I’m a vegan, and I’ve personally slaughtered approximately 1 million oysters in my lifetime. And for some reason, I don’t feel too bad about it.
For years, as a young twenty-something, I worked at one of the best raw bars in southwest Florida, as the restaurant’s primary shucker. Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally had my doubts and concerns about what I was doing, but shucking oysters and steaming mussels to death didn’t feel as horrible as boiling a lobster alive.
I’ve boiled hundreds of lobsters alive, by the way. I don’t feel good about it today, and I didn’t feel good about it back then. My intuition told me that there was a distinct difference, but I hadn’t actually explored the science behind why it was different.
Science (So Far) Suggests that Oysters and Mussels Do Not Suffer
You may have seen articles circulating around about the “ostrovegan” issue, such as this editorial on Slate, Consider the Oyster. It’s almost certainly true that oysters and mussels do not suffer at the same capacity as dogs, cows, pigs, chickens and even fish– but that doesn’t mean it’s OK for vegans to eat them.
(For an alternative perspective on this issue, check out this blog from Marc Bekoff of the Huffington Post.)
Oysters and mussels do not have brains, or even a complex nervous system. Like plants, they are also not motile, thus rendering pain receptors an unnecessary biological feature. Unlike clams and scallops, oysters and mussels are sessile bivalves. Bivalves have two pairs of nerve chords and three pairs of ganglia.
Although technically ocean animals, oysters and mussels are clearly different than lobsters, crabs, squid, fish, octopus, and even clams and scallops.
Oysters and Mussels Clean our Waters
Unlike the factory farming of any other animal, oysters and mussels actually improve their environment. They filter phytoplankton and excess nutrients, helping prevent ocean “dead zones.” They create reef-like habitats for small sea creatures. They help facilitate the food chain, as tiny shrimp-like creatures feed on their “pseudo-feces,” which are then eaten by crabs and seahorses.
In fact, due to the benign harvesting practices of most shellfish farmers, oysters and rope-cultured mussel cultivation causes significantly less animal suffering and animal deaths than most fruit, vegetable and grain farming operations! From a utilitarian ethics standpoint, even if oysters do feel some sort of pain, farming and consuming them may arguably be more ethical than not.
As filters feeders, they accumulate the toxins of their habitats, acting as beasts of burden for the ocean. Consumers should be extremely careful about where their oysters are sourced from. For example, Louisiana oysters are subject to tremendous amounts of agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River (“Round-Up Ready” Oysters!).
And that’s not to mention the BP oil spill of 2010. Sadly, industrial runoff and environmental pollution may one day render these briny little snot-rockets inedible.
Some oysters are cultivated for the sole purpose of cleaning waterways, like the now completely inedible Liberty Oysters of Long Island.
Oysters and Mussels are Nutrition Powerhouses for Vegans
If you’re on a plant-based diet and you’re concerned about nutritional deficiencies, oysters and mussels are excellent sources of iron, B12, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc– all of which are somewhat elusive in a vegan diet. I’m not suggesting you go to your local oyster bar and shell-out $20-$30 for a dozen oysters, but if you seriously think you might have a nutrient deficiency due to an inadequate diet, eating oysters or mussels on occasion is a far better option than completely abandoning your vegan lifestyle. Rope-cultured blue mussels from Prince Edward Island, Canada, or Green Lipped Mussels from New Zealand are mostly safe, affordable options.
Oysters and mussels also contain significant amounts of cholesterol, which is something to consider.
Note: A properly planned vegan diet should not cause any nutritional deficiencies, as long as a B12 supplement is being used.
Bottom-Line: Make no mistake, oysters and mussels are not vegan, but they are probably the most “vegan” animal protein you can eat (besides clean meat, of course).
That being said, I no longer eat bivalves, as I prefer to give all animals the benefit of the doubt…just in case. Quite frankly, I no longer tolerate animal protein very well anymore anyway. But for people on the fence about going all in on a plant-based journey, I highly recommend sustainably raised oysters and mussels as a “cheat.”
If you’re struggling along your plant-based journey, and you feel some sort of nutritional or psychological respite eating oysters or mussels, then go for it! In my opinion, you don’t need to give up your vegan title to occasionally eat an animal that may or may not feel pain in the recognizable sense.
If you’re eating mussels instead of (and not in addition to) chicken, beef, pork or fish, then you’re on the right track… as long as you’re considering the source, of course.
(Note: Always consult a doctor before incorporating shellfish into your diet. Shellfish allergies are common and serious. Some people develop shellfish allergies later in their life. Even if you aren’t aware of any food allergies, an Epipen is a lifesaving tool that should be considered by all families).