Growing up on India’s west coast, family trips to the beach were a highlight of my summer vacations. After a day of playing in the surf, we would sit on the beach, eating ice cream and watching fishing boats bob on the horizon against the backdrop of a crimson sunset. Occasionally, a boat would come ashore with nets filled with all kinds of fish. The fishermen would quickly sort the agitated dying fish into various bins and send them off to the market.
I was nine or ten when I first connected the agonizing tossing and turning of the netted fish to the delicious fish curry my mom frequently cooked for us. Previously, I had imagined that fish came from the market, already lifeless and unmoving. I remember feeling a pang of pain as I watched life slowly drain from the fish in a crowded net on the shore.
I also remember my mom looking sadly at the measly catch and reminiscing how the fish catch had declined significantly over the past few decades, how boats had to go further away from the shore to make a catch sufficient for a living.
Recently, I came back to these memories as my Jesuit brothers were discussing Fish Fries in various Catholic parishes in Saint Louis. As my brothers discussed the merits of tilapia over catfish and fried fish over grilled fish, I remembered the dying fish in the nets and pondered on our moral obligation to the creatures of the sea.
“What about fish?” is a common response to my stance against participating in animal cruelty by consuming factory-farmed animal products. Fish is often considered an acceptable option by those who avoid meat out of concern for the environment and animal welfare. Pescatarians believe that, in such situations, fish is a cleaner alternative to meat. However, the same issues of environmental degradation and animal suffering crop up with the fish industry.
We eat fish for pleasure or cultural reasons. We do not need to eat fish or any animal product for our survival and flourishing. We can get all the necessary nutrients from plant food.
It is true that Jesus ate fish. It is also true that for some indigenous cultures, fish is an essential part of their diets. In both of these cases, however, I agree with Christian ethicist Charles Camosy’s view that consuming fish is acceptable when alternative protein sources are either non-existent or in short supply. Indigenous populations tend to live in areas where the land is insufficiently fertile for large scale plant based agriculture.
However, the vast majority of fish consumption is based not in necessity, but preference. It would be a mistake to believe that our place in God’s creation means that our preferences have priority over the lives of other creatures. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2418) says, “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”
In the words of the documentary A Prayer for Compassion, “For a few moments, in which we are enjoying what is just a palette preference, we are taking what is most essential to animals, their very lives.” Eating fish in 21st century America is a palette preference, and nothing more. Killing fish through suffocation cannot be justified simply because we like the taste of their flesh.
Additionally, both our sources of fish, wild and farmed, have serious environmental issues. A recent New York Times article suggested that bottom trawling, besides damaging reefs, may release as much carbon as the aviation industry.
Furthermore, wild fish stocks have declined significantly due to overfishing in recent decades. My mom was right when she claimed that there used to be a lot more fish. The collapse of fish populations is not just a tragedy in its own right—it often means the poor go hungry first.
Indigenous and traditional fishermen are left high and dry because they do not have the means to fish in deeper waters, and they do not have alternative sources of food or income. Finally, catching wild fish is wasteful because many undesirable species of fish are also caught alongside the prized fish species. This bycatch is usually just tossed away, perpetuating our throwaway culture.
Aquaculture, while abating the problem of overfishing and wasteful bycatches, has its drawbacks. For example, on a weight basis, farmed shrimp meat is even more polluting than beef. In addition, these fish farms can cause tremendous water pollution due to the discharge of untreated waste.
The New Yorker recently carried a story of how a Chinese fish meal factory in Gambia had destroyed the coastline and local fish stocks to manufacture feed for fish farms in China and Norway. According to the author, “Gambia exports much of its fish meal to China and Norway, where it fuels an abundant and inexpensive supply of farmed salmon for European and American consumption. Meanwhile, the fish that Gambians themselves rely on are rapidly disappearing.” Unfortunately, farmed fish is no silver bullet to the environmental degradation associated with harvesting fish for our consumption.
Our ancestors ate fish and the Catholic Church has celebrated Fish Fridays for centuries. However, reexamining this practice because of the development of a fish industry that has devastating effects on our common home would be prudent. The oceans are not limitless as once imagined. Furthermore, today we have access to a plethora of plant protein meal options that generations before us did not have. These range from meals based in lentils, beans, and nuts, to fake meats and non dairy milks.
Jesus exhorts us to compassion and kindness towards our neighbor. Can I imagine compassion to include compassion for indigenous people whose livelihoods are challenged by overfishing? Can my kindness include kindness towards non-human animals, who are voiceless and powerless in the face of insatiable human desires for pleasure?
In the book of Genesis, God invites us to establish dominion over all creatures (Genesis 1:26). Can our dominion over non-human animals resemble God’s dominion over humans, a dominion built on love, care, and mercy?
I pray that our Catholic faith will open our hearts and widen our horizons to include all of God’s creatures in our web of neighborly love. Let us tread lightly on the earth and float gently on the ocean as we make our way to spending eternity with God.