Parashat Shemini

An Abundance of Fish

We do not have the right to drive fish to extinction.

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Many fish species need time to grow and mature. Chilean sea bass, also known as Patagonian toothfish, live at least 40 years. Orange roughy can live to be 100 years old. In 2001, a fisherman caught a 205-year-old Pacific rockfish. George Washington was still president when that fish was born.

Many species do not become reproductively active until they are 20-30 years old. We exacerbate the problem by catching juvenile fish that have not yet had a chance to reproduce. In doing so, we do not allow them the chance to fulfill Hashem's blessing to them of pru u'revu, be fruitful and multiply.


Aquaculture has been touted by some as a solution to the crisis of world fisheries decline. According to the FAO, aquaculture now accounts for nearly 50% of the world's food fish. In 2004, carp, salmon, and tilapia were among the top ten species groups in terms of aquaculture production.

While some might view this as a solution to the problem of overfishing and exploitation, there are negative effects to the environment as well. Overcrowding in the fish pens leads to stress and disease among the animals, and this disease can trickle out to the wild populations of nearby stocks, decreasing the quality of the surrounding waters.

Also, thousands of acres of mangrove forests have been cut down to accommodate shrimp farming in Southeast Asia. Mangroves are important as they provide habitat for hundreds of species, as well as protection to upland areas from storms.

A Vision for the Future

Nahmanides (Spain, 1194-1270) writes that the mitzvah of shiluah haken (not taking a mother and baby bird at the same time) teaches us that we should not cause a species to become extinct. Are we acting in an unholy manner when we eat fish that are harvested from unsustainable fisheries? Should our desire to consume these animals be more important than leaving them for future generations or for other species in the food chain that require these same fish for their survival?

One of Ezekiel's messianic descriptions states, "every living creature that will swarm wherever the two streams will go, will live, and the fish will be very abundant, for these waters have come there, and wherever the stream flows, they shall be healed and live. And it will be [a place] beside which fishermen will stand, from Ein-gedi to Ein-eglaim; a place for spreading nets they will be; their fish will be of many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many (Ezekiel 47:9-10)."

We must try to live our lives in a way that promotes the visions of God's prophets and does not diminish them. We should strive to see the rivers and oceans teeming with fish once again.

The best choice that we can make is to eat fish from sustainable fisheries. There are many kosher fish which are fished in sustainable ways. The Monterey Bay Aquarium provides information on good eco-choices for eating seafood.

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Candace Nachman is a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, Permits, Conservation and Education Division. She is the president of the Green Group at Congregation Kesher Israel in Georgetown, Washington, DC.