Should vegetarians eat marine creatures?
September 15, 2008 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Should vegetarians eat fish? How about shrimp? Mollusks?

I'm a recent vegetarian convert, having read Peter Singer's seminal work. It took me about 30 minutes to realize that this is what I needed to do.

Singer only devotes two pages to the subject of marine life, and it lacks the authority that most of his writing carries (he notes this at the beginning of the section). There are a small number of for/against webpages, but I'm very interested hearing in the rationales of practicing vegetarians.

The question, as Singer always puts it, is whether or not the animal in question "has interests" and whether or not it can suffer, in the sense that humans can. Most people agree, for example, that insects do not. What about the various marine creatures? My instinct tells me that they do not, but this is based on scant data.
posted by jpg15 to Health & Fitness (48 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Shrimp, crabs, crayfish, and lobster are arthropods. Insects are also arthropods. They have pretty similar neural structures.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:28 PM on September 15, 2008

Spend another 30 minutes doing research and figure this out for yourself. I'm not snarking... you're bound to get a few good links here, but this is a very personal philosophical issue, and one that individuals on all sides feel strongly about, so it's not as cut and dried as figuring out which animals "suffer." Pain is an illusion that our body creates to warn us that we are sustaining physical damage. Quantifying and qualifying this across species is incredibly difficult, especially because of the emotions people project onto animal life-forms. What "most people agree" on is of little use to you when trying to create a diet that caters to your specific ideals.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 8:28 PM on September 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

This probably shouldn't be a deciding factor, but if you're a vegetarian who eats fish then you can use the awesome term one of my grad school classmates used to describe herself: a "vegaquarium"
posted by doift at 8:30 PM on September 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm currently non-practicing vegetarian, and when I was vegetarian I ate fish, so's you know my credentials.

That being said, since you're going vegetarian for moral reasons, I would strongly suggest you don't eat fish, or other marine life. I'm unsure of whether or not the animal can feel pain, but trawling for fish is considered one of the most harmful ways of getting food - bycatch, bad conditions for the fish you catch, disruption of ecosystem / breeding grounds.

I probably know as many people who don't eat fish out of moral reasons as I do vegetarians for any reason.

And they're right. But I still eat fish because it's so tasty.
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:35 PM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

From a non-ethics, more dictionary-definition standpoint, please don't. This confuses people, and they think fish/shellfish or even chick is vegetarian. This is an issue for me, when I ask if something is vegetarian, and it is not. Especially when it contains shellfish or fish, as I am rather sensitive to both of them. When asked the person serving about the "safe for vegetarian" statement, the reply was "But my vegetarian friends eat fish!".

Yes, I have learned to specifically ask about fish, anchovie paste, fish stock, etc.
posted by kellyblah at 8:39 PM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Consider the Lobster (RIP DFW :[)

If your reasons for being a vegetarian roughly coincide with the arguments in your 3rd paragraph I'd say the issue is pretty much unresolvably complex. Read the essay, if you can. I don't think that most people would really say that bugs have no preference w/r/t suffering if you had a conversation about it rather than asking for a gut reaction... if you hold a flame to them they'll recoil from it, right? Do they do that because of some kind of unthinking muscle memory? Or because they don't want to be burned? Is the former really a lesser brand of suffering than the latter? These are things you'll have to make your own judgment about.

You're allowed to draw the line wherever you like, and you're helping regardless, at least vs. being a complete omnivore.

/vegan, but crushes hostile bugs unrepentantly. My personal opinion is that from an animal rights standpoint it's much more important to take the extra step to avoid dairy than it is to drop fish and other sea life out of your diet. Also, lobsters are dicks.
posted by moift at 8:41 PM on September 15, 2008

So the real question is are various marine animals capable of suffering? This is not a question that is answerable without defining what suffering is exactly in a nervous system is required for an animal to suffer (is it simply pain receptors? a certain complexity to the part of the brain or ganglia on the receiving end of pain receptors?). If you believe that insects are not capable of suffering then i think it is likely that shrimp and certain mollusks (clams and snails for instance) would probably have simple enough nervous systems that you could claim the same thing. Fish and mollusks with a more complex nervous system like squid and or octopus who knows? It is an arbitrary line to draw and since you have drawn it on one side of insects it is up to you to figure out where fish come in. However, could you pull the wings off a moth and leave it to die without feeling guilty? Did it suffer? Why or why not?

