Mary Finelli, Fish Feel


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMary Finelli is President and Chairperson of Fish Feel. Mary is a long-time animal rights activist with a B.S. in Animal Science. She has worked for various animal protection organizations, with a primary focus on farmed animals. Mary was the Producer of Farmed Animal Watch, a weekly online news digest. She has also assisted with research for several books, and co-wrote a chapter of In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave.

Fish Feel is the sole organization devoted exclusively to promoting the recognition of fishes as sentient beings deserving of respect and protection. Fish Feel primarily serves to help educate the public about these wondrous animals, the immense problems caused by the exploitation of them, and how we can help protect them. Fish Feel is an all-volunteer, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.


Hey everybody. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. Woo! I’ve had a very foodie kind of day today and I’ll be talking a little bit more about it later but I’ve been spending all of my morning into early afternoon at the Food Revolution Summit which started last Saturday and goes until next Sunday. It’s a 9-day event. I’ve been tuning in, listening to the broadcast for three hours a day and fielding questions by the listeners all during the broadcast. There’s been like 7 or 8,000 posts so far, weeding them out, deciding how to respond appropriately has been a massive project. But I continue and I’m more inspired than ever. One of the things about events like the Food Revolution Summit which is online or local events happening in your community, like a Veggie Pride Parade which I’ve talked about numerous times on this program. You get to meet like-minded people. People who are doing wonderful things, small scale, larger scale, medium scale, no matter how big or small, everything that we do to make this world a better place is important. I meet so many wonderful people at these events and it really helps re-charge to know that you’re not alone and that a lot of good things are happening. We don’t hear enough about the good things that are happening in mainstream media and that’s what I try and do here every week. Speaking of the Vegetarian Pride Parade, this year I heard a speaker, I was one of the speakers but I heard another speaker who I never heard before and found out about an organization I had never heard before. Now we’re going to hear from her and about the organization. Mary Finelli is president and chairperson of Fish Feel. Mary is a long time animal rights activist with a B.S. in Animal Science. She has worked for various animal protection organizations with a primary focus on farmed animals. Mary was the producer of Farmed Animal Watch, a weekly online news digest. She has also assisted with research for several books and co-wrote a chapter of In Defense of Animals the Second Wave. Fish Feel is the sole organization devoted exclusively to promoting the recognition of fishes as sentient beings deserving of respect and protection. Mary Finelli welcome to It’s All About Food.

Mary Finelli: Hi Caryn and thank you so much for having me on.

Caryn Hartglass: You’re very welcome. As I mentioned earlier, I heard you speak and I have to admit you know going on to also give a talk myself I was focusing on what I wanted to say and I didn’t get everything that you said so I hope you can review some of what you spoke about during the Pride Parade and a lot more. So Fish Feel, tell us about Fish Feel.

Mary Finelli: It’s a relatively new organization. We work to educate the public that science has shown that fish are sentient. They feel fear and pain. They are killed in far greater numbers than any other category of animals used for food. The way they go about killing them is so indiscriminate. They’re also catching dolphins and whales, turtles, birds, seals; you name it whoever’s out there. They’re dredging the bottom of the ocean floor and destroying the habitat, coral reef and other habitat down there. We’re basically desertifying the oceans and all for something that’s not even good for us. It’s got mercury, dioxin, parasites, pathogens, cholesterol, saturated fats. Fish is certainly not a healthful food to eat. For people who like seafood there are so many wonderful vegan versions available now that are better for us, better for the other animals and better for the environment. It really just makes sense.

Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s a mouthful. In your bio I can’t help but mention, I love puns and you describe Fish Feel as the soul organization.

Mary Finelli: That was actually unintentional but good of you to pick up on that.

Caryn Hartglass: But that’s an important point because I had never heard of another organization focusing on this issue. The fact that fish feel…I read more and more science behind this concept recently. Humans, in general, we don’t have a very good reputation for being open-minded and we tend to be racist and species-ist, not really knowing how to relate to beings that are different than us. So it starts with gender and how people express their gender. It also shows itself with race and when people look different than we are, when they have a different culture than we are we tend to want to exploit what’s different. So now we’re, I think, developing a little bit more, maybe, an appreciation for our fellow mammals maybe. There’s more conversation about it but fish—we don’t look like them. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Mary Finelli: It’s true, very true.

