‘Fish are inextricably tied to the water and literally suffocate in air. We wouldn’t accept killing chickens by throwing them into a tank of water and waiting for them to drown, so why don’t we object to fish suffocating on trawler decks?’[i]
The reality for fish
How many do we eat?
Exactly how many wild caught fish do we consume (either directly, or as fishmeal) every year? Unlike land animals, there are no such records. A ground-breaking study titled Worse things happen at sea: the welfare of wild-caught fish, is the first such attempt to put numbers to the great quantities of aquatic animals we eat. Using the reported tonnage of caught species, and dividing by the average weight of each species, author Alison Mood has estimated the annual global capture of wild fish at one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) and possibly as high as 2.7 trillion (2,700,000,000,000). [ii] This does not even account for the number of fish caught illegally or as ‘by-catch’. The number becomes particularly staggering, when compared to the United Nation’s estimate of 60 billion land animals killed each year for human consumption. [iii] [UN stats]
Commercial fisheries of Australia operate in a fishing zone of nearly 9 million square kilometers, an area larger than the landmass of Australia itself. [iv] Between 2006 and 2007, they caught 241,000 tonnes of fish, crustaceans, and molluscs.
Farm-raised fish has been described as “as much a part of the industrial food chain as a fast-food burger”, and now accounts for about half of the fish we eat. [v], [vi] A New York Times article, published in June of 2009, describes farmed fish as “the cage-raised chickens of the sea.”[vii] They are crammed into progressively smaller spaces until death losses outweigh profits. Overcrowded conditions cause a third of them to die from disease. In this stressful environment, many fish will bite the fins, tails, and eyes of other fish. This abnormal behavior is a welfare concern caused by their intensive confinement. As Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive for Compassion in World Farming, explains:
Salmon as big as three-quarters of a metre long can be given the equivalent of a bathtub of water each. Packed tightly, these ocean wanderers swim as a group, or shoal, in incessant circles around the cage, like the pacing up and down of caged zoo animals. [viii]
To produce farmed fish such as salmon it takes about three times the weight of wild caught fish. [ix]
Disease and parasites
Living in such close proximity, disease spreads quickly among the fish whose immune systems are low. An array of chemical treatments are used to rid the fish of these infections. Because fish farms utilize so many antibiotics to combat the inevitable spread of disease that occurs as a result of overcrowding, 74-100% of wild fish caught near these farms end up contaminated with antibiotics. [x]
Chemicals are also used to control the prevalence of sea lice that thrive in the crowded conditions. These lice cause the fish to experience inflammations and hemorrhages and they attack their organs, eventually eating them alive.
Transportation of live fish
Transporting fish is a very stressful and painful experience for them. To reduce contamination of the transport water by faeces, fish are starved for 24 to 48 hours prior to transporting, and temperatures are kept low to slow their metabolism. [xi] They are often injured when caught by vacuum pumps or nets and suffer as they undergo changes in water pressure and temperature. You can find out more about this here.
Some fish, if they are known to be able to cope with it, are kept out of the water during the transport period.
Wild caught fish
Fish caught in the wild may experience freedom for some of their lives but they experience the same cruelty as farmed fish when captured and slaughtered. Long-line fishing, for example, uses hundreds or thousands of hooks on a fishing line that can be anywhere from 50 to 100 kilometers in length. Fish who are caught can be dragged along for hours before the line is hauled in. [xii]
Another method, netting, can capture tens of thousands of fish at one time. The fish become exhausted as they desperately try to outswim the net. As the nets are pulled to the surface, those at the bottom of the net are squashed by the weight of fish above them. The rapid changes in pressure also typically cause the following painful experiences:
- their swim bladders will overinflate
- their stomach and intestines can be pushed out of their mouth and anus
- their eyes can become distorted and bulge out
Fish constitute the greatest source of confused thinking and inconsistency on earth at the moment with respect to pain.
You will get people very excited about dolphins because they are mammals, and about horses and dogs, if they are not treated properly. At the same time you will have fishing competitions on the River Murray at which thousands of people snare fish with hooks and allow them to asphyxiate on the banks, which is a fairly uncomfortable and miserable death.
—Professor Bill Runciman
Professor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care
At present there is no established method of humane slaughter for fish—whether wild or farmed—and most common methods have been described as “appalling from an animal welfare point of view” by experts. [xiii]
Traditional methods of slaughter were chosen purely on the basis of cost and ease; simply removing fish from water, for example, causes them to suffocate. They struggle desperately, showing “violent escape behaviours”[xiv] as their gills collapse. One study on rainbow trout demonstrated that depending on the outside temperature, it can take up to ten minutes for them to die. Another study, which focused on several species of wild fish found that it took anywhere from 55 minutes to over four hours for the fish to die once removed from water. [xv] According to one account, it can take much longer:
To find out about fishing I once sailed on a trawler…worst of all was what happened to a big orange-speckled flat fish—a Plaice. It was tossed into a bin with other flat fish and four hours later I literally heard it croaking. I pointed out to one of the deckhands who, without even thinking about it, clubbed the fish… Six hours later I noticed that its mouth and gill covers were still opening and closing as it struggled for oxygen. Its misery had lasted ten hours. [xvi]
Other common methods for both wild fish and farmed fish include:
- removing the fish from the water, manually restraining them, and inserting a knife under the gill covers to slice the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the gills. This method is known as gill-cutting.
