What are the ethical concerns of owning pet fish?
March 1, 2015 4:55 AM   Subscribe

I was going to post a question about how to set up my first fish tank, but as I was writing it I realized that before I decided to go ahead and set it up, I first needed to figure out whether I thought it was ethical to do it in the first place.

Do fish undergo a lot of psychological stress when they live in tanks? Can they live good lives in that kind of environment, or is it better just to let them live in nature? Do things change if I have a cat, who would probably spend a lot of time sitting outside the tank, eyeing them with hunger in her eyes? Are there other ethical issues that I'm not considering?
posted by sam_harms to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Fish have sufficiently developed nervous systems that they feel pain. They also have enough sentience to learn. If you're not hurting them and your cat doesn't hurt them they will be fine. Seeing a cat wont hurt them. Being ethical in the care of pet fish would require no more than normal pet care: feed them, keep them healthy and give them the space and circumstances to allow them to express natural behaviours.
posted by stellathon at 5:04 AM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I disagree that owning animals in any nonrescue situation is inherently unethical, but I won't broach that argument here.

One thing to keep in mind as you stock your tank is the specifics of the species you choose. Make sure to choose species that are bred in captivity and that stay a small size for their entire lives (i.e., do not get common plecos or goldfish, which will get enormous in time). That thing about fish only growing to the size of the tank is bullshit. Also make sure you are keeping them in conditions ideal for their species. For example, goldfish release a lot of waste and need a comparatively large amount of water. Do not overstock your tank.

Basically, the best way to do this ethically is to research, research, research.
posted by sciatrix at 5:31 AM on March 1, 2015 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Fish are problematic. Usually they are either bred industrially in conditions that range from fine to horrendous, or in the case of salt water fish, removed from a natural environment. It sounds like neither is a practice you would want to support. I agree that it is best to rehome animals, including fish, and suggest you spend some time on Craigslist or similar.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:35 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The ethics around fishkeeping isn't so much in the keeping, it's in the buying. You need to make sure you're not sourcing from wild populations.
posted by Leon at 5:36 AM on March 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Bearing in mind what sciatrix said about a decent environment (goldfish are hardy despite how we mistreat them, rather than because of it), maybe if you bought some feeder fish you'd be happy because you were rescuing them from being eaten.
posted by Leon at 5:38 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I personally don't think it's ethical to have a fish unless you happen to have a lake in your back yard, but in reality there's no way for us to really know because anything we assume about another species is being done so through the filter of a "human" mind. Many of the emotions that humans attribute to their pets, (depending on the species) those pets aren't in reality neurologically capable of feeling...at least not in the same way we do. The way I figure is that if nature didn't intend it that "way", then there is no way the species over eons of evolution could ever have had the chance to develop a resistance to that "way". Human beings for example have evolved to be social creatures over millions of years and for this reason, when a human being is forced to live in solitary confinement for very long periods of time, they literally tend to lose their minds (and potentially make friends with and talk to inanimate objects ie Tom Hanks making friends with his Soccer ball Wilson.) The neurons in the brain break down because humans haven't evolved to spend long periods of time completely alone. Any environment that a species is comfortable with is comfortable only because they evolved to adapt to such an environment. The further an environment is to the way they evolved the harder it is on the creature.

When have fish evolved to spend their lives in a tiny little space? Never. Perhaps some species do spend their entire lives living in the same 20" tiny corner of the ocean, but these are probably not the type that are easy to keep in a home environment if they exist. So I would say it's a given that a fish that evolved to live in a large body of water would suffer in some way in a tiny tank. True- in a natural environment a fish may not live as long, but since it was literally MADE by nature to live in that environment it is more likely to be comfortable in such an environment even though it is more dangerous. Most human beings when faced with living in a cell for years on end with a potentially violent person and being completely alone, will usually eventually under the stress of solitude, give in to living with having some social contact with someone over none at all even if it might get them into trouble. This behavior is seen in prisons all the time.

