I read an interesting article recently about how to ethically kill fish. The typical method is asphyxiation – put a fish into a cooler full of ice and it will eventually suffocate. Whether this is painful for the fish is, apparently, a matter of some debate among scientists.

I am not going to weigh in on the issue for a number of reasons, not least my lack of qualifications. The author seemed to think it was a given that fish feel pain because they react to negative stimuli, but in the article he took a somewhat different tack. He quoted several authoritative sources for the idea that a fish which is killed quickly results in meat that is superior from a culinary standpoint to fish that suffers stress (or pain) before expiring.

This is not a controversial position in Japan. There, the preferred method for ending a fish’s life is known as Ikejime, which involves stabbing the fish through the brain with a spike, then removing its spine. This sounds rather less peaceful than “letting it die on ice,” but the result is reportedly far better texture and flavor.

The idea is that a fish that flops around for an extended period of time is going to end up with flesh that reflects its death-struggles from a buildup of lactic acid and general cellular damage. I am inclined to believe this because it seems like a common-sense thing and because I am not inclined to disagree with Japanese folks where it comes to the quality of fish.

As the author notes, however, this method is expensive and not the general practice in the US. Some farm raised fish are dispatched quickly, either by a mechanized version of Ikejime or by some variation of an electric shock, which knocks the fish out before they are slaughtered. Catfish, oddly, are cited as the fish most likely to be processed in the latter manner.

The article goes on to suggest that there is a trend towards this more “ethical” way of doing things, driven largely by consumers the author describes as “the grass-fed beef” people. In other words, people who are willing to pay for higher-quality products – or at least what they perceive as higher-quality.

And here is where I depart, because while I am firmly in that demographic and I would love to have access to the sort of fish sold in Japan, the freeze last year killed my money tree. I already pay a premium for a good bit of what I cook where protein is concerned, and quality seafood is already expensive. If I had to pay two or three times more than I do now for fish, I’d have a hard time justifying it.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be paying more for fish or, for that matter beef, pork, lamb and poultry. There is an excellent argument that the resources required to raise/catch animal proteins are wasteful, and we should all be eating more plants. It’s an excellent argument, but not a winner, because people like eating meat and fish and if you make it much more expensive there’s going to be trouble.

It is very hard for us to believe these days that chicken was once a luxury. We expect chicken to be just about the most inexpensive meat in the market, but that is a fairly recent development and the result of “factory” production methods. Even poultry labeled as “free range” is raised in a way that makes it affordable for most of us on a regular basis.

There are some aquatic foods that can be raised in a similarly profitable way, but a lot of the seafood we eat is caught in the wild, and thus inherently more expensive. One thing that bothered me about the article was the following quote regarding the economic feasibility of “humanely” killing fish on a commercial basis:

Plus, the amount of money it would cost to humanely kill them all would raise the price to ten times what we currently pay, according to Culum Brown, associate professor of vertebrate evolution and director of Higher Degree Research at Macquarie University. “I can envision a future, maybe 10 or 20 years down the track, where wild fish are so rare maybe it will become a premium product, and people will be willing to pay for a fish that’s wild and killed humanely,” he told me. “My feeling is that most of the wild stocks will collapse long before we get to that position. It just won’t be economically viable.”

There’s no answer to the problem at the moment. The last thing we want to do as a society from a health perspective is discourage people from eating fish. But if wild stocks are threatened with extinction? Farmed fish is only a partial solution, because there are a host of issues with aquaculture generally, and it’s not clear farming offers the capacity to satisfy current demand for seafood, let alone the demand we’ll see in the future.

If I could get fish that was appreciably better than what I get now, I’d be willing to spend a bit more. I suppose there are limits, but I could see paying a 20 percent premium to get high-quality fish. I would not pay ten times what I do now.

What about you? Assuming you eat seafood in the first place, would you be willing to pay more to get a product of higher quality? If so, how much more? I should set up a poll of some sort, but in the interim, please share your thoughts below.