Caryn Hartglass: The tip of the melting iceberg, I have to add.

Mary Finelli: Hopefully so, yes. We’re trying to help melt it. I’ve been involved in farmed animal protection for…I’ve been involved in animal rights for the past thirty years really focusing primarily on farmed animal protection. I’ve always wanted to get to the roots of what’s harming animals and how to help the most of them. The greatest category by far of animals being killed for food are fish. On our website we have a chart that compares them. There are some 50 billion fish killed for use as food in the U.S. every year. The number is just…it really just dwarfs the other numbers of animals as horrific as they are, as immense as they are. The number of fish killed is just astronomical. Largely they’re just being ignored by the public, their welfare by the public and even the animal protection and animal rights community. We’re just being very speciest when it comes to fishes. Fishes are just such a huge category of animals and animals most people don’t even consider to be fishes, for example, eels and rays and seahorses. It’s just such a huge category of animals. So we just decided that somebody should be advocating on behalf of fishes so we began Fish Feel.

Caryn Hartglass: Thank you. Thank you for doing this.

Mary Finelli: I’m so glad to be able to do it.

Caryn Hartglass: Can you tell me what you studied in animal science?

Mary Finelli: Really it would be more precisely titled animal exploitation. It’s all about how to go about using animals as food, essentially, how to go about it efficiently. Really very little was touched on as far as welfare. There was only one course I took in the whole program that was addressing that. That was back in the early 90’s. That was when they were first really starting to address farmed animal issues. Even though this is being touched on at the university—I went to the University of Maryland—it’s a land grant university, the people who are teaching it are very biased. That’s of course going to influence the students, as well. Even though it was being addressed there, the way it was being addressed was in very couched terms.

Caryn Hartglass: Were you an animal rights activist at the time?

Mary Finelli: I was. I had been involved in animal rights before that. I went there specifically to study animal science so I could use it to help animals, hopefully, which I like to believe I’m doing. It was very troubling to see what was being taught there. Not surprising but disturbing none the less.

Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Unfortunately in our education system what’s being taught is not necessarily the best for humanity and the best for the planet. When people go to learn about agriculture they often learn about animal agriculture and how to make it more efficient or how to grow plants for animals and make that more efficient. There’s lots of subsidies and funding that go to universities to promote this type of education. I hope environmental science is changing. I remember when a friend of mine went into environmental science program back in the late 70’s, this is a long time ago, he was very disappointed because he cared about the environment. He went into this reputable program and all they were talking about really was cutting down trees for paper and using the environment, exploiting the environment rather than protecting it.

Mary Finelli: Oh yes. Even within animal science, the agriculture component they were actually getting away from farm oriented production investing more into laboratory, genetically engineering animals. It was the way it was going at that program, even more disturbing really.

Caryn Hartglass: Before we get into the big stuff, I just want to point out what we can do as individuals not just in terms of eating but… I have friends over time who have told me that they like to fish for sport. There are some romantic images that we have of father and son or grandfather and son going out and fishing. There are so many pictures I’ve seen, you see their backs and it’s a beautiful picture and they’ve got their rods in the water, this bonding event. Many of my friends have told me, “yeah, I fish and I throw them back.” Can you talk about fishing and throwing the wounded fish back into the water?