When faced with issues like these I remember a quote that goes something like this: 'Some day we will encounter a race so much more intelligent than we, that they will view us the same way we view fish in the sea.' This is a pretty scary thought when you think about how we tend to treat animals of low intelligence compared to us. And truly if the human race lives on long enough it's possible that a race of beings will come along and wonder if it's ethical to enslave humans for their amusement because we're so stupid compared to them they'll wonder if we can even understand that we are enslaved. And maybe we won't! But even if this were true I doubt we will be happy. There is a star trek episode called "The Cage" where Aliens mention that throughout human history humans have preferred freedom even when it meant more suffering in their lives than having no freedom but being provided for. For all we know life is just the gods (or higher intelligent beings?) enslaving us for their own amusement in some virtual world of the mind; and events like an earthquake or drunk driver that kills our entire family is just one of those gods being as bored that day- just as a child who pours salt over a snail and watches it burn slowly to death merely for kicks. The snail has no idea why this is happening to it, just as we ourselves ask 'why god?' when things happen to us that we can't understand. Anyway this is just my take on it and I make no claims as to whether I'm definitely "right" or not.
posted by rancher at 5:49 AM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

Basically, the best way to do this ethically is to research, research, research.

This. Fish are more difficult to keep than other pets. Once you have the knowledge and experience, it is not that hard, but also it is not so hard to make mistakes that cause them serious harm. e.g., If you put a goldfish in a 20 gallon tank, that will not last. Know the adult size of your fish before you buy them. Perform regular partial water changes. Preventing problems in an aquarium is much easier than fixing them.

Wild caught versus tank bred is not clear cut. Wild caught can be done sustainably and tank bred can be done very poorly. On the other hand, as others point out, it is not difficult to find fish that need rehoming.

My fish aren't bothered by the cat at all. They seem to think that any large dark shape outside the tank must be someone who has come to feed them! When the cat sits in front on the tank, they swim right over to her.

There are many excellent online resources that can provide more specialized advice than the green. Personally I like the Skeptical Aquarist, the Tropical Tank, and (for the UK focused) Practical Fishkeeping Magazine.

Finally, no matter how conscientious you are, as you are starting out, you will make mistakes that a more experienced aquarist would have avoided. You may well lose fish. This is something that you need to come to terms with.

I keep fish, but I do agree that the ethics are less clear cut than cats and dogs. Cats and dogs have evolved to live alongside humans, so (speaking only for myself) I feel more comfortable keeping them. Fish are more wild. If we could just ask them what they like, it would be much easier. My fish don't look upset to me, but what do I know?
posted by sesquipedalian at 6:01 AM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nobody knows, frankly.
posted by Segundus at 6:26 AM on March 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

My sons had pet catfish that were literal rescues from their older sister's dinner - they survived her trip back from the market somehow and the boys insisted on keeping them. We'd had a betta fish given to us previously, and guppies but the catfish were awesome pets, and I would if I had the ability to set upa big tank for them, get a pair again. They had personalities and would jump out of their cage to startle our cat, come up to be petted for food - just great pets. Your local asian market might have live catfish for sale, intended for food.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:31 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had a betta. I have a cat.

I thought I'd come up with a foolproof way to have both.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Basically, the best way to do this ethically is to research, research, research.

Agree with this too. Bettas, for example, should not be kept in unheated bowls - yes they're able to breathe from the surface (labyrinth breather) but they have gills too and do best in a heated, filtered tank. I have one in 10 gallon planted tank with two corydoras catfish. He is active, very curious, and follows my finger or me around in case it heralds food.

Another topic I feel strongly about in fish keeping is fishless cycling. Some people advocate getting a couple "hardy starter fish", 60+% of whom die while the tank starts its nitrogen cycle. Too many people set up a tank and then plop fish in it - I had a neighbor who didn't even treat the water for chlorine before putting in fish and surprise almost all of them died. Establishing the nitrogen cycle in a tank involves high levels of ammonia, either added or from fish waste, and that is very hard on fish. It burns their gills.

