Something Fishy About This
August 3, 2010 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Should pescatarians eat frogs? What about turtles or alligator?

Yes this is a real question that came up in conversation, was not settled to my satisfaction, and has been running (hopping?) around my brain ever since.

I've googled around, but there doesn't seem to be the kind of level of debate as there is with something like the "Should vegans eat honey?", probably because these aren't the most common menu items. Is there some sort of authoritative argument, pro or con, for the inclusion of amphibians and reptiles in a pescatarian diet?
posted by Panjandrum to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is pretty individual. My sister-in-law was briefly pescatarian, and according to her, she made the determination based on levels of sentience and pain-feeling (the argument being that fish are similar to moving plants). So no, she would probably not eat frogs or turtles. Alligator meat would be right out.
posted by muddgirl at 9:48 AM on August 3, 2010

Back when I was a strict vegetarian, it would have been the issue of legs that turned me off. I could have justified fish (if I liked fish), but anything that lived in the water and had actual limbs with toes and stuff would have been hard for me.

I can't justify that, and I can't tell you why the leg thing would have been bothersome, but there you go.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:56 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you have to look at the motivation for being a pescatarian. Typically I would assume that these are people who are drawing the line just above fish on the evolutionary ladder for where something has the level of sentience where it's now not okay to kill them to eat. So then it all depends on where you draw that line, which given our current knowledge is IMO completely arbitrary.

My sister is pescatarian and I'm quite certain she'd be completely against eating reptiles and amphibians.

My own personal belief is that frogs and toads aren't really any more sentient than an advanced fish. And just to complicate matters: octopi are more sentient than any of these.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:57 AM on August 3, 2010

I would say the thing that has separated these out in my mind and other minds I've talked to are the five animal kingdom classes: mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and insects. So choosing to eat fish is not the same as choosing to eat reptiles. One could of course eat both, but it's not the same as being a pescatarian. It's kind of on par with why pescatarians will eat fish but not eat dolphins or whales. Whether that's satisfactory to you, I'm not sure.
posted by questionsandanchors at 9:57 AM on August 3, 2010

My bad, I meant amphibians instead of insects.
posted by questionsandanchors at 9:59 AM on August 3, 2010

Best answer: "Should vegans eat ___?" is more likely to generate a rigorous debate than "Should pescetarians eat ____?" because vegans seem to have a fairly straightforward, coherent view. Pescetarianism seems to represent not so much a specific philosophical position as a compromise between "I aspire to be a vegetarian / I respect vegetarianism" (for the many well-known reasons behind vegetarianism) and "I still want to eat fish for the taste and/or nutrition -- or so I'm less likely get stuck in situations where there's nothing for me to eat."

I'm a vegetarian rather than a pescetarian, so I don't want to speak for pescetarians. Vegans tend to be the most wedded to pure principle, vegetarians have compromised somewhat on vegan principles, and pescetarians have compromised even more. (I'm not stating any judgment here on whose conduct is best; purity is not necessarily the best course.) I would think you'd need to first explain what your compromise is based on, before answering your questions about whether "pescetarians [that is, you] should eat ___."

For instance, one pescetarian might find fish/seafood to be deeply disturbing on a moral or environmental level but simply feel that the health benefits trump those concerns. Another pescetarian might consider fish and other sea creatures to be lower beings who aren't as worthy of moral concern as cows/pigs/chickens. It makes a big difference which of those is closer to your view.

Hey, bilabial: You might not care what the OP eats, but clearly the OP does, so how about leaving this question for those who can relate to these concerns?
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:00 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that you can define pescatarian as:

1. Willing to eat from the Fish Class but no other.
2. Eats from all classes except mammals.

You seem to be asking which makes more sense.

To me, number one makes more sense otherwise you have to admit Birds as well. It is hard to argue, I think, that someone biting into a pheasant or a roast chicken is a pescatarian.
posted by vacapinta at 10:02 AM on August 3, 2010

I think it depends a lot on what motivates one to have certain dietary restrictions-- does it have to do with health (e.g. growth hormones in livestock), systemic injustice (e.g. factory farming), morality (e.g. animal sentience), etc. For example, some pescetarians I know are okay with eating seafood because the animals involved aren't a product of factory farming (with exceptions for farmed salmon, etc) and would probably be fine with reptiles and amphibians. But if the motivation and reasoning differs, then so would the interpretation of the diet.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:09 AM on August 3, 2010

Look, if a friend of mine was a pescatarian and I was hosting a dinner party where frogs legs were going to be served as a course, I would absolutely make sure that I checked with them ahead of time that they would be eating that, or plan to have an alternate course for them. Its not hard. Noone gets to be kicked out of the pescatarian club because they ate a squid or a frog.

