Monday, July 11, 2016

Why Not Fish?

I'm often asked why I don't argue that advocates should focus on fish, given that the numbers of fish killed every year is even higher than chickens. I am, of course, heartened when people are concerned about numbers, as opposed to only working on things that they personally find most compelling.

There are a number of factors that go into my thinking regarding how to advocate, and why not to focus on fish with our first-line advocacy. Here are some of the factors, in abbreviated form (feel free to contact me for more details):

  1. Some people focus entirely on numbers, and not the reality behind the numbers. But I don't care about numbers, I care about suffering.
  2. Most "fish" that are killed (just based on numbers) aren't sentient / don't suffer (clams, oysters, shrimp).
  3. Most vertebrate fish that are killed are wild fish who would have suffered greatly in their "natural" death if they hadn't been caught. So catching a wild fish doesn't clearly increase the suffering in the world.
  4. Only farmed vertebrate fish (e.g., catfish) might be adding suffering to the world by choices to eat them.

Chart by Ben Davidow.

  5. Our most likely audience for dietary change (youngish women) don't eat much fish. Ellen says she never saw her high school or college friends eating fish. Always chickens. The numbers and the suffering are only two of the three factors we must consider; tractability is also key.

But when advocates start saying things like "500 fish/ year," we greatly distract from where our efforts can actually have the biggest impact on actually reducing suffering.

And, of course, every time we add on something else to our ask, we undermine the point of having a single, do-able, impactful first-step act. As always, my approach isn't based on what is "right" or "consistent" or "popular." I try to shape my advocacy such that it can have the biggest possible impact in the real world.


  1. Interesting points, thanks for posting this. I am one of those people that wrote something focusing purely on the numbers ( and will likely update it to convey some of your points.

  2. Joseph T. EspinosaJuly 13, 2016 at 3:38 AM

    It is a topic that greatly challenges me personally, as I have a long love affair with fish. Before Matt ruined my life by pulling me into animal protection work 24 years ago I was supposed to become a Biologist studying South and Central American cichlids. Nonetheless, I have to admit that Matt is correct in his assessment here of why not to focus on fish. Even more challenging to me personally is that I am afraid of birds. Yet there is no doubt that they have the same capacity to feel pain as dogs an cats, you and I. And definitely suffer the most intensely of all animals in modern farming. So that is our work.

  3. To make this a stronger argument, you might want to temper points 2 and 3. As to 2, the case against oyster sentience has some weight from ethologists, but the same is not as clear for all clams and shrimp. As to 3, even if caught fish suffer no more than they would otherwise from predation/parasites, prematurely removing them from their ecological niche speeds their replacement when the population naturally rebounds, thereby increasing net suffering.

    1. Could you expand on your second point a bit? What would your scenario look like without any fishing? How would that lead to less net suffering?

      From what I can tell, you're saying that the rebounding that would occur would be due to decreased competition rather than an increased birth rate, right? If that's the case, then that means that the previous population equilibrium would have been caused by competitive pressures, which seems like it'd involve quite a bit of suffering (i.e. starving).

    2. I'm referring primarily to an increase in fecundity due to relative abundance of resources. Decreased competition also can't be ignored, however, since it can have a profound effect on hatch rate, leading to more sentient adults than would have come into existence without fishing.

  4. Hi Matt,

    The post makes several interesting claims that I haven't seen sources for elsewhere, and would appreciate links or citations for.

    "Most "fish" that are killed (just based on numbers)"

    Do you have a citation for the relative role of vertebrates and invertebrates in the reported numbers?

    "aren't sentient / don't suffer (clams, oysters, shrimp)."

    Usually people put shrimp in a different category than bivalves, do you have a link for your argument regarding their status?

    "would have suffered greatly in their "natural" death if they hadn't been caught"

    Isn't it quite unlikely that this would be very similar between fishing and wild deaths? Death by suffocation when captured can take a while, longer than being eaten by predators, although less than starvation and disease. Then fishing would be either quite bad or quite good, but not nearly neutral.

    Do you have a model about the average wild death vs fishing death?

    1. Hi Carl,
      You can see vertebrate vs invertebrate aquatic numbers here:
      in Table 3.
      As for relative sentience, you can see lobsters here:
      Shrimp have an even simpler nervous system.
      However, the question of having ethically-relevant experiences (truly being able to suffer, not just sense) is a much more complicated question. Being actually aware, and not just an organic robot, requires significant complexity in the brain. As a primer on that, I'd suggest Antonio Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens." If you email me, I can supply some of the relevant excerpts. In short, we are far to quick to attribute "consciousness" to things that seem to exhibit intentional behavior.
      The questions surrounding the manner of death are important, and Lewis brought those up with me separately. I don't know what I would prefer -- to die from being "fished," or to take my chances with a "wild" death.
      More importantly, though, is that modern chickens are in chronic pain for much of their lives. As Veterinary Professor John Webster notes, modern chicken production is "the single most severe, systematic example of man's inhumanity to another sentient animal." I would certainly rather be a fish (even if fish are truly sentient) many times over, rather than a bird.

    2. Thanks Matt,

      Regarding # of neurons, how steeply do your attributions of sentience/importance scale with # of neurons? E.g. the difference in # of neurons between humans and chickens is on the order of 400x. The difference between chickens and lobsters (using the lobster figure from that page, and Herculano-Houzel's results for chickens and humans) is ~2000x.

      How do each of those gaps affect your prioritization?

    3. Carl, I take neurons to be an approximate measure of a creature's place on the "sentience" scale. Somewhere along the line, a creature with a nervous system can't suffer at all (going down), but also I think sentience fades.

  5. I'm interested in seeing your data behind #2, as I have seen the opposite (over 84% of this catch is finfish) in the US (not sure about the rest of the world.) Please send to Thanks!

    1. See the links in the message for Carl (above).

  6. I disagree. Globally, 1-3 trillion fish are killed every year. This doesn't include bycatch, fish caught illegally, fish who escape and die, or who are killed by ghost gear. A new study reported that global catch could even be underestimated by half. Even if you are correct about shellfish not feeling pain (which I'm not sure you are, especially for lobsters & crabs) the majority (over 84%) of this catch in the US is finfish. Most wild-caught fish are killed by asphyxiation, which can take 4 hours to kill them, or live gutting & asphyxiation, which can take up to an hour to kill them. Fish are also often crushed to death in nets by the weight of fish above them, or suffer from decompression effects, such as having parts of their gut forced out through their mouth and anus, bulging eyes, and burst internal organs. Are deaths from disease, injury, or even being eaten alive (which probably takes seconds to minutes) worse than this? And because of how many fish we are taking out of the ocean, many fish are no longer "old" when they are killed (because we are not giving them enough time to age before we kill them.) The estimated number of farm-raised fish killed globally each year is between 10 billion and 100 billion. Many farmed fish are fully conscious when slaughtered by suffocation & live gutting (as opposed to many farmed land animals, who are not conscious, and even many chickens are unconscious, although not required by the federal Humane Slaughter Act.)

    1. Hi Kelly,
      See the discussion and links above (in the discussion with Carl).

    2. I commented before I saw his comment. Thanks! :)