- simply piercing the heart, slitting the throat, or severing the blood vessels in the tail. A study published in the Veterinary Record reported that fish struggle for an average of four minutes during this process. [v] They don’t die immediately, either. Catfish, for example, were observed responding to outside stimuli for up to 15 minutes. [vi]
- gutting. One study demonstrated that depending on the species, it takes a gutted fish anywhere from 25-65 minutes to die. [xix]
- Blow to the head, known as ‘percussive stunning’.
- Spiking, driving a spike or a sharp instrument directly into the fish’s brain.
- Some fish are even sold alive and killed by the user—such as a restaurant or consumer. This is particularly common in the European Union and East Asia.
It is worth noting that in 2012, the Australian Government passed voluntary animal welfare guidelines for commercial fishers. Written in collaboration with industry representatives, it is imperfect, limited in scope, and recommends inhumane stunning methods; nevertheless, it takes an important step by recommending the general principles of reducing by-catch as well as suggesting methods to minimise capture duration and lessen the amount of stress in captured fish. [xx]
Some fish are stunned prior to slaughter, in which case one of the following methods are used:
- Live chilling: fish are placed into a slurry mixture of ice and water in an attempt to stun them. However, a study performed by the University of Bergen, in Norway, observed fish as they exited the chilling tank, and reported that though some of the fish were more stunned than others, all of them showed signs of consciousness and thrashed violently when removed for gill-cutting.
- Carbon dioxide gassing: the fish enter water that has been saturated with carbon dioxide. This rapid change in their environment irritates their gills. Fish struggle for several minutes before they become immobile from exhaustion and lack of oxygen. There is no evidence that the fish are anaesthetised at this stage – so they are not unconscious when their gills are cut. [xxi]
- Electrical stunning. When done correctly, this is one of the more humane methods; it must be tailored specifically to species, size, and environment. When done incorrectly, however, it can paralyse the fish without rendering them insensible to pain. [xxii]
Overfishing and habitat destruction
Large scale commercial fishing kills vast amounts of fish and also destroys many ocean habitats. Bottom trawling has been likened to mass deforestation. As marine researcher Brian Bett states:
‘Imagine if you used a fleet of tractors to drag 30 tonnes of gear over a 150-metre wide swath of land for most days of the year…the boats keep going over some key areas. The seafloor gets no chance to recuperate. It is tragic.’
Overfishing is now a major global issue, posing a threat to more and more marine animals and seriously threatening ecosystems and our environment. 70% of species worldwide are depleted or fully exploited. [xxiii] A remarkable 80% of all marine life in Australia is found nowhere else on Earth—and it is in danger of disappearing forever. [xxiv]
One particularly vulnerable species is the southern bluefin tuna, which is classed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN. [xxv] Bluefin numbers are down to approximately 5% of their original population. The tuna fishing industry is an enormous one here, however, and the Commission for the Conservation of Bluefin Tuna allows Australia to catch 4,200 tonnes of tuna annually. This does not even include the great numbers caught by recreational fishers; a study conducted by the Victorian government in 2011 found that over a period of just five months, Australian sport fishers captured 19,700 bluefin tuna. [xxvi]
Watch this powerful video about the effects of overfishing on our oceans and marine life:
Fishing also includes the accidental capture of other marine species, which are referred to in the industry as ‘by-catch’. ‘By-catch’ is the portion of commercial fishing which consists of the untargeted sea animals caught in the nets. Many endangered species, including dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, whales, and seabirds, die as a result of an encounter with these fishing methods. [xxvii], [xxviii] For example, longline fishing is the main threat to many species of albatross, most of which are considered endangered or threatened by the ICUN. [xxix] 100,000 get caught in these longlines every year, become tangled and drown. Millions of tonnes of marine animals are thrown away each year worldwide as a result of the fishing industry.
Intelligence and memory
Fish are no mere reflex-automatons, but animals capable of experiencing pain and fear and influenced behaviourally by experience, expectancies and motivational state in a manner analogous to that in higher animals up to man.
—Dr R. Buwalda
Institute of Comparative Physiological Studies,
Some species of fish possess remarkable social intelligence. They can recognize individuals, avoiding other fish with whom they’ve had conflicts and acting less aggressively around territorial neighbours than with strangers. [xxx] They can also cooperate with one another and practice deception.
