The debate around whether or not oysters are vegan is a heated one.
On the one hand, some argue that bivalves like oysters are morally equivalent to any other animal and should not be eaten. Others claim that as long as oysters are harvested sustainably, there’s no ethical issue with consuming them.
In this blog post, I’ll explore both sides of the argument and try to conclude whether or not you can call yourself a vegan if you eat oysters.
But first, the basics.
What’s an oyster?
Oysters are a mollusc (mollusk for my North American friends) that can be eaten either raw or cooked. They’re commonly found in coastal areas and can range from about 3 inches to more than 14 inches long.
Oysters have a smooth, hard shell and a soft, squishy body. They eat by filtering food particles from the water around them and can live for up to 20 years.
Oysters have 2 shells similar to clams. The shells are connected by a hinge and held together with a muscle. Oyster shells comprise of calcium carbonate, which it naturally produces. They can also change the shape and size of their shell depending on the surrounding water conditions. These interesting creatures can even change genders during their lifetime!
Oysters have been popular food consumed for centuries, but their use goes beyond a meal. Oyster shells are used in construction or as decoration. And we can’t forget pearls produced from oysters and are considered valuable gemstones in the jewellery world.
The natural predators for oysters include:
CrabsSeadbirdsStarfish And humans
Many people don’t know that oysters are crucial to the environment. Oysters help to filter water and improve water quality. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
The size of the bivalve industry
Bivalves are shellfish that also includes oysters, clams, and mussels. They’re a popular food item worldwide harvested from wild fisheries and aquaculture farms.
The global production of bivalves for human consumption is more than 15 million tonnes each year (average period 2010–2015), around 14% of the world’s marine output. Most bivalve production (89%) comes from aquaculture, while only 11% is caught in the wild (source).
According to advisory firm Arizton, the global pearl jewellery market will crack USD 20 billion by 2025.
In other words, this is a lucrative industry that kills inordinate amounts of oysters each year.
How are oysters harvested?
Oysters are typically harvested using one of two methods: dredging or hand-collecting. Dredging involves using a large machine to drag an oyster bed and collect the oysters. This method can damage the seafloor and often results in the death of non-target species, such as fish, crabs, and other shellfish.
Hand-collecting is a more environmentally friendly method of oyster harvesting. This involves using a rake or tongs to collect oysters from the seafloor. This method is often used in areas where dredging is not allowed or would be too damaging to the environment.
The oysters are brought to a processing facility for sorting and grading. The highest quality oysters are then shucked (opened) and sold to restaurants or grocery stores. The lower quality oysters are reserved for canned oysters, fishmeal, or fertiliser.
Conversely, pearls, which are often thought of as a by-product of the oyster industry, are the main reason oysters are farmed (remember, it’s a 20 billion dollar market).
Most of the world’s pearls come from China, which produces 98% of the global supply. The majority of these pearls are cultured freshwater pearls. Saltwater pearls make up the remaining and are typically more valuable due to their rarity.
Freshwater pearls are produced by placing a small piece of mantle tissue from another mollusc into the oyster. This tissue is then covered with a bead made from mother-of-pearl or glass. The oyster is returned to the water, allowing it to grow for several months to years. The oyster will produce nacre, a substance that coats the bead and slowly forms the pearl.
Saltwater pearls are produced similarly, but the oyster is typically placed in an enclosure made from mother-of-pearl. This helps protect the oyster and speeds up the pearl-forming process.
After the pearls are harvested, they are sorted and graded according to size, shape, and colour. The highest quality pearls are then strung into necklaces or used in other types of jewellery. Lower-quality pearls may be used in costume jewellery or sold as loose pearls.
Now that you have context on what an oyster is, why they’re consumed, how they’re harvested, and the market’s sheer size, let’s look at why some folks think it’s morally justified to consume oysters and why others disagree.
3 reasons why oysters are vegan
There are 3 arguments for why it’s okay for vegans to consume oysters; 1) oysters don’t feel pain, 2) they’re sustainable farmed and 3) debating the morality of consuming bivalves makes veganism less approachable. Let’s look at each point in more detail.
1. Oysters don’t feel pain
Animal sentience is generally measured by the ability to feel pain and experience suffering.
The main argument why oysters are vegan-friendly is that they don’t feel pain since oysters have a very simple nervous system and lack a brain. Therefore, it’s believed that they cannot process or feel pain in the same way that other animals can.
Vegans use the same argument to justify eating plants. So it’s viewed as hypocritical when we say oysters and other bivalves are off the table.
2. Oysters are sustainably farmed
We consume trillions of aquatic animals each year. Not only is this act cruel to fish, but our various approaches to fishing, including dredging, leads to exponentially more death and complete disruption of marine biodiversity.
In the past, oysters were harvested unsustainably. However, these days, oysters are mostly farmed sustainably. This means that they’re not taken from the wild, and their population isn’t being negatively impacted.
Some would even say that oyster farms help to improve water quality. For example, oysters are considered a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay. They play an essential role in filtering the water and improving water clarity.