If you are looking for articles that deal with your question, a quick search found a 2001 paper entitled "Animal Suffering: An Invertebrate Perspective" written by a Jennifer A. Mather in JOURNAL OF APPLIED ANIMAL WELFARE SCIENCE if you have university access to journals. It seems to argue that for octopus and squid at least one should give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to capacity to suffer.
posted by DanielDManiel at 8:52 PM on September 15, 2008

(I'll also throw the word "pescetarian" into the ring if you decide to eat the fishes. I do, and the dorky word is actually recognized by more people than I expected. Whether you should or should not is a personal question, which should be based off of your - not just Singer's - moral basis for vegetarianism.)
posted by tmcw at 8:52 PM on September 15, 2008

I'm mostly a transhumanist, I imagine the moral harm from eating an animal is approximated by the quantity per serving time the exponential of when it appeared in the fossil record (negative number), but that's a pretty religious interpretation of Moore's law.

In practice, any consequentialist utilitarian moral philosophy will give the same relative answers for most moral metrics. I mean, your always going to get
pork > beef >> chicken >>>> fish >>>>>>>> shrimp
among farm raised animals because pigs are smaller, smarter, and often butchered alive, and all the others are obvious.

To me, the real moral cost of eating marine life is the dolphins that are accidentally killed if it isn't farm raised. So I'd say just work out if your cool with the accidental dolphin kills, and restrict yourself to farm raised sea food otherwise. I suppose you can eat escargot regardless, btw.

Of course, many people fudge the moral computation and feel animals are best in the wild, even if they are killed occasionally. Btw, I'm not a vegetarian, I just dig Peter Singer.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:58 PM on September 15, 2008

a "vegaquarium"

See also: "fish 'n' chipocrite".

..but yeah, if you will, then don't call yourself "vegetarian". You'll save yourself, and others, confusion and hassle.
posted by pompomtom at 8:59 PM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you do decide to eat fish/seafood, make the ethical choice and avoid species that are being overfished to extinction or that are caught/farmed using destructive methods. There's a good list of what to avoid here.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:01 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Are salmon vegetables? Are shrimp? Then no, you can't be a "vegetarian" and eat animals.

I find the whole "I'm a vegetarian, but I eat fish, chicken and eggs" thing infuriating. It's confusing and arguably misleading. Ethically, that's a different story and one I'm not qualified to enter into (namely because I think Singer's arguments are naive and absurd).

But please, for our sanity, don't call yourself a "vegetarian" unless your diet is complete free of mammal, fowl and fish (shelled or not). Thumbs up for "pescetarian" though.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:02 PM on September 15, 2008

If you eat flesh of a member of the animal kingdom you are not a vegetarian.
posted by sarahw at 9:03 PM on September 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Hermitosis is right in the broadest sense, , and you've gotten plenty of more specific but still philosophical answers for and against - now you're going to hear from the non-vegetarian scuba diver and proud owner of a betta named Grendel.

Your "instinct" is, in my opinion, the assumption of a land animal. Now, most of the time it doesn't matter whether or not a human being thinks a fish or an ocean-dwelling arthropod meets certain benchmarks for intelligence or sentience (that's "feels things," not sapience aka "thinks things"), but in certain domains, like conservation, keeping pets, or basing one's consumption on whether or not what one consumes meets those benchmarks, then one really needs to examine those assumptions. I'm not a scientist, just a hobbyist, but I can recount a wealth of anecdotes and facts that might interest you.

- Octopuses and other cephalopods are indisputably possessed of some kind of advanced cognition, although to what extent and in what matter is an area of healthy scientific research and debate. Certainly they can solve puzzles (Rubik's cubes and the like), be classically conditioned, and it has been suggested that they're capable of observational learning. In the UK, octopuses are classified as "honorary vertebrates" to grant them more protection under anti-cruelty legislation.

- There's not much on fish intelligence that's been broadly publicized (here's a good place to start), but it's anecdotally known among fish hobbyists that despite the popular "3 second-memory" myth, goldfish are actually intelligent enough to learn tricks. So are Oscars, another popular tank fish, and bettas, despite being two inches long. Yes, bettas, those little creatures that people stick in vases as "decoration."

