OP-ED: Why we should forgo fish for Lent

Daniel Paden
People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals
Commentary: Why we should forgo fish for Lent

It’s customary for Catholics to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, which starts on March 6 this year. It’s considered a form of penance, a show of self-discipline and a recognition of Christ’s sacrifice of His own flesh on Good Friday. But many Catholics make an exception for fish and shellfish, even though sea animals are just as capable of feeling pain as cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens are.

A Nielsen survey suggests that there’s a spike in seafood sales around Lent, and churches are known to host fish fries throughout the Lenten season. But is that holy? God loves every animal the same — regardless of what role humans have arbitrarily assigned to a species.

Engaging in unkind practices in God’s name is never acceptable. During this time of self-examination and abstinence, we can reflect on the reasons why eating vegan seafood — rather than sea life — now and every other day of the year is the best way to respect His creation.

Sea animals are living beings with individual personalities. Biologist Jonathan Balcombe, the author of “What a Fish Knows,” believes that fish merit as much respect and moral consideration as mammals and birds. He points out that fish, too, “plan, recognize, remember, court, play, parent, innovate, manipulate, collaborate, communicate with gestures, keep accounts, show virtue, form attachments, possess culture, fall for optical illusions, use tools, learn by observation and form mental maps.”

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Scientists recently found in a study that cleaner wrasse fish — who form symbiotic relationships with other fish — can recognize themselves in the mirror, which is considered a gold standard of animal intelligence and self-awareness. The study’s authors believe that the findings raise questions about fish welfare, and the senior author concludes, “We must be very careful as scientists and humans not to let our loss of empathy towards animals that look different to us influence our opinion of what they experience.”

“Otherwise,” the author continues, “we conveniently forget or ignore that fish and other animals are sentient and, for instance, our entire practice of commercial fishing lets these animals die in stress and pain on the decks of boats.”

Is that what we want?

Sea animals have families, friends and their own individual interests, just as humans do. Crabs, for example, are good neighbors who will leave their burrows to help others fend off attacks, and lobsters use complicated signals to explore their surroundings and establish social relationships.

Robert Elwood, an emeritus professor at the school of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, argues that there “is as much evidence for pain in crustaceans as there is in many vertebrates,” yet crustaceans are still boiled alive or dismembered while they’re conscious and able to feel pain.

Would a loving, merciful God sanction such cruel practices?

God’s design for the world was one in which animals and humans co-exist peacefully and humans are caregivers — not killers. Instead of eating sea animals, we should enjoy vegan seafoods that are available online or in grocery stores across the country.

I stopped eating sea life and other animals more than 21 years ago, when I realized that it wasn’t enough just to abstain from causing suffering for some animals for 40 days. I wanted to stop as much suffering as I could, all year. Now that I’m vegan, I make the penitential Psalms and the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah part of my daily prayer as an act of contrition for Lent.

I encourage my fellow Christians — as well as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and anyone else who wants to learn more — to visit for information about all the beings you can help by going vegan.

— Daniel Paden is the director of LAMBS, PETA’s Christian outreach division, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;