Vegetarians won’t change the fishing industry

Posted by Willie — 24 October 2011 at 2:35pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Willie MacKenzie Greenpeace

Without fail, anytime I blog about more sustainable fish there will be at least one comment along the lines of ‘go vegan’ or ‘no one needs to eat fish anyway!’ That is of course fine and a viewpoint I (as a vegetarian of 25 years and counting) can certainly sympathise with.

There is usually a second set of criticisms which takes this further and suggests that Greenpeace, by promoting or lauding more sustainable fish over the stuff that is caught using destructive and wasteful methods, is promoting fish eating. That, I feel, is missing a very large point.

Basically, the people who buy and eat fish have a lot more power to change the fishing industry for the better than those of us who don’t.

Brands listen to their customers’ concerns and the thing they least want is you not buying their product or going somewhere else instead. That has been a key driver over the past few years that has resulted in supermarkets adopting fish procurement policies, removing certain species from their shelves, and has yielded so much success in our tinned tuna campaign.

But the impact doesn’t stop at the supermarkets - it is passed back up the supply chain to affect how, where and what is being fished. That of course is the crucial point. It’s the reason, for example, that so many fisheries worldwide are seeking third-party sustainable certification.

And before I get too anthropocentric, it’s not just us humans who can make a difference with our eating habits. Sea lions, penguins and cats have an impact too, leading to the somewhat embarrassing situation where the UK government’s own fish buying standards were, for a while, less stringent than what was fed to the prime minister’s cat. Oops.

The overall message here, although perhaps at first confusing, is actually quite simple. It’s about taking into account the real cost of the fish we eat, including how they have been caught and what else has been damaged or killed in the process. Just as we have been made aware that what goes on to give us cheap food or cheap clothes is not always very palatable, the same is true with fish. You get what you pay for and you might well need to pay more.

If you want to eat fish, then do it well. Eat better fish, and eat fish better. Have less of an impact. Bypass the endangered species, the stuff caught by trashing the seabed, and the stuff that comes with a whole side order of unacceptable bycatch for a start.

So if you eat fish, or want to eat fish, you can make a difference. Your opinion matters to the people who sell it, process it, catch it and make the laws that govern it.

A very interesting perspective. Nicely done. Thanks.

It's not that you shouldn't discuss more sustainable options for fish-eaters -- of course you should. The point that vegans make is that the most simple option for the vast majority of people is to stop eating it all together. This also prevents other species from facing problems as people move from a depleated stock to another, only to have it depleated in years to come.

In short, just give it as an option. Remind your readers that we don't have to eat fish at all, like you did in this post. If that message were included in GP's literature along with films like End of the Line, it would give people a reminder that eating meat is optional without insisting that they make the switch. Let people make the choice for themselves by providing options.

As Frank suggests, it would be one thing for Greenpeace to even mention veganism as an option. All too often you gloss over the very possibility so it's incredibly hard for you to judge unequivocally that only appealing to customers works. Every enlightened former "customer" would equal less fish taken out of the sea, which if Greenpeace's purported goal on this issue surely?

I thought the whole point of being vegetarian was not eating any animals, including fish...

Personally, as a volunteer campaigner, I see this as a pragmatic/practical issue. The vegetarian/vegan response of 'but I don't eat fish' happens quite regularly when we are out doing street campaigning e.g. at present we are asking people to write to David Cameron about reforming the Common Fisheries Policy. My point here is that if I ask someone to sign a letter (or whatever) on this issue and their response is 'but I'm vegan', then why not sign it anyway? - that person may not eat fish (and so has taken responsibility for their own food consumption) but the reality is that most people are omnivores and are likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Hey Willie! Just like you assumed in your blog. Your blog post sucks. Go vegan! I simply cant understand how eating fish would help resuming fish stocks. Or how consuming any animal product could be good for the environment.

Petteri Pykäläinen, Helsinki, Finland

I think this is a very good piece of campaigning from a vegetarian! Open, inclusive, non-patronising - we are all capable of and should be allowed to make our choices for ourselves.

Hey guys, thanks for the comments.

In particular the point about tisi being a pragmatic approach is well-made. Quite simply, most people are omnivores, and there's only limited traction in telling people to just stop eating fish/meat.

*OF COURSE* being vegan or vegetarian is an option, heck it's the option I take myself! And, on a purely environmental basis, there's little argument that reducing (or eliminating) the amount of meat you eat reduces your carbon footprint. 

If you have taken that option then, well done.

But realistically, your role with the seafood sector is a lobbying one. Sure, you can campaign and lobby, and write letters - but ultimately, you've already decided not to eat the fish. Even if the retailer does change its ways, there's no benefit to them as you won't be buying it!

In contrast, the customer who does eat fish, or wants to eat fish, is viewed as just that - a customer. Brands and retailers don't like upsetting their customers, so they can help change things by being vocal about what needs changed.

That's not to say we don't eat too much fish (and waste too much fish!) already, of course we do.

I believe the answer for occasional piscivores is to eat fish better. Have less of an impact. and pay a fair price for it.

Letting them know the true cost of the fish they eat, and the impact we are having on our oceans, gives them the tools to make an informed decision on how to do that.



While I don't think I could manage being a vegan or vegetarian, I have made myself stop eating fish for the past 5 years. I do agree that there are other options besides fish, and that people are inclined to make that choice themselves.

I have been a vegetarian most of my life and a vegan for the last few years.  I agree that the best way to deal with over-fishing is not to consume fish at all.  There are plenty of other, better, things those employed in factory fishing could do instead.

However I have a carnivorous cat and generally I feel that feeding her fish is less damaging and causes less suffering than feeding her meat.  Now I'm not so sure, but whether true or not I am (at the moment anyway) a consumer of fish products on her behalf.  I am not going to kill my pet, as some have suggested, though I may think twice before replacing her when she dies.  Nor am I inclined to force my vegan principles on my cat!

I would be interested in learning from others of alternative ways to support carnivorous pets while causing the least harm to the planet and reducing suffering to other species.  



Is like in Shackespeare..."to be or not to be"...I mean "to eat or not eat".Subject is interesting,with pro and contra arguments.Great article!


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At the very least, Greenpeace should set an example by having all its own catering vegan and suggest to the public that it is an option ... even that giving up Tuna is also an option. Being vegetarian is not enough.

"Stop eating FAD Tuna ... or considered giving it up altogether".

There can be no disagreement that for the majority of people on this planet, going vegan is the single most powerful environmentally protective and sustainable act they can take.

And yet Greenpeace does not mention it any where. It has never been one of its campaigns.


The only hope for humanity facing future crises is "to follow a plant-based diet as much as we can manage given one's circumstances."

That is the primary message to be repeating.

Greenpeace have lost my support.

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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