The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is:
“a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose… In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Based on that definition it should be pretty clear that vegans do not eat fish. Nevertheless, there still seems to be some confusion around this. So, in this article, we clarify the issue and explain why there are some people who consider themselves vegan but do eat some types of seafood.
The history of fish-eating
Archaeological evidence from East Africa suggests humans may have been eating aquatic animals as long as nearly 2 million years ago. However, solid evidence of the regular consumption of fish dates to “only” 40,000 years ago in Eastern Asia.
Fish are consumed as food in nearly all cultures in the world, and the rate of consumption has increased rapidly in recent decades. As recently as 1961, each person in the world consumed an average of 9 kg of fish each year. By 2015, that figure had risen to 20.2 kg.
Traditionally fish were caught by individual fishermen using rods or small boats using nets. In the modern world, most fish consumed are either farmed or caught by huge boats using vast nets which “bottom trawl” the ocean, capturing fish while killing many other species and causing enormous environmental damage.
Is eating fish vegan?
Of course, eating fish cannot be considered vegan, as it involves the direct consumption of animals. Why would there be any confusion over this issue? One of the reasons could be that there are some vegetarians who won’t eat other animals but will eat fish.
Such people, technically called pescatarians, justify eating fish on the grounds of health benefits and, sometimes, on the basis of the argument articulated by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in the song “Something in the Way” – “it’s okay to eat fish / ‘cos they don’t have any feelings…”
The second point is a serious one. Back in the late 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked the questions that have guided much of the debate about animal welfare ever since. He wrote that the thing to consider when trying to make a moral judgment about animal welfare is “Not can they reason? Nor can they talk? But can they suffer?”
For many centuries, people argued that fish are less sentient than other animals and cannot feel pain, so therefore it is okay to eat them. However, the modern scientific consensus is that fish almost certainly can suffer. As biologist Victoria Braithwaite of Penn State University said in a debate on the subject, “More and more people are willing to accept the facts. Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”
From a biological perspective fish, like mammals, have neurons that detect harm and opioids that kill pain. They also have intense reactions in their brains and their general behavior when something happens to them that causes pain. In the scientific community, the once-popular idea that fish do not feel pain is now only a fringe view.
Are there any vegans who eat fish?
Another possible reason for the confusion could be that there are some people, sometimes referred to as “seagans”, who combine an otherwise vegan diet with eating certain types of seafood. Seagans might, for example, eat oysters on the principle that the bivalve mollusks do not have either the brains or advanced central nervous systems required to be sentient and feel pain.
Such conclusions are highly debatable, and the vast majority of vegans would reject the idea of “seaganism” being a legitimate part of the vegan philosophy. However, even seagans do not advocate the eating of fish, so it is quite clear that fish-eating is definitely not part of veganism.
So, what does it all mean? There is a simple answer to the question “do vegans eat fish?” And that answer is no.
The confusion about the issue might come from the fact that there has been a longstanding debate about whether fish feel pain. A debate which is now being settled with some certainty by the scientific community, which has concluded that fish do, indeed, feel pain.
There also may be some confusion caused by the fact that there are some vegetarians, called pescatarians, who eat fish. And some people, called seagans, follow a diet that is plant-based plus certain types of seafood (but not fish).
Nevertheless, such people do not meet the official definition of veganism and, as such, cannot be considered vegan. There are lots of questions around veganism that can be difficult to resolve. But this particular one is crystal clear: eating fish is not vegan.