Do Fish Count As Animals?

by Sherry F. Colb

First, a bit of self-promotion:  I spoke with Erin Red for her podcast, Red Radio, and you can listen to it here, if you like.

Now, to the topic at hand.  I realize that the title of this post will sound strange to many people.  Of course fish "count" as animals.  They are not, after all, plants, fungi, or minerals, right?  My question, however, arises from an observation that I have made as a vegan:  Many people do not consider fish to be "animals" and thus believe that eating fish might be consistent with being vegan.

At a dinner one evening, for example, one of the people with whom I was dining asked me what "vegan" means.  I explained that it means that I choose not to consume animal products, including dairy and eggs (as well as wool and leather).  She then asked what's wrong with dairy and eggs, wondering whether I believe that life begins at conception when it comes to a newly fertilized chicken egg.  At that point, I recommended my book, Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans, because I have an entire chapter dedicated to dispelling the pervasive myth that eggs and dairy are slaughter-free products. Stated very briefly, slaughter and cruelty are not simply ubiquitous in the dairy and egg industries (which they are) but inherent in even the smallest-scale dairy and egg operations.

After we got that squared away, my dinner companion continued, "Well, fish don't count, right?"  Her question made me realize that the whole category of "pescatarian" is premised on the idea that fish do not count.  While animal slaughter, at least in the United States, is conducted behind closed doors, the slaughter of fish through impaling and subsequent suffocation or beating is considered not just a legitimate recreational activity but a peaceful activity.  People talk about going fishing -- the violent killing of fishes -- in the way they might talk about meditating, deep-breathing, or other relaxation exercises that help us peacefully center ourselves.  I find this disturbing but also perplexing.

I realize that culture and repetition can accustom people to just about anything.  After all, I used to consume animal flesh and secretions, and I too ate fish, which was the moral equivalent of my slaughtering these beings myself -- I just hired other people to do it by purchasing their dead bodies at a store or a restaurant.  Nonetheless, I am still struck by the degree of numbing that accompanies discussions of fish consumption.  Even friends of mine who know that I am vegan have wondered whether I might not have a firm position on the consumption of fishes, animals who make up a majority of the many billions of animals slaughtered for food every year.

I could speculate on why people regard fishes as non-animals.  Perhaps it is because fishes do not look like us and are cold-blooded (which we may be converting from a metaphor to a normative statement).   Maybe it is because they are not "cute."  Sometimes I wonder whether it is, at least for Jewish non-vegans, the fact that religious law considers the flesh of fishes to be "pareve," neither dairy nor "meat" and thus permissible at any meal.  Regardless of why people dismiss the slaughter of fishes, I think it is worth remembering that the best science (not to mention direct observation) confirms that fish are sentient creatures.  That is, they experience the world around them and suffer when we commit violence against them. I have here assembled some quotations from knowledgeable people to help refute the ignorant notion that fishes are indifferent to what we do to them.

"Anatomical, pharmacological and behavioral data suggest that effective states of pain, fear and stress are likely to be experienced by fish in similar ways as tetrapods [amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals]." -- Can Fish Suffer?  K.P. Chandroo, I.J.H. Duncan, R.D. Moccia; Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2004.

"A powerful portfolio of physiological and behavioural evidence now exists to support the case that fish feel pain and that this feeling matters.  In the face of such evidence, any argument to the contrary based on the claim that fish 'do not have the right sort of brain' can no longer be called scientific.  It is just obstinate." -- John Webster, emeritus professor at the University of Bristol, Does she have feelings too?  The Telegraph, March 2, 2005

The Royal Society, the United Kingdom's independent academy of science, published "conclusive evidence indicating pain perception in fish," concluding that pain produced "profound behavioural and physiological changes in fish over a prolonged period of time, comparable to those in higher mammals," Do fishes have nociceptors?  Proceedings of the Royal Society B; Biological Sciences, June 7, 2003

"In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates, including non-human primates.  Best of all, given the central place memory plays in intelligence and social structures, fish not only recognize individuals but can also keep track of complex social relationships."  -- Culum Brown (Associate Professor, Macquarie University), Not Just a Pretty Face, New Scientist, June 12, 2004

"I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals -- and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." -- Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain? (p. 153), 2010

"The scientific literature is quite clear.  Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals ... in animal welfare terms, you have to put fishing in the same category as hunting."  -- Dr. Donald Broom, Professor of Animal Welfare at Cambridge University, Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1995

"I wouldn't deliberately eat a grouper any more than I'd eat a cocker spaniel.  They're so good-natured, so curious.  You know, fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they're wounded."  -- Dr. Sylvia Earle, then chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration