The Problems With Fishing And Fish Farming

Fish are inextricably tied to the water and literally suffocate in the air. Here’s why eating fish instead of meat isn’t the kinder option.

Image Credit: AdobeStock

Is fish farming cruel? Do fish even feel pain? These harmful myths about fish persist despite plenty of evidence proving their intelligence and capacity to suffer.

“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?” says Victoria Braithwaite, Professor of Fisheries and Biology at Penn State University and author of Do Fish Feel Pain [1].

how are fish caught in the wild?

Netting can capture tens of thousands of fish at one time, with animals becoming exhausted as they desperately try to outswim the net.

When the nets are pulled to the surface, those at the bottom are crushed by the weight of fish above them. The rapid change in pressure causes their swim bladders to overinflate and their stomachs and intestines to be pushed out through their mouths and anuses.

Their eyes distort, bulge, and can also be pushed out of their sockets.

The animals are then dropped onto the ship’s deck, where those who are still alive will suffocate – a process that can take several minutes. Others, like tuna, are hoisted from the water with a hook and killed by forcing a spike through their brains.

Despite an ever-increasing number of studies that show aquatic species can feel pain, there are still no welfare laws governing the slaughter of fish at sea.

Dead fish
Photo courtesy of Alex Prolmos, re-used under a Creative Commons license

Overfishing causes habitat destruction

Nearly 90 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.[2] 63 percent of the assessed “stocks” in the Atlantic, 82 percent in the Mediterranean, and 66 percent in the Baltic are overfished.[3]

Tuna, cod, swordfish, and marlin populations have declined by 90 percent during the last century, while the North Sea mackerel population, which collapsed in the 1970s, has never recovered.[4] This is just the tip of a devastating iceberg.

Habitats are decimated by the industrial fleet of fishing ships. Bottom trawling strip mines the ocean floor, destroying deep-sea coral forests and other delicate ecosystems.

Many scientists believe that the impact of fishing on bottom-dwelling animals is 100,000 times greater than seabed oil or gas extraction[5], and yet environmentalists all too often continue to eat fish, thereby contributing to this devastation.

With one in three fish caught in the wild being used for non-human consumption,[6] including the fishmeal that is added to farmed animal feeds, eating meat also contributes to the damage done to the oceans.

Watch this powerful video about the effects of overfishing on our oceans and marine life:

what is Bycatch?

Nets do not discriminate. They will drag any species out of the water, whether they are commercially valuable or not.

There are no numbers recorded of either fish or “bycatch” caught. Instead, the industry records weight. The weight of fish and other species caught as bycatch each year is estimated to be more than 20 million tonnes — almost a quarter of all marine species landed.

An estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die in fishing nets every year. Other bycatch species include sharks, turtles, starfish, sponges, and hundreds of thousands of diving seabirds, among them albatrosses.

Image Credit: Unsplash

is Farming fish the solution?

Farming fish is not the answer to the wanton environmental destruction of sea fishing. For one thing, farmed species such as salmon, halibut, and cod are carnivores, so they are fed fish taken from the oceans, thereby exacerbating the destruction.

Fish farming also directly impacts the health of wild fish. This is because farmed fish escape and spread diseases and sea lice among their wild counterparts. Sea lice cause inflammations and hemorrhages, and attack the fish’s organs, eventually eating them alive. The lice from farmed salmon are now spreading to wild populations of fish in parts of the North East Atlantic, while pesticides used to control sea lice in fish factory farms are proving harmful to wild fish populations.

Fish in a bag
Photo courtesy of Watershed Watch, re-used under a Creative Commons licence

Animals suffer on fish farms

Fish are packed into unnatural small, filthy enclosures. The overcrowded conditions cause a third of them to die, and an array of chemicals are used to try to prevent even more from dying. In this stressful environment, many fish will bite off the fins, tails, and eyes of others, a distressing behavior seen in other factory-farmed animals.

Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, explains that salmon as big as three-quarters of a meter long can each be allocated the equivalent of a bathtub of water. “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.”[7]

Often the cruelty is deliberately inflicted. Shrimps and prawns, for example, are blinded because most of those reared in captivity aren’t able to reproduce, and having their eyestalks cut off triggers the maturing of their ovaries. “Eyestalk ablation” has been labeled “cruel” and “traumatic” by numerous scientists, but it won’t stop – it is an intrinsic part of shrimp farming and more than half of all shrimps consumed globally are farmed.