Mary Finelli: Yes. It is such an Orwellian concept when you think of it, how fishing is promoted as being this peaceful way to enjoy nature and bond with your children. In fact just yesterday there was a post put up on a website all about…HABRI is the name of the organization, I can’t remember, Human Animal Bonding Research Institute I think is what it stands for. It was for National Pet Week, children bonding with animals. It showed a little boy on a dock and he has a fish on the end of his line and there was a cat on the dock with him. The cat is kind of playing with this fish. It’s just such an absurd idea—that’s how children should bond with animals, by torturing and killing an animal. So of course we put in comments and response to that. As you were alluding to earlier, people don’t think of fish even as animals, so many people, which is so absurd, or as feeling animals or thinking animals. This is all so contrary to what we know about fish, what science has shown about fish and what so many people intuitively realize about fish. Fishing is not a sport. The fish are not willing participants, they are victims. Even if these fish are caught and released, many of them die ultimately from the injury and trauma that they suffered. They are being impaled. They are being manhandled. They are being held out of the water and partially suffocated and then thrown back in. They may swim away when you put them back in but it doesn’t mean they are going to survive. They are certainly not helped and they are harmed by it. It’s not a peaceful past time. It’s animal abuse.

Caryn Hartglass: That sounds like such a fun game. Wouldn’t you like to be the one at the end of that line, having a blade or a hook in your mouth? Fish are full of nerve endings, aren’t they? Where they feel that pain and then being wounded so that you’re available as prey for a bigger aquatic being.

Mary Finelli: Right, right. If people think about what it is, it’s animal abuse.

Caryn Hartglass: Non-human animal abuse.

Mary Finelli: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: What is Fish Feel doing to let us know more about all of this?

Mary Finelli: We recently had our website re-designed by Laura Moretti who is with Animals Voice. She did a wonderful job redesigning the website. We post information. We’re very active on our Facebook account. We have a Twitter account that’s very dynamic. We really work essentially to educate the public about fish, that they are admirable, intelligent, sociable, personable beings and let them know the problems with fishing which, as you said, harms fish and so many other species and is so destructive to the environment. Human slavery is rampant in the fishing industry. The Associated Press this past week won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on human slavery in the fishing industry. A lot of that catch is sold here in the US. It’s largely untraceable so if you’re eating seafood you may well be eating seafood that was caught by slaves. We let people know about alternatives to it. Fish is not something healthful to eat as much as the government would like you to believe it is. Again, it has all kinds of toxins, cholesterol, parasites, and pathogens. You might be able to kill the parasites by cooking them but do you want to be eating dead parasites, hopefully not. All the nutrients that we derive from fish can be obtained more healthfully and humanely and environmentally responsible from plant sources including vegan seafood. There are marvelous vegan seafood versions of pretty much any kind of seafood you can imagine. May Wah, which is a company in New York, they actually sell a vegetarian shark fin. So pretty much any kind of seafood you can imagine, there are marvelous vegan versions on our website. We list companies that sell different types of vegan seafood. We have hundreds of recipes. People are so imaginative and creative at replicating flavors and textures. You serve it with a little cocktail sauce, a little tartar sauce. If you really like that oceany flavor just add a little crumbled seaweed and that’s pretty much what you’re looking for. You won’t be missing out on anything except the toxins and the cruelty and the environmental harm.

Caryn Hartglass: Very good. Now there are people, I’ve sure you’ve heard this, people who say, “I’m a vegan or a vegetarian, I just eat fish.” I call it the scaly vegetable. Just like chicken is the feathered vegetable. We just don’t see these beings as sentient.

Mary Finelli: Right. People who say this just don’t understand the definition of vegetarian or vegan as not using animal products. Again, there’s just no reason to be doing that for your own sake as well as the animals and the environment. It’s not necessary. You can get these vegan products now in, for example, Target and in our local store here, I’m in the DC area, Giant. They sell it; you can get it in mainstream supermarkets. Sofie’s Kitchen, which is a company that specializes in vegan seafood. Safeway is supposed to start carrying their products now. A lot of health food stores carry these foods now, Wegman’s, Whole Foods. If you look around, you can find them. And then again, if you want, you can make your own. We have all the recipes on the website, so many recipes. They’re easy, inexpensive and delicious.

Caryn Hartglass: I have a recipe I’m going to share with you later, maybe you can put it on your website, as well. It’s my vegan gefilte fish that we have every week, every year during Passover.

Mary Finelli: Wonderful.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s a good recipe.

Mary Finelli: Great. Did you come up with it?

Caryn Hartglass: I did.