A much more humane/ethical way to establish a tank is to do fishless cycling with household ammonia and is faster with a starter culture (available in bottles from most stores that carry fish food, like "start zyme").

A lot of people have mentioned ethics in fish sourcing already.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:15 AM on March 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

When Ms Fanclub's 7yo asked this question, here was my answer. It only asks you more questions, but I think they're all valid.

(We're on track to rescue some goldfish and set up a desktop aquaponics experiment to get as close to closed-cycle as possible - have most of the gear, and are waiting for someone to need the fish re-homed.)

Reaching Quiet - Your Fish

This one goes out
To the one with the bright ideas,
I’ve starved your fish to death.
All of them --
the bottom feeders, catfish and the loaches,
the tropical ones too --
all the ones they mention
on the back of the Tetramin bottle...

Feed two or three times daily...
Contains essential nutrients and added vitamin C,
which provide optimum care and help promote
energetic fish and long life.

Oh how they tried to reach the bottle,
only to bash their heads
against the glass you put them into.
You put them into a sticky position.
You boxed up three cubic feet of cold ocean --
and not an honest sample either.

You brought in extra bright ones
with florescent colors injected into stripes,
and discarded the plain ones,
single cells and the seaweed.
Definitely not enough of a sample to set up a cycle,
to support themselves without my thumbs.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 9:06 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to provide an alternative idea - I have a couple of freshwater tanks with live plants in them, no fish. I love them. These plants make pretty nice pets! There are fish shops out there with plants and other supplies that do things much much better than the local PetSmart or Petco for sure, too.
posted by belau at 9:58 AM on March 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

I don't think so, though I'm not up in arms about people who have fish, it's just that for me, I would love love love an aquarium. I think they're beautiful and peaceful. Seriously, I'd love one.

But I've never been able to reconcile the fish pacing back and forth nosing against the glass, wanting to go wherever it is fish go or however it is that they 'want' things. I just think living things aren't decorations.

Don't even get me started on the Siamese fighting fish in the stupid plastic cups in pet stores or wherever, just sitting there, waiting to die. Ugh.

Anyway, I've fantasized about setting up an aquarium with aquatic plants and like, snails or something, something that I felt pretty sure would be pretty happy...but then the snails have babies and you have a hundred snails and what do you do then?

Maybe a purely plant based aquarium could be interesting though...

Basically highly personal ethics are a pain in the ass and I can see why a lot of people don't spend a lot of time thinking in this manner.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:21 AM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't know about Ethics with a capital E, but I personally won't keep fish anymore. Many years ago I had an aquarium, and despite my best efforts, lost fish at what was surely not their natural life cycle-- as I'm sure is true of most aquarium owners. I realized that if I had a cat or dog, they'd be part of my family, and I'd take them to the vet when they were sick or injured and care for them for many years. I decided I didn't want any animal that was effectively "disposable" if it got sick and the pet store remedies didn't work. Basically, after the eighth guppy died, I just felt like a crappy person. And got a cat instead.
posted by instamatic at 11:50 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Assuming these are fish bred in captivity and you will never dump them into a habitat where they do not belong, it's a matter of whether the fish are happy, which means the question is whether the fish can live a natural and fulfilling life in the box you intend to put them in. Do members of this species normally keep to a space the size of a television? Do they normally subsist on dry generic fish food flakes? Do they normally have to listen to an electric pump motor every second of their lives? If they are lively and attentive enough to be interesting to you, are they too intelligent and curious for life in a glass box? Could you spend the money on an interesting piece of art instead?
posted by pracowity at 12:01 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had beautiful SW reef and SW fish-only tanks many years ago, but I gave 'em up because I simply couldn't keep anything alive for more than a year.
posted by doctor tough love at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2015

Best answer: Do fish undergo a lot of psychological stress when they live in tanks?
No, if the tank is set up properly, they live with the right tank mates, and have appropriate plants/shelter areas and lighting, and the water chemistry is correct. Stressed fish get sick; it's very easy to tell.

