Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird? Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood. In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism. One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing. Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean. Theology played its part too. Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday. In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons. As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.
We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results. Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity. The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient. This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar. Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted. I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish. Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit. Tech makes it so easy!
In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity. As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times. Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap. I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there. In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores. I no longer eat fish. With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner. Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations. The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use. And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster.