February 22, 2001
"Fish is meat," announces Danny, my 9-year-old vegetarian son.
"Fish is fish," responds Larry, my 50-something pescetarian husband.
Judaism backs up Larry, classifying fish as pareve, neither dairy nor meat, and telling us that fish first appeared almost 6,000 years ago, on the fifth day of creation, when God commanded, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures" (Genesis 1:20). God later elaborated, "anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales -- these you may eat" (Leviticus 11:9).
But the National Audubon Society supports Danny, categorizing fish as wildlife, and, along with other ecological and animal rights groups, raising questions that transcend the mere availability and codification of fish and directly challenge our ethical obligations as both fish-eaters and fish-catchers.
Indeed, with the yearly haul for all sea food estimated at 100 million metric tons, according to Britain's Marine Conservation Society, and with 30 percent of the world's fishes listed on the World Conservation Union's "2000 Red List of Threatened Species," can we, in light of various Jewish moral precepts, continue to serve salmon at Shabbat dinner or take our kids fishing off the Santa Monica pier?
The Jewish mitzvah of bal tashit, do not destroy, can be traced back to Deuteronomy 20:19-20: "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them."
Thus, the rabbis have interpreted, if we are prohibited from destroying fruit-bearing trees even during the extreme conditions of wartime, imagine our responsibility to earth's living plants and creatures under normal circumstances.
And so, we must pay heed when National Audubon Society, through its Living Oceans marine conservation program, alerts us that certain fish are abused, endangered or nearly depleted.
Wild salmon, for example, except in Alaska, are in serious trouble. Orange roughy, which became very popular in the 1980s, are fished out, as are Chilean sea bass, which may, according to some sources, face extinction by 2005. Additionally, the shark population is decreasing, especially in the Atlantic where they are overfished and depleted, and groupers, flounders, red snapper and swordfish are in serious trouble.
Plus, commercial fishing for many of these species results in the accidental catching and killing of other aquatic life as well as damage to the ocean habitats and ecosystems. For example, for every pound of shrimp caught, never mind that it's halachically off-limits to us anyway, another four to ten pounds of sea life is killed or destroyed.
The National Audubon Society encourages us to select fish from a well-managed fishery. Among the kosher ones are tilapia, pacific cod, striped bass, pacific halibut, dolphinfish (aka mahi mahi or dorado) and wild Alaska salmon.
The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), founded in 1993 to bring a Jewish perspective and response to the environmental crisis, reiterates the need to safeguard the diversity of all life. According to Executive Director Mark K. Jacobs, "Based in the very beginning of Jewish tradition, in the story of Noah, we believe we have an obligation to preserve all the species we find on this planet."
And so my pescetarian husband has sworn off swordfish and orange roughy. He eats wild salmon only from Alaska.
But my vegetarian son, who has already sworn off eating fish, has a more difficult task in store for him; he must swear off fishing, which his older brother Gabe says, not entirely ironically, is the leading cause of death among fishes.
The Jewish concept of tzaar baalei hayyim (showing kindness to animals) puts fishing as a sport in the same category as hunting. In fact, when 18th century Rabbi Ezekiel Landau was questioned about hunting, he replied, "In the Torah the sport of hunting is imputed only to fierce characters like Nimrod and Esau, never to any of the patriarchs and their descendants... When the act of killing is prompted by that of sport, it is downright cruelty."
"But I throw the fish back," is the defensive response of anglers.
"But the fish are not even aware of their own existence," they protest. "They can't feel pain."
Wrong. According to various scientific studies, including The Medway Report, sponsored by the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, published in 1980 and updated in 1994, fish do suffer. They have a brain, a central nervous system and pain receptors throughout their bodies.
Thus, hooking a fish on a line and subsequently releasing it hardly qualifies as compassionate behavior. A fish's mouth is covered with nerve endings, causing it to experience pain -- as well as fear -- as soon as it is snagged. Also, once out of water, a fish begins to suffocate, often causing its gills to collapse. And even returned to the water, a fish can die of trauma, infection or serve as a vulnerable target for a predator, including another "catch and release" fisherman.
The challenge for us Jews, based on what our tradition teaches us, lies not in reeling in the "big one" and mounting it conspicuously on our den wall. Nor does it lie in elevating animal rights over human rights. Rather, the challenge lies in finding a balance that respects and preserves all life.
As COEJL's Jacobs says, "Fishing in and of itself is a good way for humankind to harvest the food that it needs. But it must be done in a way that is going to sustain the fish population."
For more information about the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans program, please visitwww.audubon.org/campaign/lo.