Can they live good lives in that kind of environment, or is it better just to let them live in nature?
They can live, in my experience as an aquarist of many years, very well. Well enough to breed, well enough to exceed their wild lifespans. I guess it's much the same as having "inside" cats. (and frankly, I don't know why you would be listening to anybody who has not had a lot of experience with aquariums, what would they possibly know about fish-keeping?)

Do things change if I have a cat, who would probably spend a lot of time sitting outside the tank, eyeing them with hunger in her eyes?
No. They are not stressed out by cats generally speaking as cats are not something they've really evolved to fear. Be sure though, if you get a tank, your cat can't get on top and knock the tank over/fall in etc.

There's a lot of anthropomorphism going on in this thread. Fish are not people, and do no react to things like people do. Also this: <> When have fish evolved to spend their lives in a tiny little space? Never. Perhaps some species do spend their entire lives living in the same 20" tiny corner of the ocean, but these are probably not the type that are easy to keep in a home environment if they exist. - is utter nonsense. There are literally dozens of fish that have evolved to spend their entire lives in tiny environments with iffy water, from basically every continent on earth, and many of these are actually perfect aquarium breeds.

If you go to aquarium boards such as aquahobby or the planted tank, you will see that serious aquarists are just as concerned for their pets as dog or cat lovers, and they take the ethical issues of fish-keeping very seriously. I find it kinda weird how many of these arguments could be applied to dogs or cats that people happily keep.

The main issue is sourcing. Make sure your fish are ones that can be easily breed and are generally not wild-sourced. I would avoid marine fish as they are a lot trickier and sourcing can be much murkier.

Best of luck, I no longer have an aquarium but it can be a rich and rewarding hobby. :)
posted by smoke at 1:02 PM on March 1, 2015 [15 favorites]

I had a 50 gallon freshwater aquarium for many years, and I gave everything away a year ago. It was absolutely gorgeous and I really enjoyed the hobby and the learning I did, but in the end I felt too guilty about how many little guys I've lost over time. Some due to beginner mistakes, others due to illnesses introduced from poor stock, and more still due to me going "I can totally do this!" when trying to keep beautiful but finicky species. I especially mourn the discus I tried to grow.

It's very hard in the beginning not to think of fish as "disposable" compared to other pet types. And the less disposable they become in your eyes, the more you start to care, the more apparent it becomes that keeping aquariums is either a brutal hobby or a full-time job. Maybe I'm overthinking this - tons of people happily keep tanks of little guppies or dashing schools of neons for years and years. But I learned that the water in my city is really hard and had to mitigate that, that I had to keep tons of medications around in case an illness broke out, that balancing water changes and stress levels and nutrition and aggression among several fish made me really stressed out, and... It's just a lot of work to do it right, and I had to do it right or not do it at all. In the end I chose to let the whole thing go.

There is so much advice out there on fishkeeping and setting up the right conditions for the species you'd like, and I'm sure you'd enjoy it! If you do go this route, I'd encourage you to do a lot of research and calculate the costs as well - the equipment I needed was pricey and I didn't want to settle on crap that would both make my job harder and the fish more miserable. I am being honest when I say that keeping 3 scatterbrained and rambunctious cats in one apartment is easier for me than an aquarium of fish.
posted by erratic meatsack at 1:10 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In reality, while the discussion of ethics of the industry as a whole is interesting, it's not something that your choice of whether or not to have a pet fish - or a lifetime of them - is going to impact.

Your impact is limited to whatever fish you brought into you care. Would it have a better life than if you didn't? I'd argue that a home, with someone personally caring for it, is always a better location than living - and eventually dying - in a pet store.

Your choice not to bring a fish home will NOT put that fish back into nature.

Now, if you were going to take it home and make it live in a grungy, horrid tank, that would be a different story... and I'd argue it would be better off going home with someone else.

A comparison, if you will? Say this fish was a human orphan, whose parents were murdered, or who merely abandoned him because they didn't want to raise him. While you could rail all you want about the injustice and lack of ethics of the circumstances that landed him in the orphanage, that isn't going to change the fact that he's there, and nothing you say about it will change what's already happened. You can only choose to adopt, or not.