Mary Finelli: Wonderful. All the better.

Caryn Hartglass: It took some trial and error to get it right but I’m pretty happy with it now.

Mary Finelli: I’m glad. Please do send it. We’d love to post it.

Caryn Hartglass: My first experience, my first moment of enlightenment with fish I think. I was a vegetarian. My sister and I went to Epcot Center, this was a long time ago, early 80’s and I saw my first experience with fish farms where there were these big white tanks filled with fish. It just struck me if fish have to be grown this way in order to be eaten, not live in a natural environment and live the way they’ve been designed to live I can’t participate in that. I didn’t know anything about fish, if they felt anything. It just didn’t seem right.

Mary Finelli: Well, good. That was very intuitive of you. It is very unnatural. Usually they’re kept in very crowded conditions and filthy conditions. The water’s pretty much stagnant there with them, filled with feces and decomposing food. They use all kinds of parasiticides, synthetic chemicals and drugs to try to keep fish alive—like a sea pen where they’re penned in to a water body. Oftentimes farm fish are infested with sea lice, parasites, and those transfer into the wild fish. If they fish escape they can compete with the wild fish. They can interbreed with the wild fish, which causes all kinds of genetic problems. There’s a situation in Australia right now where they had imported carp for fish farming. Some of these carp escaped. They’re such tenacious animals, so adaptable, that they have really thrived there to the point where they’re crowding out the other species. Now they’re actually planning to infect these carp with a virus and try to kill them and now their concern isn’t about the welfare of the carp but rather that there will be so many millions of tons of dead carp that it will pollute the water and clog up the waterways. Fish farming is not a solution. It’s just another problem.

Caryn Hartglass: You said something and I don’t remember exactly what it was at the Vegetarian Pride Parade, something about teaching children to kill at an early age.

Mary Finelli: That was probably fishing. They’re really trying to promote fishing with the youth now. Let me say one thing Caryn before we get away from fish farming. I just want to mention. The reason why there are so many fish killed for food in the US is because so many wild codfish are caught to feed the farm fish. So many of these farm fish are naturally carnivorous fish. They’re basically wiping out the oceans to feed these farmed fish to the point where they’re running out of wild codfish to feed them so now they’re trying to turn these naturally carnivorous fish vegetarian. In the meantime we have animals out in the wild—sea lions are starving off the coast of California, marine birds are being found dead for lack of food. Other animals are being shot and killed because they are eating fish that people want to consume. It’s just causing such havoc in nature. Again, it’s not a solution it’s just a whole other set of problems. I’m trying to imagine what that was about. It’s probably about the way fishing is being promoted to the youth because it is kind of a boring past time really if you think about it. Kids really aren’t that interested in fishing so now they’re doing all kinds of youth promotion programs to try to get kids out there to kill fish. It’s promoting animal abuse.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. There’s something ingrained in our culture. We learn early on through fishing or other means that killing is ok.

Mary Finelli: It desensitizes children to animal suffering and makes them think of animals as disposable commodities to do with as you please.

Caryn Hartglass: Now what about extinction? We’re seeing a lot of extinction of different species of fish in the oceans.

Mary Finelli: Yes, there was a study out not too long ago done by World Wildlife Fund in conjunction with Zoological Society of London and they’ve estimated that in the past 40 years aquatic populations have been halved because of overfishing, largely, and pollution and now we have climate change and ocean acidification, there’s so many problems affecting the oceans and waterways now. These animals, species, are having a hard enough time surviving without people needlessly eating them.

Caryn Hartglass: Now I have to mention because everything is connected is that one of the major causes of climate change is animal agriculture where we’re growing monocropping plants to feed animals to feed people. It’s very energy intensive. It’s destructive on the environment. These land animals are putting out a lot of methane gas. Their excrement puts out a lot of methane gas and nitrous oxide…so it’s this domino effect, we’re effecting climate change, the waters are warming. These fish, the ones that are left that we haven’t sucked out of the ocean with trawlers and all kinds of crazy methods to get as many as we can. We don’t even eat—let’s talk about that in a minute—we’re taking them out of the ocean but we’re also making it more uninhabitable for them. I’ve read these heartbreaking stories about the coral reefs. How they are being destroyed in various areas. We need them. The fish need them. It’s just a disaster.