- My late betta Tiamat used to love chasing the laser pointer, until she finally "caught" it in her mouth. Then she never even looked at it again.

- I can't prove it, of course, but I suspect Grendel has at least at least a basic human-distinguishing algorithm. He's much slower to come to the front of the tank when I bring someone new (or whom he hasn't seen in a while) to show him to them, and swims up at about normal speed if I've brought them by a couple of times.

- Last February I was on a dive where I was followed for at least 20 minutes by a small yellow snapper (a game fish, not particularly renowned for anything except that you can eat it - they're kinda cute). Whenever I wasn't obviously directing attention to it, it would swim all around me and follow me wherever I went quite blatantly. If I swung around to try and take a closer look, it would immediately move back and merge swimming patterns with nearby reef fish, as though it were part of that immediate cluster and hadn't been following me at all.

First of all, it was just funny, but as far as intelligence goes - I have no idea what the benefits of this interaction were for the fish, and I won't speculate. However, in order to do what it did, I'm pretty sure it had to be very attuned to the - if "body language" is too loaded a term, call it "gestural signals" perhaps - of an animal which had not evolved in and was physiologically unrelated to anything else in its environment. Now, are some inter-animal signals so universal that it instinctively "read" me, even with the mask, tank, flippers and bubbles all getting in my way? Or did it learn some very basic signs about humans at some point in its lifetime?

I don't have the answer, but it was interesting.

Anyway, those are my stories. Definitely check out the papers linked in the fish-school link I posted above, because there's a lot there (and a few dead links and forum posts to sort through; sorry). I might also mention that another reason to moderate or avoid the consumption of fish is overfishing - when you eat a fish, you're not just killing a possibly sentient being, you may also, if you're not careful, be contributing to the collapse of the marine ecosystem. And, uh, where the marine ecosystem goes, so do we all.

Again, decision you have to make for yourself, just pointing out a related matter to look into.
posted by bettafish at 9:28 PM on September 15, 2008 [8 favorites]

A former coworker of mine identified not as vegetarian, but as an ethical eater. He wouldn't eat anything above an intelligence level that he could never quite quantify, but which gave him some wiggle room. He would eat most fish, but not octopus, for example. He regularly threatened to eat some of the developers we worked with, on the grounds that they were less intelligent than the average octopus. But, again, he never called himself a vegetarian.

I don't call myself a vegetarian either, unless I've been asked what my preferences are for dinner, and I don't want to have the whole conversation about how I'm trying to only eat meat from animals who were given a happy and cruelty-free life on nearby farms where the farmers would be happy to have me visit.
posted by hades at 9:37 PM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

What could be moister
Than tears of an oyster?
posted by staggernation at 9:41 PM on September 15, 2008

I'm not specifically informed, but I read those same 3 pages in Animal Liberation and I got the general impression that scallops and creatures of similar complexity are probably okay, whereas lobsters are almost certainly not (especially accounting for how they are killed).

Philosophically speaking, there's a strong case to err on the side of not inflicting unnecessary pain: unless and until you can determine that a given sea creature doesn't suffer, you should avoid eating it.
posted by grobstein at 9:43 PM on September 15, 2008

From the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first voyage
from Boston to Philadelphia, being becalmed off Block Island,
our crew employed themselves in catching cod, and hauled up
a great number. Till then I had stuck to my resolution to eat
nothing that had had life ; and on this occasion I considered,
according to my master Tryon, the taking of every fish as a
kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had done or
could do us any injury that might justify this massacre. All
this seemed very reasonable. But I had been formerly a
great lover of fish, and when it came out of the frying-pan it
smelled admirably well. I balanced some time between principle
and inclination, till, recollecting that when the fish were
opened I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs, then,
thought I, " If you eat one another I don't see why we may
not eat you ; " so I dined upon cod very heartily, and have since
continued to eat as other people, returning only now and then
occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to
be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a
reason for everything one has a mind to do.