Its a self-defined identity - meaning that you can make as many assumptions as you want to about a lifestyle that you don't ascribe to as long as you are willing to be wrong occasionally.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:10 AM on August 3, 2010

I guess you're asking about this with regards to ethics?
Is what a frog or an alligator feel similar to what a fish feels when being harvested? Probably, since they do have nervous systems. Shrimp and lobsters are basically large bugs, so I don't really feel any compunction. I'm unaware of any distress that a scallop, a clam, an oyster or a mussel might experience. Or at least, it's no more than what a corn stalk feels.
posted by Gilbert at 10:12 AM on August 3, 2010

Best answer: For an authoritative answer you'd have to consult the Code of Pescatari. Sadly, it doesn't exist, so you just have to decide based on your own feelings and beliefs.
posted by amtho at 10:14 AM on August 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

The answer depends solely on who will be judging your diet. To whom will you justify your choices? Biologists? People who love things that are not always in water?
posted by adipocere at 10:21 AM on August 3, 2010

For me, it would depend whether the pescetarianism in question was due to a quantifiable distinction, or just because, like the Nirvana lyric says, "It's OK to eat fish cause they don't have any feelings." Neither is wrong, mind you; I say this as an omnivore who won't eat octopus because I'm not eating anything that's capable of opening a damn jar to see what's inside.

Either way, though, I think the question can be legitimately and ethically answered in both directions. Were it me, I'd probably include frogs and toads OK, but draw the line at alligators. So no, I don't think there's a grand authoritative argument.
posted by KathrynT at 10:22 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's a long tradition of Catholic missionaries classifying as a fish anything that spends time near water for the purposes of Lent. Here's a fascinating Snopes thread on the subject.

[Observations are made on the Rio Apure.]

[The flesh of the chiguire (capybara)] has a musky smell somewhat disagreeable; yet hams are made of it in this country, a circumstance which almost justifies the name of 'water-hog,' given to the chiguire by some of the older naturalists. The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed taper, and the manati, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious. [p. 141]

[The flesh of the manatee], which, from what prejudice I know not, is considered unwholesome and catenturiosa, is very savoury. It appeared to me to resemble pork rather than beef. It is most esteemed by the Guanoes and the Ottomacks; and these two nations addict themselves particularly to the catching of the manatee. It's [sic] flesh, salted and dried in the Sun, can be preserved a whole year; and, as the clergy regard this mammiferous animal as a fish, it is much sought for during Lent. [p. 151]

posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:26 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For the record, this was a rather whimsical philosophical/taxonomic debate I was having with someone over dinner, not a character judgement. I have never judged anyone by what they've put in their mouth, only what they let come out of it.

On the matter at hand, though, I think you all have confirmed what the conclusion I came to previously, that pescatarian is a pretty squishy dietary category, and that people do it for even more varied and personal reasons than becoming a vegetarian, and that militant pescatarians are scarce on the ground and sea. So until someone calls Michael Pollan and gets him working on the Code of Pescatari, we're bereft a higher authority to argue with.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:35 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Crap! I forgot about the capybaras! How did I forget about the capybaras!
posted by Panjandrum at 10:36 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I dunno, the more I think about this, "pesce" means "fish." Frogs and turtles are unambiguously Not Fish. It doesn't seem any less straightforward than "vegetarian".
posted by muddgirl at 10:43 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pescetarian here. I'm with everyone else who says this is too individual a question to even come up with an argument for or against. Personally, I do not and would not eat reptiles or amphibians regularly. I say regularly because I will try just about anything (outside of things I am extremely opposed to like veal or fois gras) to see what it tastes like, but for ethical/health reasons, will not make most meat a part of my regular diet.

The easiest way I have found to explain to meat-eaters what I will and won't eat is to say that I won't eat anything I would not personally kill. I'm not going to delude myself into thinking I've figured out which animals are worth more than others, or that my contribution or lack thereof has any effect on the meat industry. I just wouldn't slaughter certain animals unless I was literally starving. I went fishing a lot as a kid, so maybe that has something to do with the desensitization I have to fish in particular. Who knows. Like I said, it's highly personal.
posted by a.steele at 10:48 AM on August 3, 2010

Best answer: I'm going to answer this from a strictly cladistic taxonomic point of view.

To me, number one makes more sense otherwise you have to admit Birds as well. It is hard to argue, I think, that someone biting into a pheasant or a roast chicken is a pescatarian.

Pescatarians usually eat shellfish as well, which are not "fish" biologically. You could easily define pescatarian as someone who does not eat amniotes. This rules out mammals, birds, and reptiles. You cannot make a single cut in the tree of life that excludes reptiles*, but includes both mammals and birds. You could make the case for other tetrapods, such as amphibians, being okay to eat cladistically.