Research has shown that some fish, particularly trout, show fear and avoidance behaviour towards unknown or unfamiliar objects and have been found to take their time before approaching these objects, sometimes even avoiding them altogether. [xxxi]
Research has also revealed that several fish species have accurate memories that can last several days, or even years. [xxxii] For example, individual carp who are caught on a hook but manage to escape will remain frightened of them at least a year later, even if they have not seen a single hook since then. Channel catfish have shown themselves capable of remembering a human voice for five years. Goldfish in a lab were trained to choose one coloured tube among others to receive food. They were then fed without any tubes for one year, but when presented with the selection of tubes again, they immediately rushed towards the correct one. [xxxiii]
The most famous example of fish memory exists in migrating salmon, who will migrate across thousands of miles of ocean, returning to spawn at the location where they themselves were spawned.
[i] Braithwaite, V., 2010. Do fish feel pain? Oxford: OUP
[iii] Singer, Peter, 2010 September 13. If Fish Could Scream, Project Syndicate. Available at: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/if-fish-could-scream [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[iv] Australian Fisheries Management Authority. About our fisheries. Available at: http://www.afma.gov.au/about-us/about-our-fisheries/ [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[v] Room for Debate: The Seafood Eater’s Latest Conundrum, 9 June 2009. The New York Times. Available at: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/the-seafood-eaters-latest-conundrum/ [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[vi] Stanford University 8 September 2009. Half of Fish Consumed Globally is Now Raised on Farms, Study Finds, ScienceDaily. Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090907162320.htm [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[vii] Bittman, Mark, 9 June 2009. Loving Fish, This Time with the Fish in Mind, New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/dining/10Seafood.html. [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[viii] Lymbery, P., In too deep: the welfare of intensively farmed fish. [pdf] Available at: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/3818689/in-too-deep-summary.pdf [Accessed 22 September 2014].
[ix] Compassion in World Farming, (date unknown).About Fish. [online] Available at: http://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/fish/ [Accessed 20 September 2014].
[x] MacBride, Laurie, 2000. Submission to the standing committee on fishing and oceans, The Georgia Strait. Available at: https://www.georgiastrait.org/?q=node/475 [Accessed 6 November 2014]
[xiii] Yue, Stephanie, Ph.D, 2008. An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Farmed Fish at Slaughter. Available at: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/hsus-the-welfare-of-farmed-fish-at-slaughter.pdf [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xvi] Gellately, Julia, date unknown. Fishy Business. Available at: http://vivaactivists.org.uk/campaigns/goingveggie/ch11.php [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xvii] Robb DHF, Wotton SB, McKinstry JL, Sørensen NK, and Kestin SC. 2000. Commercial slaughter methods used on Atlantic salmon: determination of the onset of brain failure by electroencephalography. The Veterinary Record 147:298-303
[xviii] Lambooij E, Kloosterboer RJ, Gerritzen MA, and van de Vis JW. 2004. Head-only electrical stunning and bleeding of African catfish (Clarias gariepus): assessment of loss of consciousness. Animal Welfare 13:71-6.
[xix] Mood, Alison, 2010., Worse Things Happen at Sea: the Welfare of Wild-Caught Fish, Available at: http://fishcount.org.uk/ [Accessed 4 November 2014].
[xx] Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, 2014. Commercial Capture Fishing Guidelines. Available at: http://www.australiananimalwelfare.com.au/content/aquatic-animals/commercial-capture-fishing-guidelines2
[xxii] Mood, Alison, 2010., Slaughter of Farmed Fish, Available at: http://fishcount.org.uk/farmed-fish-welfare/farmed-fish-slaughter [Accessed 6 November 2014]
[xxiii] United Nations, 2006. Overfishing: A threat to marine biodiversity. [Online] Available at: http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800# [Accessed 28 May 2014].
[xxiv] Australian Marine Conservation Society, 2014. Threatened species. Available at: http://www.marineconservation.org.au/pages/threatened-species.html [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xxv] Collette, B., Chang, S.-K., Di Natale, A., Fox, W., Juan Jorda, M., Miyabe, N., Nelson, R., Uozumi, Y. & Wang, S. 2011. Thunnus maccoyii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org>. [Accessed 6 November 2014]
[xxvi] Australian Marine Conservation Society, 2014. Southern bluefin tuna. Available at: http://www.marineconservation.org.au/pages/threatened-spec-southern-bluefin-tuna-157.html [Accessed 6 November 2014]
[xxvii] RSPB, 1 September 2014. Save the Albatross: The problem. Available at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/donations/campaigns/albatross/problem/ [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xxviii] Farm Forward, 2008-2014. Empty Ocean. Available at: http://www.farmforward.com/features/empty-ocean [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xxix] The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. [Accessed 4 November 2014]
[xxx] Reebs, S.G., 2010. Social intelligence in fishes. Available at: http://www.howfishbehave.ca/pdf/Social%20intelligence.pdf [Accessed 6 November 2014]
[xxxi] Sneddon L.U. et al, 2003. Novel object test: examining nociception and fear in the rainbow trout. The Journal of Pain, 4(8), pp. 431-40.
[xxxiii] Reebs, S.G., 2010. Long-term memory in fishes. Available at: http://www.howfishbehave.ca/pdf/Long-term%20memory.pdf [Accessed 6 November 2014]