Which one gives the orphan a better life?
posted by stormyteal at 2:42 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Which one gives the orphan a better life?

I think the issue with a commodity like fish is that by rescuing the orphan you still creating a market for pet fish. I don't disagree that the fish will almost certainly have a better life if sold, but I don't think it's that cut-and-dried.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:15 PM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

(I'm describing a fish as a commodity for the purposes of that answer. I think the ethics of it center around fish as a free, living creature.)
posted by Room 641-A at 3:18 PM on March 1, 2015

So I've kept fish for a number of years and tend to be the type of person who endlessly spins myself into ethics circles, so I sympathize with your question. I will share some suggestions and maybe some of it will be helpful. (Although - I did see your other question, so maybe you'll just go with the fungi?)

Anyways. There are several species that have been bred for variety and for more sturdiness in aquariums; I suspect the ethics around this parallel the ethics of breeding dogs like Pekingese and cats like Persians. If you want something that wasn't harvested in the wild, and may have even been bred locally, get to know your local fish shop - not Petco or something similar, but a shop that is local to your area, has 1-maybe 10 branches at most, the local mom-and-pop place. People who breed fish trade them to the store for store credit. The employees will be able to tell you which fish were local bred. For instance, in my local shop, you can get: black lace angel fish, blue discus, German ram cichlids, jewel cichlids, both green and gold severums, every variety of swordfish and mollies you can think of, several strains of fancy guppies, tiger barbs, diamond tetras, american flag fish, koi, several kinds of cory cats, several varieties of shrimp, and a LARGE variety of coral, all bred within a 50 mile radius of the store, and I live in the Midwest. Now, granted, you can't usually find ALL of them on hand at the same time, and we might be a bit overboard on the local breeders, but still. It is possible.

As for the ethics of keeping an animal in a box. I think this is something you need to reconcile for yourself, and isn't really something anyone can decide for you. I've reconciled myself to the fact that I provide oversized tanks and understock them; I provide a variety of food and tanks planted with real plants; I go way overboard on filtration because I tend to like species that need it (cichlids & goldfish being two of the biggest culprits). I've reconciled myself to the fact that I'm making a choice to own another species, and need to do my best for them. At the same time, part of that "best" is not owning certain species - I won't own fancy goldfish anymore, not simply because of the over-exaggerated shapes but because once they reach a certain size they're at a high risk to rupture their swim bladders, and it's awful watching them try to swim after that happens. They also have really high rates of cancer, and in either case, it's pretty awful to try to euthanize a fish shaped like a golfball. (If you really need to know how to do it, memail me; I'm not going to post it here). I don't keep plecos because for some reason, I cannot keep them alive, I don't know why, but I'm not going to keep sacrificing them to figure it out. I don't keep anything that needs to eat live food, even if that live food is just brine shrimp - I have learned through bad experience that I do not have my act together enough to keep up with this type of fishkeeping.

That said, planted tanks are truly lovely, and shrimp are really amazing and fun little critters to have, and are much less evolved on a pain/nervous system level (although yes, I do realize that I'm saying that with full recognition of what others have posted before me about this line of thought).

For me, the ethics of pets of any sort are tied up in the larger question of what it means to be human on this planet. It's a difficult thing to reconcile the fact that just by existing, you're causing negative impacts to the environment and the overall ecosystem. So much of what we do can be considered unethical, or immoral. It just really depends on where your lines are, and that's honestly something you have to decide for yourself.


