"Fish is good for me!" I used to tell myself while eating some member of the seafood family, swallowing without sentiment. After all, fish is protein-rich, and they don't have feelings (or so I thought); they are slithery and furless, they don't fetch or meow, and they taste really good in tacos.
Besides, I'd already given up meat and poultry after I was bullied into becoming vegetarian nearly 20 years ago. It all transpired during a backpacking trip around Europe with my PETA activist friend from college. "Leather comes from cows," she informed me as I tried on the most perfect leather jacket at a boutique in Rome one afternoon, giddy with delight and twirling in the mirror as the sales clerk gasped in approval. "Sei bellissima!" he exclaimed. "Didn't you know they killed a cow to make that?" She countered, darkening the mood. I looked into her pleading, mad cow-like eyes, my conscience overpowering my vanity in the end. I returned from that trip not only jacket-less, but without having sampled the most talked about culinary delights of Europe -- prosciutto, coq au vin, and schnitzel -- simply because they were meat-based. In fact, all I had to show for that trip was a nose piercing.
Truth be told, I eschewed meat from that point on and never looked back. And over the last two decades, I've dithered between veganism and vegetarianism, eventually incorporating small amounts of fish into my diet because I was informed that, as a vegetarian, I was "likely protein-deprived." Industry propaganda has long over-stretched the claim that there's a dearth of protein sources for non-meat eaters, but that's simply not true (I've never been anemic). True, I have felt sleepy sometimes, but that's due to something called "lack of sleep." Admittedly, I was an irresponsible vegetarian when I was younger, subsisting on mainly bagels, falafel, and dirty martinis just because I didn't know any better. In any case, I grew to enjoy eating fish on occasion - and the best part is that I didn't feel like I was doing anything morally wrong by eating the occasional Dover Sole - it wasn't like I was consuming meat from one of those horrific factory farms in the Midwest! Besides, I convinced myself that by dining on fish I was helping sustain the livelihood of some cute, little hard-working fisherman wearing a straw hat somewhere tropical.
But those were the good old days, when I was living in blissful ignorance - basically, until just last week. Before I was enlightened by Mission Blue, the new Netflix documentary directed by Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and Bob Nixon (Gorillas in the Mist) on the state of the ocean, the commercial fishing industry, and the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle - a feisty 78-year-old eco-activist whose admirable efforts to save the ocean over the last several decades have been recognized by the likes of President Barack Obama. I was reviewing the film for TED, who awarded Earle with the TED Prize in 2009 to help her campaign to create "hope spots," underwater areas so critical to the health of the ocean that they need to be protected by law. I'd been looking forward to the seeing the film, but I was blown away by how much I didn't know - or had avoided knowing.
Love tuna? Well, it's pretty much extinct thanks to the insatiable human appetite for sushi. Scared of sharks? No problem, we've killed almost all of them. Of course, I don't live under a rock. I knew that the practice of shark-finning was brutal and problematic, but I didn't know that with only 10% of sharks left, we've seriously compromised our entire ecosystem. I knew that the seas were being overfished - due to modern, environmentally-catastrophic and wasteful fishing methods like bottom trawling - but to what extent, I didn't know. "Overfishing - it's an amazing phenomenon. Who would have ever thought that people would be able to fish so efficiently and so effectively...that we would reduce the stocks of these species that were present by the billions to the point of obliteration or near obliteration," says Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian Institution, one ocean activist interviewed in the film. "We've done it to Atlantic tuna, we've done it to sharks, we've done it to cod, we've done it to halibut, to anchovies, to sardines...We've done it to just about every damn thing you would ever want to eat," says Jackson. There are less than 5% left of many of these fish in most cases. This would explain why we have 50% fewer coral reefs than we did in 1950. "The ocean is dying," says Earle, and our biggest problem right now is our own ignorance.
