause of heart disease.

If fish is to be considered as healthy food, then we should assume that the fish are living in a healthy environment. Far from it! All the pollution created on land from industry, farming practices and general waste is gradually carried by streams and rivers into the sea. Strong poisons like mercury, organophosphates, dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the sea and are taken up by the marine life. It was found that up to 40% of some fish products on sale contained pollutants. Decades ago it was found that fish in one bay in Japan were polluted with mercury and causing deaths locally. This was traced to discharges of mercury from a local factory. Today fish all over the world are found to contain mercury, a heavy poison, as well as other pollutants, including radio activity.

A recent survey published in the magazine Science found that Scottish salmon was the most polluted of all farmed fish and contained unacceptable quantities of dioxins and PCBs. They recommended that it should only be eaten 3 or 4 times a year. (Nutritionists want us to eat oily fish 2 or 3 times a week). The Food Standards Agency claim that the stated levels found in Scottish salmon were acceptable by EU regulations, but admitted they themselves had made no tests since the mid 1990s.

Shell fish are heavy on the digestion at the best of times and Moses was wise when he forbade his followers to eat shell fish; but today the shell fish are even more polluted. The popularity of prawns has had other undesirable results.

Farmers in India and South East Asia are encouraged by the high price paid for of prawns to turn the land they use to grow (poorly paid) food crops over to producing prawns. But as production soars, the price falls and some are left without a livelihood and with land no longer suitable for producing crops for their own use.

Shell fish may be even less attractive to us than other fish, but they too are sentient creatures with nervous systems. To plunge them alive into boiling water must certainly be an act of cruelty.

So if we don't get the fatty acids like omega 3 from oily fish, what are vegans to do? The answer is simple: vegan sources of essential fatty acids (EFAs) can be found in plenty in seeds and nuts and oils (see box below).

So live and let live. Leave the fish in the sea to work out their own destinies so that we can again say "there are plenty of fish in the sea."

Essential Fatty Acids – a guide for vegans

Source: Plant Based Nutrition and Health, Stephen Walsh

Generally, vegans (and vegetarians too) get too many omega 6 EFAs and not enough omega 3 EFAs. In fact, eating too many omega 6 fatty acids hinders the absorption of the omega 3s. There's a simple way to change this…

Poor choices Sunflower oil is very rich in omega 6s but is very low in omega 3s, so a poor choice. It also has high amounts of polyunsaturated fat, which is not good since it's better to have the bulk of your fat as monounsaturated fat. Soya oil is slightly better than sunflower oil, but is still not optimal.

Good choices Rapeseed oil and olive oil have a much better balance between omega 3s and 6s so are good choices for general cooking. These two oils are also rich in mono-unsaturated fats, which is believed to be the most healthy type of fat. Both are also low in saturated fat. Rapeseed oil is very low priced, so is an excellent choice if you are on a budget.

Optimal amount Just one of the following per day gives good intakes of omega 3 without adding excessive omega 6:

  • 1 teaspoon flaxseed (also known as linseed) oil
  • 1½ tablespoons ground flaxseed – it must be ground, e.g. with a pestle and mortar or in a coffee grinder, otherwise the body cannot absorb the oil in the seed. Also, it is best cooked to eliminate cyanogenic glycosides
  • 1½ tablespoons rapeseed oil (a very economical oil)
  • 1 tablespoon hempseed oil
  • 5 tablespoons hempseeds
  • Note that more than double the above amounts is not a good idea since too much omega 3 is not beneficial.

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    Cross-reference: Fish & Seafood
    Cross-reference: Nutrition and Health