It's a simple matter of choosing whether pescatarian means "not amniote" or "not tetrapod."

* Reptiles do not form a monophyletic clade, so taxonomists don't even like to talk about them anymore.
posted by grouse at 10:49 AM on August 3, 2010 [9 favorites]

I'm sorry, this felt to me like you were asking for which of the people who call themselves pescatarians are 'more' ethical.

I didn't get the impression that this was whimsical, things that bother me (I know! I'm not the test case for these things, but I keep forgetting) are usually things I consider serious, rather than just out of curiosity.

Thanks for coming back to clarify that this wasn't actually a problem you are personally facing, because I felt really guilty for assuming you were being a judgy jerk. And thanks Jaltcoh for helping me realize that my critique of the question was more snarky than helpful.

I'm glad the community was able to help you figure this out.
posted by bilabial at 10:53 AM on August 3, 2010

The definition of pescatarian means only fish, so if you eat reptiles or amphibians you don't make the cut. Does that matter? No. Eat what you decide you should and don't worry about what that diet is called.
posted by cirrostratus at 10:56 AM on August 3, 2010

Mr. Arkham is a pescatarian, but once ate some "alligator nuggets" to be polite. Theoretically he draws the lines at warm/cold blooded but I doubt he would ever eat something like a turtle or lizard. Maybe the line is really cute/not cute?
posted by JoanArkham at 11:15 AM on August 3, 2010

You should eat what you like and make any exceptions you feel are ethical as and when you want. No need to always appear to have a consistent viewpoint.
posted by wackybrit at 11:38 AM on August 3, 2010

One factor that drives my dietary choices is the eco-niche. If something is wild, I don't eat it. They have enough problems already.
posted by effluvia at 11:43 AM on August 3, 2010

I dunno, the more I think about this, "pesce" means "fish." Frogs and turtles are unambiguously Not Fish. It doesn't seem any less straightforward than "vegetarian"

Well, most pescetarians eat shrimp and scallops, too. Those aren't fish either.

As one myself, I concur with others that it's usually something that comes out of other rules/beliefs, and not to be taken too literally. For example, I won't eat octopi (as mentioned above, they're really smart) but I will eat most fish (depending a bit on how they're fished / endangered status).
posted by wildcrdj at 2:50 PM on August 3, 2010

Well, most pescetarians eat shrimp and scallops, too. Those aren't fish either.

They're fish the same way tomato is a vegetable - common usage. If I asked a waiter "Is there any fish in this dish?" And he said "No" because there's only shrimp, I'd be pretty ticked off.

Again, turtles and frogs (and especially alligators) are not thought of as "fish".
posted by muddgirl at 3:41 PM on August 3, 2010

it's all just so personal. i have no problem calling myself a vegetarian, even though i eat bugs of the sea. i don't eat crab or lobster because studies have shown they feel pain in a way that crawfish and shrimp don't. i don't eat gelatin, which is something that quite a few vegetarians don't eliminate from their diet.

anyone that wants to split hairs with me over my usage, well, they're usually straight up meat eaters and i've never felt the need to prove my purity level to them.
posted by nadawi at 4:59 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the record, this was a rather whimsical philosophical/taxonomic debate

Ahh, well if it's a taxonomic debate, then I can feel justified in jumping in.

Amphibians are tetrapods and thus more closely related to humans than fish. Crocodiles and turtles are more closely related still. But all of these are still more distantly related to humans than all other mammals.

So, depending on where you draw the taxonomic line, eating fish + frogs (but not mammals or crocodiles) OR fish + frogs + crocodiles (but not mammals) are both taxonomically justifiable. However, eating fish + crocodiles (but not mammals or frogs) is not, since crocodiles are more closely related to mammals than are frogs.

But, if you're going to eat crocodiles (or lizards/snakes/turtles) then you should be eating birds as well, since these groups are all more closely related to each other than they are to humans (or to put it another way, birds are reptiles).

Of course, when you start down this line of thinking it becomes impossible (depending on company) not to ponder the eating of extinct groups. There are plenty of extinct synapsids.... surely some of them must have been delicious...?

on preview, I see that grouse has already made these points.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:13 AM on August 4, 2010

From Ms. Vegetable -

Also along the Catholic front - the parish priest at my childhood church decided alligator was fine during Lent. So I'd say alligator, yes. Frogs and turtles? Don't know. (However, I am now a nonCatholic vegetarian, so, you know, take this with a grain of salt. Just thought I'd chime in.)
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:40 AM on August 4, 2010

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