And there you have it. Eat seafood or not. There is no consistency possible in life, but there can be principles.
posted by LarryC at 9:58 PM on September 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

The question, as Singer always puts it, is whether or not the animal in question "has interests"

You're asking a philosophical question, not a scientific one. I haven't read the Singer book, but if I could chime in here, every living creature "has interests" in the broadest possible sense. Cows are interested in making little baby cows. Plants are interested in making more seeds and hence, more plants. Bacteria are interested in making more bacteria.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:59 PM on September 15, 2008

I personally don't think vegetarians eat fish, although I did off and on for a bit. I don't now (and I'm, more or less, vegan at this point). But I think it's up to you to decide how you feel about it at this point. I know that plenty of people don't want to eat mammals but are OK eating other animals.

I do think marine animals feel pain and even if they don't, I don't think there's much reason to eat them (and commercial fishing is an environmental problem, if you care about such things). If you're still comfortable eating fish, I say continue to eat them until you're no longer comfortable with it. I'm not someone who advocates an all-or-nothing philosophy to this. If you're not eating any animals except for fish, I think you're still doing a lot of good at reducing suffering, if that's your goal.
posted by darksong at 10:01 PM on September 15, 2008

Sure, if you're interested in your health.

Just look at the meta analysis of a few studies large studies on vegetarianism.

Among many interesting things, take notice that fish eaters have the lowest morality of any dietary group (regular meat eaters, occasional meat eaters, fish eats, vegetarians and vegans).
posted by zentrification at 10:20 PM on September 15, 2008

What do you want to do? What are you comfortable with? All of the choices you make and where you choose to draw the line while living a vegetarianish life are up to you. (Although as pointed out above, it does make it less convenient for other vegetarians if you refer to yourself as a vegetarian while eating fish. "Vegetarian except for seafood" or "pescatarian" both solve that problem.)

I don't eat marine animals because I like to try and limit the suffering that I'm responsible for when possible, and I do think that fish can suffer. I'm not sure if other marine creatures perceive suffering the way that we do, but I don't care for the idea of eating them so I don't. When I get cats, I'll probably feed them seafood. This will bum me out somewhat, but so it goes.

If you do decide to eat fish, the Seafood Watch guide can help you find which kinds of seafood are more responsibly produced. Overfishing and environmental damage from fishing is really serious stuff.
posted by lemuria at 10:34 PM on September 15, 2008

From a framework perspective, how about just eating what you like ie. no beef, poultry, chicken, but eating fish, and not defining yourself with a term.

As a young, earnest vegetarian many years ago (I'm no longer any of those things) I remember taking a walk with an older friend and sort of in the pleased-with-self way telling him that I was a vegetarian, explaining that I would like to eat fish, but won't because... well, I'm a vegetarian blah blah blah. He just looked at me and said, "Why don't you just eat the way you want, and not use it as a description of yourself."

I'm not trying to be in any way nasty in relating this tale, it was just a moment where I went uh-huh! and realised that I didn't need to label myself or create a complex set of rules to live by. Nor did I have to bore people silly with trenchant ethical classifications. It was a real lesson for me, because I realised how pointless, in a sense, the limitations that I had set for myself were.
posted by lottie at 10:48 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The old line is that you don't eat anything that had a face.
posted by Violet Hour at 12:12 AM on September 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Eating shrimp is like clear-cutting the ocean." -- Quote from a friend of mine. I don't know the facts myself, but the general word on the street is that shrimp is very bad ecologically. I think it's actually a cross between clear-cutting the ocean and then continuing to farm that barren area. So, even if shrimp can't feel pain, surely all the marine mammals who can do suffer from shrimping.
posted by salvia at 12:34 AM on September 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you eat animals, you aren't a vegetarian.

From an ecological view point, most seafood is the strip-mining of the sea. We get fish like we get oil - ripping a resource out of the ocean faster than it can be replaced. When fisheries collapse, fleets move on to the next one, and so on.
posted by rodgerd at 1:17 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't eat land animals, dairy products or eggs, but am willing to eat fish. I have been trying to decide what to call myself, since I cant really say Im vegetarian, I cant really say Im vegan, and Im not exactly pescatarian... I suppose it would be pescavegan?? Ive tried to explain it to a lot of people, and usually end up saying something like "these are the foods I feel my body should ingest. I function best when I put these things in and cut out the others. There is no animal rights or environmental reason. I just eat what makes me feel good physically." Shrugs insue and the conversation usually turns to Why the hell Barry brought his cat to work again.
posted by osloheart at 1:37 AM on September 16, 2008

I'm a vegetarian, and I agree with grobstein's assertion that "unless and until you can determine that a given sea creature doesn't suffer, you should avoid eating it." (Assuming that avoiding the suffering of creatures is among your reasons for being vegetarian.)

