Recently I stopped eating anything that was once alive. People call it vegetarianism but that just makes me feel awkward. I don’t want to call it anything. I just want to eat what I eat, and that should be that. Because there are times when I’m sitting in front of the dinner table at a restaurant, scanning the menu, and I find myself deeply and uncontrollably attracted to the shrimp scampi, to the lobster roll, to the baked haddock. I am regressing back to my childhood days spent as a frequent consumer of seafood.
I grew up in a small coastal town in Massachusetts, heavily populated with fishermen, boat captains, boat builders, and fishing equipment suppliers. I was raised the daughter of a single mother who dated her fair share of fishermen. I remember them coming home from month-long trips with bags full of scallops, or a few lobsters, which were used as instruments of terror as my mother chased me around the house with them while I shrieked and she giggled. But then she would cook them and I would eat them, and they were delicious.
So maybe I don’t want to be a vegetarian. Maybe I want to be a pescetarian (definition: a person whose diet includes “fish but no meat”). If I’m going to define myself in terms of my eating habits, maybe I should consider my childhood, too; my hometown, my past. Subscribing to an “ism” seems so political and so definite. So maybe I want to include fish and seafood in that. And besides, a lot of people view pescetarianism as a more moral and ethical dietary choice, just a step below vegetarianism. But is it really better?
It sure seems that way. From an animal rights perspective, when comparing fish to their farm animal counterparts, the differences are monumental. It’s much easier for human beings to connect and sympathize with something that lives in the same environment we do, with lungs like us, that breathes air like us; something furry and cuddly, something closer to our dogs and cats than to the slimy garden snakes slinking through our front yards. Eating fish is easier because fish are less like us and less able to interact. I can pet a cow or a pig and see it react to my affection, but the same can’t be said for a fish. So it’s logical to conclude that pescetarianism is a more moral and responsible choice because fish cannot feel or react the same way that farm animals can.
But more and more research is emerging that indicates the situation may be a little more complex than that. In spite of the numerous and obvious physical differences that make fish and other sea animals seem like aliens from another planet, evidence suggests that they’re capable of thought, memory and emotion. An issue of the journal Fish and Fisheries cited research indicating that fish possess intelligence, can use tools, and that they have impressive long-term memories and sophisticated social structures, and an excerpt from an article at the site fishinghurts.com quotes marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle as saying, “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.”
So maybe eating pescetarian won’t help me sleep better at night, now that I’m imagining the life my dinner led before it made it to the plate, knowing it was once part of a “complex social structure” (Nemo and Dory?). But at least I can be confident in the fact that I am not contributing to the destruction of the earth by means of supporting land factory farms. After all, eating fish and seafood does not contribute to the land devastation or the wasted resources caused by factory farming. And Environmental Defense, a U.S. based nonprofit advocacy group, even says, “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than a half-million cars off U.S. roads.” There you have it. Now that I’m only eating fish and definitely not chicken, I’m drastically reducing carbon emissions.
But, of course, there’s a but. Apparently both commercial fishing and aquaculture are devastating to the environment, too. Fishinghurts.com claims, “Commercial fishing practices are wiping out entire underwater ecosystems and pushing our oceans to the brink of environmental collapse.” Harsh, serious words. It is true that overfishing has impacted a number of species in terms of the ocean’s wildlife, but the emergence of aquaculture, or fish farms, has been instigated to combat that. But aquaculture, defined as the act of cultivating and farming aquatic populations under controlled conditions, has its own environmental impact. Fishinghurts.com also sights an article written by the Pollution Control Authority that says fish feces and the corpses of dead fish left to decay in farms “upset the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem…leading to extreme fecal contamination, deadly diseases, and depletion of wild fish stocks.”
So, in review, all the facts seem to indicate that pescetarianism isn’t much better than eating meat. But where does that leave me? Staring at a plate of rice and broccoli, wishing there was a nice pile of seared scallops between the two? With this growing trend of the desire to mix philosophy into our diets, I’m finding myself overwhelmed by all the things that need to be considered. It almost seems easier to revert back to following my taste buds and leave everything else out of it (I could call it “gustatorianism”). Or maybe it’s time to drop the labels all together and reinvent the way we think about our diets. Maybe I don’t have to be a vegetarian, or a pescetarian, or a gustatorian. Maybe I can just be me, try my best to make educated decisions at the dinner table, and hope that is enough.