Mary Finelli: It really is and so much of the crops grown for or used as animal feed and manure is used as fertilizer and synthetic fertilizers and that washes into the waterways and creates these dead zones, just destroys the oxygen. Takes away the oxygen and nothing can live there—huge dead zones in the oceans where nothing can live. It really is all connected. It really is just causing environmental havoc.

Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about one last thing—GMO salmon. What do you think about that?

Mary Finelli: I think it’s terrible. Yes, there’s a company called Aqua Advantage and they’re trying to genetically modify or they have genetically modified salmon by inserting genes from different species, different fishes, into them to make them grow more quickly. They’re trying to get it approved to be the first animal food for human consumption. It hasn’t been approved yet and hopefully it won’t but it’s looking like it will be and then the fight will be whether or not they’ll have to label it as being genetically modified. No one needs it. No one is clamoring for it except the people who would profit from it. It’s shown to cause deformities in these fish. There are concerns also about these fish if they were to escape what environmental effect that could have. Again, it’s cruel, it’s inhumane, it’s unnecessary and it’s just to make money. That’s all it’s about.

Caryn Hartglass: I remember reading in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series was on fish. It had nothing to do with whether we should eat fish or not. They were just stories about fish. Several of the stories were so heartwarming about the engagement people had with individual fish demonstrating that these fish were aware of the interaction and they responded in a very positive way. There was one story about how this one, I think she was a doctor diver of some sort and she repaired a wound on one of the fish who was in need and it was just a beautiful story.

Mary Finelli: I’ll have to check that out. We have a page on our website called “Your Page” where people can post stories of how they came to realize that fish were sentient or experiences they’ve had with fish. We invite anyone who’d like to submit their account to do so. You can send it to Also if I could ask—we were talking about how things are interconnected—we have a campaign right now in the Chesapeake Bay. These beautiful cownose rays, they come up from the Gulf of Mexico every year to mate and give birth to their pups. They don’t mate until late in life. They only have one pup a year so their population is very prone to predation. They’ve been being scapegoated for decreases in the oyster populations here which science has shown is actually due to pollution and disease largely brought on by the pollution and over collection of oysters for human consumption. So they’ve been holding these bow fishing contests where they go out on boats and they ride right up on the rays who are gliding on the surface of the water and shoot them with these bows and impale them and haul them out of the water and they just beat them mercilessly. We had it documented with a shark last year and then throw them in a pile to suffocate and then throw them back dead and dying in the water afterwards. So we’re really trying to get that stopped. We have a petition on our website. If people would sign that we’d really appreciate it. We really have a full out campaign now to try to get these horrific bow fishing contests stopped.

Caryn Hartglass: What will we think of next?

Mary Finelli: I worry to wonder.

Caryn Hartglass: I forgot to mention today, it’s something that I’ve started again recently on this program that I do take callers during the programs. The number is 1-888-874-4888. You know that number, 1-888-874-4888…there’s so many 8’s. If you have a question for Mary or myself in the next few minutes while she’s still with us, feel free to call in and I will be keeping the line open for the rest of the program. You mentioned people post stories on your website, can you tell me what you’ve learned from fish, maybe from these stories or your own experience?