I'm not qualified to judge whether particular creatures (or indeed any) feel pain or are sentient or conscious on any level. As other respondents have noted, it seems to be very difficult to accurately determine these things - I know at least that there is no real consensus on a scientific definition of consciousness, and whether or not an animal feels pain seems to be a more complex question than I used to think.

So you're left to make judgements based on what evidence is available. But given the consequences of making the 'wrong' decision (causing an animal to suffer when it's your aim to avoid this) it seems very reasonable to give sea creatures the benefit of the doubt. I don't eat fish (or other seafood) for this reason.

On the other hand, at least two vegetarians I know eat fish, it tastes pretty good, and it can clearly benefit your health (though I'd guess that you could substitute for the absence of fish in your diet with a little research). Also, I've always been squeamish about eating meat, and seafood in particular, and that probably has more of an influence on my lifestyle than I generally admit to.
posted by Kirn at 2:56 AM on September 16, 2008

To quote Jeremy Hardy, "Meat is murder, but fish is justifiable homicide."
posted by gene_machine at 3:41 AM on September 16, 2008

I personally find Michael Pollen more rational and consistent than Singer, who seems to me a very polarizing activist. However, as noted above, this is a very personal decision. One of my best freinds forever, and also one of my sisters-in-law are vegetarian who eat seafood. The friend, perhaps once a week, the sister-in-law, daily. If one is vegetarian for moral reasons, I find eating seafood an inconsistency. I don't however, argue the point, as I myself am perhaps inconsistent in some areas. You may have read this already, but here is Singer on seafood in Animal Liberation:

With creatures like oysters, doubts about a capacity for pain are considerable; and in the first edition of this book I suggested that somewhere between shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any. Accordingly, I continued occasionally to eat oysters, scallops, and mussels for some time after I became in every other respect, a vegetarian. But while one cannot with any confidence say that these creatures do feel pain, so one can equally have little confidence in saying that they do not feel pain. Moreover, if they do feel pain, a meal of oysters or mussels would inflict pain on a considerable number of creatures. Since it is so easy to avoid eating them, I now think it better to do so.

I'd be remiss to not point out the recent Oxford study that suggests that a strict vegetarian diet is unhealthy for the brain. As is beer.
posted by dawson at 3:54 AM on September 16, 2008

Vegetarians do not eat animals. If you consider fish to be animals, do not eat them.
posted by welephant at 4:19 AM on September 16, 2008

I'd be remiss to not point out the recent Oxford study that suggests that a strict vegetarian diet is unhealthy for the brain.
This is mostly about B12. Many people who are 50 years of older have a B12 deficiency, even if they do eat animal products (I now wonder if that is because so many of those drink beer regularly). There is a large Dutch vitamin-B12-deficiency forum, and very few of the members are vegan. At any rate, it can not be overemphasized that vegetarians, especially vegans, should make sure they get a decent source of vitamin B12.
posted by davar at 4:27 AM on September 16, 2008

As a lifelong vegetarian... please don't. Ethical issues aside, it confuses things and makes things very difficult for us who eat no dead animals whatsoever.

Now, on the ethics of the situation:

Fish are animals. Therefore, someone who eats fish is not a vegetarian in the strictest sense- we call those kind of folk hypocrites 'pescetarians' in my neck of the woods.

We can't determine whether or not fish and other sea creatures feel pain, so I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially since large portions of the world's fish stocks are in danger of being wiped out, not least because of the callous way fishing complanies have exploited the seas in years past. Not only are several species of fish in danger of being extinct, every year several thousand dolphins are caught up in the fishing nets and die. I'd argue no fish simply from a 'good for the planet' angle in addition to a moral one.
posted by Tamanna at 5:03 AM on September 16, 2008

Gah, that first line should have been please don't call yourself a vegetarian if you do eat fish. What I get for posting sans coffee, I suppose...
posted by Tamanna at 5:04 AM on September 16, 2008

I just wanted to point out that often, closely managed wild catches are actually more sustainable than fish farming operations. See: Salmon.