Perhaps some of you knew all of this, but did you know that, mercury poisoning aside, a diet of carnivorous animals, such as carnivorous fish, is not what our bodies function best on? "There's no question that a plant-based diet is better for you and better for the planet," says Earle, one of the most eminent biologists in the world. "If you ask me, the best thing is a plant-based diet, or largely plant-based diet with small amounts of meat coming from plant-eating animals. We have all the nutrition that we require, available to us through plants," she adds.
That means, if you're eating Halibut, not only are you ingesting an old piece of meat (it takes years for many of the fish we like to eat to mature), but it will likely be full of the toxins we've dumped into the ocean and, by eating a carnivorous fish, you're electing to obtain nutrition many layers removed from the source that best serves us (plants!) Culinary tastes aside, why eat a fish that eats a fish that eats a fish, rather than going straight to the source itself? And guess what? Fish don't even make omega-3 fatty acids themselves, so you can easily buy the plant-based supplement and have a clean conscience instead of purchasing fish oil. Earle broke it all down for me in this eye-opening interview here.
I've been on such a rampage about this over the last few days, beckoning my friends to watch Mission Blue and urging virtually anyone I meet to reconsider allowing fish to be a part of their diet. Yesterday, I caught myself eyeing my weight-conscious colleague - who sits caddy-corner to me - poking at a container of sashimi, and I had the sudden urge to go over to her and enlighten her. Is that pink pile of tuna worth the demise of the ocean? I don't want to be that person, but I also don't want to be the person who does nothing.
Feeling frustrated by what I felt was indifference around this issue, I called my dear journalist friend to vent. Why am I so emotional about this? Is it because I'm a water sign? He sensed I was in need of more ammunition and thus drew my attention to several recent newspaper articles and UN reports that had in fact drawn a direct link between piracy in Somalia and foreign commercial fishing! Turns out, a lack of government protection of Somalia's natural resources has failed to prevent the illegal and unregulated exploitation of its waters by foreign fishing vessels. These ships have reportedly been destroying the nets of local Somali fisherman and denying them access to fishing grounds making it difficult for them to earn an honest living. As a result, many are driven to take up piracy because it pays better than fishing -and it's sadly one of the few ways of making a living in Somalia. Estimates for how much Somali piracy has cost the global economy range from $7 billion to $18 billion. So here was another reinforcement for my plea - there's even a significant geopolitical argument to stop eating fish!
Oh and as for fish not having personalities, I was lying to myself. Earle, who has spent upwards of 7,000 hours underwater in her lifetime, can attest to this. "If you're sharp enough to distinguish one [fish] from another you soon begin to see that they behave differently. If that's personality, which I guess it is, each one has its own little quirks," she says. I recall a video my brother, a freelance wildlife producer for Discovery Channel, once showed me years ago. It was of a non-descript shrimp he filmed on a trip to Australia. As I watched the puny gray thing moving in what seemed like slow-motion for several minutes- my patience being tried - I eventually noticed that he was exhibiting human-like qualities, annoyance in particular, as my brother repeatedly popped a bit of seaweed into the shrimp's habitat whilst he was taking the pains to clear it out. I was stunned to discover that those little bottom-feeders - which happen to taste so scrumptious deep-fried - have personalities! But I don't think I really allowed myself to process that information until now.
I know how you feel - one more thing we can't eat. For a moment, I thought - I gave up chicken tikka masala, my favorite dish, years ago and now I have to give up fish? Though I've never looked at a vegetarian diet as a deprivation of sorts. It's easy these days; with a little bit of imagination, it can be flavorful and varied. While I swore I'd never become like my PETA friend, accosting people with my views on meat consumption, what I'm really saying here is: inform yourself and then decide. Watch Mission Blue and be mindful about your choices, even if it means just cutting back.
Because eating meat, whether we're talking seafood or burgers, Earle reminds us, is a choice for most of us. And if you can choose something that's better for you and better for the planet - one that's already threatened by overpopulation, a scarcity of resources, the extinction of vital species, global warming, and ozone layer depletion - then why on earth wouldn't you?