Mary Finelli: You know when I started this I really wasn’t that familiar with fish. The more I learn about them just the more admirable they are. They really are just amazing wonderful creatures. They’re perceptive. They can learn things. People have taught them skills. There’s this case where they were teaching these fish to come to the sound of a bell. They were feeding them by the sound of the bell. Then they released these fish into the wild and months later they rang the bell and the fish came back because they still recognized that sound as being for food. They learn from each other. They pass knowledge from generation to generation, which is the basis of culture. They can recognize other fish by very subtle facial markings. They know social rank by observing how the other fish interact. They’re very sociable depending on the species. There’s over 30,000 different species of fish. Some of them are very attentive parents. They work co-operatively including with other species. For example, there are large fish called groupers, they’re reef fish, but they’re such large fish they can’t necessarily get into some of these reef crevices so they will go in search of an eel. They make a gesture to the eel that indicates that they want to hunt together. If the eel accepts the invitation they’ll follow the grouper back to the reef and the eel can get inside the reef and chase out whoever they’re after and either the eel catches them or if they get out the grouper may catch them. It’s been shown that by working together they’re five times more successful than working alone–so interspecies interaction. Fish use tools. We have videotape of fish taking a clam and swimming a considerable distance with them and using a rock to break the clam open, which when you think of these fish not having hands or appendages like we have, it’s kind of difficult to use tools but they’ve shown that they actually do that which is considered a very sophisticated behavior by scientists. Fish have personalities. There’s shy fish. There’s bold fish. They form friendships including with human companions or there’s fish in ponds who get to know dogs who come to visit every day and they’ll come up just to visit with the dogs. People who have fish they say that if they walk in the room the fish recognize them as opposed to other people. They recognize and differentiate people. Most importantly they’re sentient, science has shown that. They do feel fear and pain. They have nerves and a central nervous system. They have pain receptors. They create painkillers. They react to pain the way you’d expect an animal in pain to react. They respond to painkillers the way you’d expect an animal whose pain has been alleviated to respond. They quickly learn to avoid painful situations. So the evidence is in for anyone who is doubting it, fish are sentient. You can plainly see that when they’re being harmed they’re in distress. That alone is reason not to harm them. Again, there’s just no good reason to be harming these wonderful animals.

Caryn Hartglass: Do you have any favorite recipes on your site that you might let us know about?

Mary Finelli: We do a lot of events, we just did the Baltimore Veg Fest and before that we did the Frederick Veg Out. Pretty much all summer long there are so many wonderful vegan events and conferences to go to and we do hand out a vegan tuna recipe. It’s so simple and so easy and tuna is the most commonly consumed fish. It’s just a very simple recipe. You can make it out of tofu or you can make it out of mashed chickpeas, very easy and people just seem to really love it. On our website we have many, many different tuna recipes, tuna fish salad, all kinds of fish fillets, crab cakes, pretty much you name it, there are vegan versions of it.

Caryn Hartglass: You know I don’t talk about fish enough. My head just keeps popping up with questions. Do you also include the ocean mammal in your program in terms of education like the dolphins and the whales?

Mary Finelli: Not so much. Mainly the main way we do that is just to let people know that fishing really is the way they’re being harmed the most. That’s the way hundreds and thousands of whales and dolphins, seals are killed every year because of fishing. There are so many organizations devoted to marine mammals and so many people who are concerned about marine mammals and often to the exclusion of fishes. For example, people are concerned about animals being kept in aquariums and usually they are focusing on marine mammals the most but fish also are kept that way and they too suffer from being kept in captivity so we don’t focus too much on marine mammals. We do try to point out also that shrimp and crabs and lobsters, the shellfish—they’re the second largest category of animals used for food. There is also compelling evidence that many of them are sentient and suffer and are caught and killed in horrible ways. There are no laws protecting the way these animals who are used for food are treated.

Caryn Hartglass: Thank you so much Mary for doing what you’re doing. We need you. The fish need you. I’m surprised that it’s taken this long to have an organization that represents them in this way. Thank you so much.

Mary Finelli: Thank you Caryn. One of the things we try to urge other animal organizations to increase their advocacy for fish because they are ignored victims. They truly are. So thank you for helping us spread the word.

Caryn Hartglass: I saw your earlier version of your website and I just today saw the newer version. It’s really lovely and I look forward to visiting.

Mary Finelli: Thank you. It’s a work in progress; I guess it always will be. I hope everyone will visit and the Facebook page and Twitter. We’d like to get the word out. Thank you so much.

Caryn Hartglass: Excellent. Thank you for joining me Mary Finelli of Fish Feel on It’s All About Food. Be well.

Mary Finelli: Thank you.

Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, May 26, 2016

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