Why Do Fish Have Good PR?

“How long have you been like that?”, “You don’t look like a vegetarian.”, “Don’t you get hungry?”

veg eating fish As a vegetarian it’s almost guaranteed that you will hear the above phrases at least one thousand times during your lifespan.  An entire article could be written about how to answer these questions and why vegetarians are forced to endure them, but right now I want to focus on the most frequently asked question; the question that refuses to go away:“But you eat fish right?”

“No. I don’t eat fish, thank you, just veggies.”  That’s my typical response, but what I’m thinking is: “Why would I eat fish?  Are fish not animals?  Vegetarian means vegetables.  When did fish become a vegetable? Eating fish isn’t safe.  It’s not even that green! Why is eating fish so popular?”

To answer these questions and perhaps spare myself from carbon copied queries I searched the Internet looking for the latest and greatest in fish data. 

Here’s what I found:
In recent years a positive fish PR blitzkrieg has made eating fish the de rigueur of everything healthy, trendy, and posh.  Oprah touts salmon as a miracle food, celebs profess their love for sushi, and health gurus push fish oil like it’s the fountain of youth. 

fish meal Eating fish is so in vogue that it’s completely unthinkable that even a vegetarian would abstain. The truth is fish are becoming increasingly dangerous to consume and the harvesting of fish on such a large scale is not only unsustainable, but also deteriorates the oceans at an alarming rate.

Fish absorb the toxins we dump into the waterways through the food chain. Recently, reports of contaminated fish have been popping up weekly in major media.  The New York Times reported that toxic levels of Mercury were found in tuna samples taken from various sushi restaurants around the city.

Fish in the Great Lakes have been shown to contain Mercury, DDT and a host of other unhealthy additives.  Discovery News reported that pharmaceuticals showed up in fish caught in the area of five major US cities. 

In California state officials expanded their toxic fish advisory to include even more species that swim in waters contaminated with DDT, PCB, and Mercury. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch promises to poison fish and humans for thousands of years into the future as the plastic soup breaks down into tiny particles, which then find their way in the bodies of fish.

To make consumers feel better the FDA released a handy list, which lists fish that have the highest Mercury ratings. Of course, Mercury now appears to be just the tip of the iceberg in the cornucopia of possible poisons.

Being poisoned by a fish may not concern most people, but the plummeting fish stocks should concern everyone.

“One billion people rely on fish as an important source of protein.”(World Wildlife Fund) “[Fish] consumption has been growing at a rate of 3.6% per year since 1961, while the world’s population has been expanding at 1.8% per year.”(World Health Organization)

What these facts mean is seafood, at the levels it is being caught and consumed today, is not a sustainable food source. If this growth continues unchecked fish stocks will disappear, and then 1 billion people will have to find protein elsewhere.

pacific garbage patchThe situation is so dire that even the legendary Atlantic Cod, a fish that helped build empires (not with little hammers mind you more by feeding the people), is in population free fall

Simply put fish are disappearing because we are eating them all. Add pollution, habitat destruction, and fish farm viruses to the equation and aquatic life doesn’t have a chance of survival if we don’t start paying attention.

Those who still want to eat seafood, but make responsible choices can download the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website. A sushi lovers guide to sustainable seafood can be also be found on the Monterey Bay’s website. 

If you’re also worried about Mercury or other toxins in your fish you might want to also carry the Mercury chart from the FDA.  When you bust out all your guides and charts at dinner you will look like Lewis and Clark looking for the Northwest passage, but that’s the price of responsibility. 

Be aware that just because you eat sushi or fish in a nice restaurant doesn’t mean you won’t be chowing down on safe or well-stocked species.  Last year Greenpeace busted Nobu by secretly sampling their tuna and then submitting it to DNA tests.  The testing revealed that the Nobu tuna samples were from endangered Blue Fin Tuna

Ask questions of your wait staff and be prepared to order the chicken or veggie tempura if you don’t get the answers you want.  Maybe it’s also time to rethink the sushi craze.  Next time your friends want to take you to their latest and greatest sushi find suggest another exotic cuisine like Indian.

walnuts Finally, for those people stressing about their daily dose of Omega 3’s consider vegetarian options like flax seeds, tofu, rape seed oil and walnuts.  

For more information on the state of the world’s fishing stocks check out the film End of the Line playing world wide or visit the websites of the Marine Stewardship Council, the Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund. To support Marine Protection Areas and learn more about them go to MPA.gov.

More cool articles on Celsias:

New England Fishing Cooperatives Hope to Rebuild Declining Fish Stocks

Will Climate Change Disorientate Fish?

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If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Gene Pann (anonymous)

Hi, When I lived in Tucson, I knew a lady who made Vegetarian Sushi. I myself am still addicted to meat. But boy, I loved her sushi. Do you think Japanese restaurants would make vegetarian sushi if asked? Just Curious

Written in August 2009

Vegetarian sushi is quite common - usually made with chopped up cucumber, carrots, avocado, etc. wrapped with rice and seaweed. Even if its not on the menu you can ask for it and the chef will whip it up - however it usually smells fishy - ick. My favorite veggie option when I am forced into a sushi restaurant is veggie tempura, brown rice and endamame. I highly recommend it.

Written in August 2009

Jennifer McGuire (anonymous)

As a registered dietitian, I wish eating fish was in vogue. But the truth is the amount of fish Americans eat has been on the decline for the last three years in a row. The average American eats a meager 16 pounds of seafood per year, compared to 73 pounds of poultry and 110 pounds of beef.

People are confused about eating fish, so let me clear the waters with the latest nutrition guidance.

For the general population, there are no fish to limit or avoid. Eat a variety of fish, especially oily fish.

For women who are or may become pregnant, nursing moms, and young children, the advice is actually really simple.

1) Eat a variety of cooked seafood.
2) Eat 12 ounces of seafood every week (2-3 servings).
3) Half of the fish you eat every week can be white albacore tuna (6 ounces).
4) Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

The nutrients in fish are especially important when you're expecting. Unfortunately the average pregnant woman in America eat less than 2 ounces of fish per week, and this is resulting in a slew of problems related to low omega-3 intake such as increased risk for depression during pregnancy and poorer brain development among babies.

While plant foods like flax seeds and walnuts are healthful, the omega-3s they contain are different from those in seafood and are not linked to the same health benefits. DHA omega-3, found only in marine foods like seaweed and fish, is the type needed for optimal brain development and health. People, especially pregnant women, who choose not to eat fish should look for supplements or fortified foods that contain algal DHA.

Jennifer McGuire, MS, RD
National Fisheries Institute

Written in September 2009

Thank you Jennifer though I understand you work for the National Fisheries Institute which is "a national U.S. trade association for the seafood industry including producers, retailers, restaurants, wholesales, suppliers and trade associations." So this makes your info a little questionable. I notice you did not address the subject of toxins in fish only briefly mentioning not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish but not telling the good people why? You also did not address the very real scientific data which shows fish stocks in decline. You simply addressed the topic of fish and nutrition as if fish were a pristine food source, which unfortunately, you and I both know, it is not anymore. Yes, fish is still a growing protein source for the people of the world. But if we don't approach eating it in a more responsible manner we are going to completely wipe out this food source.

Written in September 2009

Vera (anonymous)

Dear Jennifer,
Your comment about marine Omega 3's being the optimal source of brain development and health mystifies me.. Most vegetarians (myself included), do not suffer the myriad of intestinal and abdominal physical illnesses that meat eaters have and we are often highly intellectual people (myself included).

Written in November 2011

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  • Posted on Aug. 24, 2009. Listed in:

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