Also, and IANAV, but I find that the rates at which fish convert food to raw body mass is incredible, often as high as 90% or more. Catfish and Tilapia especially. For excellent, lean, fast growing protein, catfish especially are very high on the list.
posted by TomMelee at 5:34 AM on September 16, 2008

Did you know that fish could play ball?
posted by davar at 5:42 AM on September 16, 2008

I had a similar problem. It was solved when I decided that I did not really like shellfish as food. Experience crafting yummy veggie food eliminated the need for the few shellfish dishes I enjoyed (seared/grilled scallops). Basically, I gave up scallops to save myself the difficulty of having to explain it over and over again in life.

Insects, crabs, and shrimps seem pretty clearly to be animals down to the smallest of the bunch.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:03 AM on September 16, 2008

I just wanted to point out that often, closely managed wild catches are actually more sustainable than fish farming operations. See: Salmon.

Well, yes, which is why the OP should inform himself if he decides to continue to eat fish.

Also, and IANAV, but I find that the rates at which fish convert food to raw body mass is incredible, often as high as 90% or more. Catfish and Tilapia especially. For excellent, lean, fast growing protein, catfish especially are very high on the list.

It's really not that simple. Would this be a bad time to point out that the Mekong Giant Catfish, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and probably a vital part of its ecosystem, is critically endangered because of overfishing? We need to examine species on a case-by-case basis.
posted by bettafish at 7:16 AM on September 16, 2008

This is probably on my mind because of his recent death, but I recall that David Foster Wallace in his essay "Consider the Lobster" talks about both how the distinction between "feels pain at being killed" and "suffers" may be a lot more complicated question and/or may not be as useful a question as some folks believe when rationalizing eating shellfish, and also that animals like arthropods might feel a lot more pain in general (despite having a "distributed" brain among neural ganglia) and particularly at being boiled alive (citing lobsters' proven sensitivity to small changes in ocean water temperature when migrating) than previously thought. Personally, I don't think someone going vegetarian for ethical/suffering of animals reasons can really condone eating live-boiled shellfish as part of some kind of "compromise."

Also, for what it's worth, there's the Buddhist take on minimizing the quantity of death and suffering of individual sentient beings; I've been told in that context it's even worse to kill a couple dozen shrimp, clams or scallops for just one meal for one person than it is to kill a cow for a week's worth of meals for a whole family -- the rationale being that each of those shellfish is as much a sentient being as a cow (or a human, of course). And less it be misunderstood -- the real message here is ideally don't eat either if you're concerned about causing the suffering and death of sentient beings (the karmic implications of participating in the eating of meat), rather than cynically switching to beef because it's more "efficient."

While I have been an on-again off-again vegetarian over the years, I have to say I have puzzled at the attitudes of friends who do consider themselves ethical vegetarians despite the fact they eat seafood. To me, that doesn't make any sense at all.

Also, as far as the common belief that insects / arthropods feel no pain, remember than in the 1800s it was commonly believed that *children* feel no pain.
posted by aught at 7:36 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Obviously, you know what Kurt said about this...
posted by ph00dz at 7:37 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, lobsters are dicks.

Just giving moift a little holla for this.

It seems like your question actually has two parts: ethical and semantic. Ethically, what one chooses to eat can be highly personal. Everyone has their own answer to the moral conundrum of the fact that sometimes, animals eat other animals, and we are animals, so.... Some draw the line at no red meat, some draw it at "nothing with a recognizeable face", some at "arthropods only, some do what I do and just eat minimal meat and make an effort to embrace all parts of the animal (in other words, I don't eat "only white meat" from chicken and "only charterhouse steak" from beef; I believe that if you're going to kill an animal for food, you gotta make sure nothing goes to waste, and that means eating brains and organs and sausage and dark meat and gizzards and...) But this is a highly personal thing, and that's up to you.