Farming fish may eradicate the problem of bycatch, but it does not mean there are no additional victims. The Scottish fish farming industry admits to shooting 500 seals a year to prevent them from eating the fish, but campaigners say the real figure could be as high as 5,000.[8]

Fish in a net
Photo courtesy of Small Jude, re-used under a Creative Commons licence

how are fish transported?

Transporting fish is a stressful and painful experience for them. They may be injured when caught by vacuum pumps and nets and suffer as they undergo changes in water pressure and temperature.

It is common practice to starve fish for 48 hours before transporting them to slow down their metabolisms and reduce the contamination of the transport water from their feces. Some fish may even be kept out of the water during the transport period.


No federal law relating to the welfare of the 1.3 billion farmed fish who are killed in the US each year{9] currently exists.[10]

Fish on farms may be killed by asphyxiation or they may have their gill arches torn, an inhumane procedure that causes the animals to struggle violently for the four minutes it takes for the fish to die.[11]

Some fish are stunned before slaughter by a blow to the head, electrical stunning, the use of carbon dioxide, or immersion in ice-cold water. None of these methods are fully effective, and fish often suffocate or bleed to death without being stunned at all.

A dead fish on a bloodied floor
Photo courtesy of Animal Equality UK

are Fish smart?

Fish can use tools, communicate, and can learn quickly.[12] Far from having poor memories, research has shown that several fish species have accurate memories that can last long-term, even years, in the case of migrating salmon.[13]

Fish researcher Culum Brown reviewed nearly 200 papers on fish sensory perception, natural cognitive abilities (including their ability to assess quantity), and their abilities to perceive and experience pain. He found ample evidence that fish are intelligent on all counts. He concluded: “People need to have a greater appreciation of how smart fish are. Just because we’re ignorant is no excuse to treat another animal poorly.[14]

Research is also starting to discover that fish have distinct personalities. It should come as no surprise that all animals, including the dogs and cats we share our homes with, the ducks we feed in the park, and crustaceans like prawns and lobsters in the oceans, are all distinct beings. And their lives are as important to them as ours are to us.

Pigs, cows, and chickens are the ocean’s top predators

Millions of tonnes of fish are harvested to feed farmed animals – including farmed fish. Peruvian anchovies, for example, are fished in their billions[15], but only 2% are eaten by people, even though many 13% of Peruvian children have chronic malnutrition[16]. The remaining 98% percent is reduced to fishmeal or fish oil which is then added to the feed of farmed animals across the world, including chickens – and farmed fish[17].

It is possible to change the way we eat and prevent animal suffering and environmental destruction. There are plenty of vegan fish alternatives available and we can obtain omega 3 and 6 from plant-based sources.

Why not help put a stop to this cruelty and ditch seafood from your diet? Check out our Choose Fish-Free campaign to find out how.


[1] Victoria Braithwaite, Do fish feel pain? Oxford: OUP, 2010

[2]  Mukhisa Kituyi, 90% of fish stocks are used up – Fisheries Subsidies Must Stop, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, July 2018

[3] Birdlife International et al, ‘Public Aid for Sustainable Fisheries’ February 2012

[4] ‘Rescuing the North and Baltic Seas: Marine Reserves – a key tool’ Greenpeace, 2004

[5] Charles Clover, The End of the Line: How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat, Edbury Press, London, 2004

[6] Albert Tacon, ‘Competition between catch of forage fish for fishmeal and human consumption’, Lenfest Ocean Programme, 7 June 2014

[7] Philip Lymbery, In too deep: the welfare of intensively farmed fish, 2002

[8] Auslan Cramb, ‘Scottish farmers “conducting secret seal slaughter,” The Telegraph, 5 Apr 2009

[9] Stephanie Yue, ‘The Welfare of Farmed Fish at Slaughter,’ Humane Society of the United States, 2009

[10] Amanda Nichols, ‘Animal Welfare and Aquaculture “Quick Takes,” August 2018

[11] Stephanie Yue, ‘The Welfare of Farmed Fish at Slaughter’, Humane Society of the United States, 2009

[12] Emily Gertz, ‘Are fish as intelligent as crows, chimps … or people?’ Popular Science, 19 June 2014

[13] Braithwaite, 2010

[14] Gertz, 2014

[15] ‘Impacts of the Peruvian anchoveta supply chains: from wild fish in the water to protein on the plate’, Globec International Newsletter, April 2010

[16], accessed January 2018

[17] Allison Guy, ‘Overfishing and El Niño push the world’s biggest single-species fishery to a critical point’, Oceana website, 2 Feb 2016

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