Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Values, Ignorance, and Seafood: Some Quick Thoughts

A special treat today--a guest post by the husband, JH:

When non-vegetarians ask me about my (almost) vegetarianism, I brace myself for one of two responses. First, there is what I like to call “the Oklahoma response.” This typically involves one form or another of deliberate crassness: either a reminder that meat tastes good, or a suggestion that caring about the well-being of non-human animals is na├»vely soft-hearted. (My father's comments usually fall into this category, as when he gleefully tells people that my vegetarianism is merely “a fad” that the kids are following these days.) The second response is what I call “the Madison response.” The Madison response usually involves a lot of vigorous nodding, perhaps followed by an admission that my interlocutor is sympathetic to vegetarianism—maybe she/he even tried it once!—but an explanation that for one reason or another, she/he still eats meat, often with some degree of guilt.  My mother exemplifies one strain of this response. On those occasions when I've mentioned some difficult-to-stomach aspect of industrial animal agriculture to her, her response is nearly always the same: “I don't want to know about it!”

I can relate to this response. Modern industrial agriculture is an ugly thing, filled with harrowing tales of tiny cages, unanesthetized mutilations, giant manure pits that seep into the water supply, and much more. It is a system with enormous environmental consequences, and where the lives of animals are often nasty, brutish, and short. For a lot of people, a long hard look at the system would probably not allow them to continue their usual way of eating with equanimity. It's all much easier if we just fail to learn about the problems involved, lest they trouble our consciences.

I don't mean for this to sound belittling. As I said, I can certainly relate to such a frame of mind. Despite having read my fair share of PeterSinger's work on global poverty, AZ and I just took a vacation to Puerto Rico, just to get away from the Madison winters and get a little R&R. The money we spent in doing so could obviously have alleviated much more suffering had it been put to an alternate use. But if you'd mentioned that fact to me while I was lying on the beach, I probably would have told you that I didn't care to reflect on that fact at the moment.

Less dramatically, I admit that I practice a kind of willful ignorance about aspects of my diet as well. Unlike AZ, I'm not a strict vegetarian, but a pescatarian: I eat fish or crustaceans about once a week. I do this in part for variety and in part for the nutritional value, but mostly I eat fish just because I like it. For me, there's nothing like a delicious Wisconsin Fish Fry on a Friday night to cap off a long week.

While I think some types of seafood consumption are not ruled out by any of my reasons for being a vegetarian, I sometimes find myself slipping into the “I don't want to know” mindset, especially when it comes to eating species that are overfished, or for which the methods of harvest are deeply environmentally destructive. I carry the Monterey Bay guide in my wallet, but sometimes I don't look at it, for fear that it won't give me the answer I desire.

All of this is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. But this might be about to change. For I'm finally reading a book that Anna got me for my birthday a few years ago, Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe. (The other book I'm reading right now is Moby Dick. I must be in an aquatic phase.)  I'm only a couple of chapters into the book right now, but it's exactly the kind of resource that someone like me could use to bring my eating habits more into alignment with my values. The author reviews the different methods of commercial fishing and some of their less savory effects--environmental destruction, large levels of bycatch, depleted stocks.  Each chapter deals with a different species of fish, and some of the costs and benefits involved in the process that takes the fish from ocean to plate.  You also get some amusing anecdotes wherein the author grills 4-star chefs about the ethics of their seafood choices. At the end, he gives a list of fish to eat and those to avoid. For those interested, here they are:

AVOID: Bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, Atlantic Halibut, Chilean Sea Bass, Grouper, Monkfish, Orange Roughy, Dogfish Shark, Skate, Atlantic Sole, Tilefish.

EAT: Arctic Char, Pacific Halibut, Herring, Jellyfish, Mackerel, Mullet, Oysters/Mussels, Pollock, Sablefish, Sardines, Squid, Trout, Whiting.

Of course, such a one-size-fits-all list is bound to gloss over a number of differences within species concerning where and how they are raised/caught. But for those looking to exercise a little more thought in their seafood choices, books like this one, or even just the above list, might provide a good place to start.


  1. Thanks for this! As a pescatarian and Monteray Bay card-carrier, I will have to check out that book. Luckily, my favorites are on the "good" list (Oysters! Trout! Sardines! Mullet!--though you don't see that much up north). But its not always easy to know if you're doing the right thing. Even trying to follow the Monteray Bay guidelines can be difficult, and I've read some critiques of it--at the Guilty Planet blog, I think. Jennifer Jacquet (Guilty Planet is her blog) has made some strong arguments against eating seafood at all, given scientific uncertainty about sustainable harvests. I still think limited consumption is OK, but I take her point--that fish should be treated as wildlife--seriously. I try to err on the side of the less controversial species. The best part about the Monteray Bay guide, though, is that it gives you an entry point with people (like my parents) who would never have even thought about trying to make an ecological choice before.

    Phew, sorry for such a long comment!

  2. (Thanks for your long comment. You're always such a thoughtful commenter and add so much to the conversation that takes place on this blog, and I'm SO grateful for it!).

    1. Oh and this: Sustainable Seafood Swims To A Big-Box Store Near You

  3. I've been meaning to comment on this for a while. Great post, Justin! I've long been remiss about educating myself on what sort of seafood eating is consistent with my values. I should really check out that book (but also appreciate the quick-reference list of fishes to avoid/eat!). Thanks for the link, Anna!

  4. Not sure if I told you (two) this, but over Thanksgiving I read an article on MotherJones that kind of changed my stance on pescetarianism. In addition to thinking about animal suffering, fertilizer use, seasonality, and other things that we "ethical eaters" (I know you don't like the term, JH, but I also know you know why I use it) feel we ought to consider, the article discusses caloric and nutritional efficiency: given a certain amount of space to dedicate to production, how much nourishment can we get out of any given food? It turns out that, at some times and places, small fish are among the best things we can eat. They're low on the food chain and have to consume relatively few calories - of stuff that we wouldn't be eating anyway - in order to provide us with a whole host of nutrients. The article recommended anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and a few other varieties. Looks like it lines up fairly well with your list above!

  5. Hey Mike,

    Yes! I failed to mention one of the central contentions of the book. The book is called "bottomfeeder" for two reasons. The superficial reason is that, well, some seafood are bottomfeeders, in the sense that live on the seafloor. But one of the main theses of the books is that we should be "bottomfeeders" by eating low on the food chain when it comes to choosing which seafood to eat. This has several advantages, including the reasons of efficiency that you mention. It also helps to minimize concerns about pollutants, since toxins like mercury accumulate as you move up the food chain.

    Thanks for the comment. Anna sent me this link today ( and the waves of cognitive dissonance just came rushing back. I should probably cut it out with the shrimp eating, or at least stop eating shrimp from my favorite fast-food Chinese restaurant....