As a result of their filtering, oysters also help to improve the quality of habitats for other marine animals.
3. The reasons for not eating oysters makes veganism look bad
There’s a common perception that veganism is extreme and all-or-nothing. The media often perpetuates this view, which focuses on “radical activists”.
When people see vegans refusing to eat oysters because they believe it’s cruel, it reinforces this idea that veganism is an extremist militant philosophy.
This makes veganism less approachable and deters people from considering it as an option.
What does this mean practically? Well, if consuming oysters were culturally viewed as an ethical choice, then vegans could take advantage of the nutritional benefits.
A small oyster produces 5 grams of protein, while a larger one has 10 grams. Furthermore, oysters contain B12 which could be a natural alternative to supplementation.
So, these are the 3 main arguments for why oysters are vegan-friendly. Let’s look at why oysters may not be vegan.
3 reasons why oysters aren’t vegan
It’s argued that oysters aren’t considered vegan because 1) they do experience pain, 2) oysters are classed as animals 3) they should be given the benefit of the doubt. More below.
1. Oysters may experience pain
The counter-argument to the central nervous system position is that while oysters don’t have a brain, they have a heart, stomach, kidneys and intestines.
More importantly, oysters have ganglia which are nerve clusters that process information without a brain — meaning they’re able to sense their environment to some degree.
It’s possible that when oysters are taken from the ocean or when they’re farmed, they do experience pain and suffering.
There isn’t conclusive scientific evidence on this topic yet, but it needs to be considered.
2. Oysters are an animal
Another common reason folks believe eating oysters isn’t vegan is that they’re classed as animals.
Oysters are part of the phylum Mollusca (more commonly known as molluscs) animal kingdom, including slugs, snails, octopuses, clams, and many others.
There are over 120,000 species of molluscs with overlapping genetical makeup. Some species have central nervous systems while others don’t. Some show the ability to move and make conscious decisions, while others, like oysters, are more sedentary.
If scientists class the species together, we must acknowledge the similarities between oysters and other animals.
Therefore, it would be hypocritical to say that eating oysters is fine but eating other molluscs isn’t — which brings me to the next point.
3. Oysters should be given the benefit of the doubt
It’s common to wrap up these debates with complete ambiguity — which spoiler, I too have the same grey conclusion.
We don’t know enough about oysters or plants to know that a lack of central nervous systems means they can’t experience or interpret pain. In the case of plants, vegans, me included, don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
Read more: But Plants Have Feelings Too, Don’t They?
But what about oysters? Why should they get a pass, but not plants?
It’s a fair question, but I believe it comes down to cultural attitudes in addition to the reasons above. For centuries, we’ve eaten oysters without considering their moral status.
On the other hand, plant-based diets are often seen as weird or over-the-top. So there’s more of a need to justify why eating plants is morally acceptable.
But this doesn’t mean that we should continue to eat oysters without considering their ethical status. The fact that we’re shining a light on these species and wrestling with how morally deal with them is positive progress.
The bottom line is that we need to do more research on this topic before making a definitive conclusion. Until then, I believe it’s up to the individual to decide.
So, can vegans reasonably justify eating oysters and buying pearls?
Let’s for a moment assume that oysters are sentient.
These fascinating creatures become adults at the age of 1 and can live up to 20 years. While they can reproduce from 6 months old, the ideal range is between 2 and 10 years. Females squirt out eggs, and males squirt semen to produce eggs. After the eggs are formed 15 hours later, they hatch into larvae.
It can take a couple of years to breed and harvest oysters. But even then, like any farmed animal, their lives are ended well before their average lifespan to support human consumption.
Pearls are much more challenging to produce, leading to a 50% survival rate when breeding. But with pearls being a premium product, these discarded lives are just part of the process.
When we connect to the sentience of oysters, it becomes evident that consuming them is cruel and, therefore, not vegan.
But if we choose to remove their sentience, does any of this matter?
Personally, I don’t consume oysters. Although oysters don’t have eyes or a brain, I don’t view them the same as plants. I still see them as animals, and it wouldn’t feel right or necessary to eat them.
But if you’re vegan and think it’s okay to eat oysters, I’d find it hard to challenge your decision.
And if eating oysters means more people would be open to becoming vegan, so be it. In fact, there’s a term for it, ostrovegan.
Ostrovegan refers to a vegan who occasionally eats oysters.
While I’m not a fan of more labels, I believe ostrovegan is a more appropriate description if you’re a vegan that consumes oysters. Oysters aren’t plants, nor do they have a central nervous system, so perhaps it’s more appropriate and respectful to recognise the difference.
I liken the comparison to the difference between a vegetarian and a pescatarian.
What do you think? Are oysters vegan?
In short, while oysters are an animal, we don’t really know if oysters feel pain. And until we do, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not to consume them.
I don’t think they’re vegan, but I’m okay with those who do. Do you think oysters are vegan? Let me know below.