The second problem is, if you DO decide to eat fish, are you still a vegetarian. Technically, no -- the actual word for you would be "pescetarian." (I think I misspelled that...woops.) But a sizeable number of people do already assume that "vegetarian" means "eats fish but no other meat," so your mileage may vary.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Vegetarians do not eat fish. You may choose to, of course, but you would not be a vegetarian. The humourous term I've heard is "vegaquarian" rather than aquarium...
posted by Lleyam at 9:50 AM on September 16, 2008

So it depends what are your reasons for going (semi-)vegetarian.
If your rationale is to eat "healthy" food, then wild-caught fish are less susceptible to hormone and antibiotic food additives than farmed fish. Eating wild-caught fish may be considered a great deal healthier than farmed meat products. But, as with all animal products, fish still contain cholesterol.
If your rationale is to minimize suffering in the footprint that you leave, recent studies have concluded that fish do feel pain. The UK Society for the Protection of Animals successfully prosecuted a cafe worker who was torturing live prawns (shrimp) by dropping them on a hotplate and watching them jump about to try to escape. Their case was supported by several experts who testified that the prawns would have died in agony. This is of course contentious - there are probably people who would disagree. Like bettafish, I have had pet fish that would display decidedly "higher cognition" behaviors like coming to the front of the tank if someone familiar called round and "playing hide and seek" with my little brother (after which they would swim to the front for a "kiss"). At the end of the day, only you can decide what you want your impact to be on the greater whole and what are your reasons for deciding what to eat.
posted by Susurration at 12:20 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry betafish, I didn't mean all catfish in all places of the globe. I would not recommend removing 200lb blues from the Mississippi either.

I was referring to american channel catfish. Lots of folks grow them in 50 gallon barrels and feed them leftover dinners.
posted by TomMelee at 12:36 PM on September 16, 2008

TomMelee, fair enough - just wanted to be sure we're taking all factors into consideration. And I'm not against a prolific species like channel catfish being sustainably farmed, although I do have to say that I'm squicked by the 50-gallon barrel idea (unless that's just for fry). That fish will outgrow that container long before it reaches eating size. It's not just physical space, but how much waste the environmental bacteria can process. Also, even omnivorous and carnivorous fish shouldn't eat land animal protein (i.e. human scraps) - the nutrient ratios are all wrong in proportion to their needs. I can't imagine a fish raised in that environment would be very healthy. Why would I want to eat a sickly fish? Seriously, yuck.

From some googling, it looks like many of the larger farms do pack in a lot of fish, but they also account for water movement etc, so while it wouldn't be like living in an aquarium, the fish are always well-aerated and waste-free, at least in principle.
posted by bettafish at 1:05 PM on September 16, 2008

Dang you're calling me all over the place tonight.

The people who do it generally take 2 barrels and cut one in half. In the one half, they place dirt, maybe some newspaper, whatever. Then they buy night crawlers, and mix about 100 each into each half of the barrel. Then they dump their non-meat scraps daily into the buckets as worm food. They feed a handfull or two of worms each day to the fish in the barrel, and then alternate which half of the bucket they're feeding from weekly, so that the worms self propagate.

You can easily get 12 oz of usable meat from a 16oz catfish, and they can reach that size easily in a summer. Guts and skin become fertilizer and other fun stuff.

I know they aerate/filter the barrels, but honestly I'm sure exactly how. One day when I'm all growed up, I'll have an aquaponic setup where I can symbiotically raise fish and veggies in a couple interconnected pools. One day.

This has nothing to do with vegetarians eating fish, and I suspect someone will delete it. For the record I'm just pointing out that microaquaculture is a viable source of fish protein, and is done by lots and lots of folks.
posted by TomMelee at 8:04 PM on September 16, 2008

As an evolutionary biologist, one solution I have thought of is a taxonomic one - don't eat anything that is more closely related to you than X, where X is the most-closely-related-to-humans thing that you're happy eating. As was pointed out in the first answer, by this standard if insects are OK then so are all arthropods, since they are all equally closely related to humans. Of course this doesn't take into account "interests" and "suffering" but it has always struck me as one of the few objective ways to decide.

(Of course, you may have to reconsider your position as new taxonomic relationships come to light!)
posted by primer_dimer at 5:47 AM on September 17, 2008

It's a very good first-approximation, but the assumption that evolutionary closeness tracks all the morally relevant considerations is somewhat insecure. Potentially morally relevant characteristics, like ones relating to cognitive complexity, could evolve convergently.
posted by grobstein at 2:24 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

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