So I'll leave you with this Captain Awkward post, which has to do with veganism, but mainly I want to point out this comment:

You know how there’s these lists on the internet that go You Know You’re An Adult When… (you buy an appliance instead of a video game, your posters are framed now, etc) They’re silly lists with silly things on them. But your letter reminded me of those lists. I for my part knew I was an adult when I realized for the first time that I could never live up to the moral standards I had set myself. Without knowing it, while growing up, I had compiled a personal list of virtues in my mind, things a good person does and thinks, and one day I realized that I would never, by my own standards, be a good person. I already knew the world was never going to be the world I wanted it to be, not in my lifetime, but experiencing the fresh new hell of realizing I would never be the person I wanted to be was a blow to my soul....It was a terrible moment for me, to know that my list was so much bullshit and that I didn’t have the commitment to be a Good Person. It absolutely BROKE me.

My point in posting this is that I think it's good to ask these questions, I think it's good to consider them, but (as someone who also realized they could never actually be a good person given the unconscious standards they set for themselves) I would say that if you want to keep fish, it's probably ok to keep fish, and that there are a lot of ways you can make that a pretty ethical endeavor, and still enjoy the hobby. Heck, captive-raised corals have been used to repopulate reefs damaged by storms or pollution; that's definitely a hobby that's making the world a better place.
posted by RogueTech at 1:45 AM on March 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: There's also reproduction to consider. I'm on a work & holiday in Australia, and decided to get some molly fish at the Saturday Market since I was in town for a few months. I got four fish. Two male, two female. We also picked up a water snail to help keep their tank clean. Their tank is a 60-gallon tupperware. I gave them river water (we live a stone's throw away), rock caves, and water weeds, and changed out their water weekly.

They laid babies three times in six weeks.

When the vendor said they were pregnant, I was thinking they might have a litter amount of babies, like cats and dogs do. No. The first pregnancy yielded a dozen fry. Then, a couple weeks later, the other female laid a couple dozen more fry. We hadn't finished finding homes for the first batch! Then the first female laid several dozen MORE fry. We returned something like 60 fish (including both adult females) to the vendor. We still have a dozen fish. Fortunately there's only one snail, so we figure we're safe on that front.

In the meanwhile, the water weed has completely filled the top of the tank. There is algae on the sides of the tank, which we leave, since the fish like to eat it and it provides them with more oxygen. We can no longer see the fish. I haven't seen them in weeks, except when changing their water. Taking some water weed back to the river is on my to-do list.

At one point, we acquired a native tadpole from the river on accident. Our neighbor studies reptiles, and says it was a rocket frog. The frog stuck around long enough to grow legs, and then hopped back down to the river. So that was exciting.

But then there were the eggs. We had left a rock only partially submerged in the hopes the frog might take a liking to it. No, the frog is long gone; it preferred the river to our 60 gallons of ecosystem. But the snail. Remember the snail? That lone, loverless snail who doubled in size and who likes to eat. Let me tell you - not about the birds and the bees - about snails. They can undergo parthenogenesis. Asexual reproduction. I made a count of the pale pink eggs the snail laid on the underside of that partially-submerged rock.

There were about a thousand.

Our fish vendor was not going to want a thousand snails. They probably weren't native, so we couldn't just drop them off at the river and be done with it. Nobody we know wants a thousand snails. Let's do a brief thought experiment. What if we found a thousand people who each wanted one of the snails. And each snail, happy in their new home, underwent parthenogenesis. Our one snail could have been grandparent to one MILLION snails. We set the eggs in the sun to dry.

There were times I almost wished the neighborhood cats would go fishing. Actually, since we're talking about ethics, cats are obligate carnivores. Maybe you could feed your cat some pet fish sometimes?
posted by aniola at 4:51 AM on March 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Well...I think at the very least I'll set up a tank for some underwater plants. Trying to maintain a healthy aquatic eco-system in my home sounds like a fascinating project, and reading this thread is only making me more eager to try it out. If I want to be responsible and go the fishless cycling route, then I'd start out with just water and plants anyway, so there's no reason not to get that going first. Then, if I'm successful with that, I can think about whether I want to take the next step and add actual living beings. If I come across an opportunity to get fish in a way that seems ethical to me then I can act on it, but if I don't then there's no obligation; but in order to take advantage of future opportunities then I'll first need to set up a healthy tank, so I might as well just get started on that.
posted by sam_harms at 9:48 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

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