‘Fish are inextricable 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
Nearly half of all the fish that people eat are raised on factory farms. Fish are packed into unnatural small enclosures where overcrowded conditions cause a third of them to die from disease. In this stressful environment, many fish will bite off 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 meter 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. [ii]
Disease and parasites
Living in 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.
Similarly, chemicals are used to control the prevalence of sea lice who thrive in the crowded conditions. These lice cause the fish to experience inflammations, hemorrhages, and attack their 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.
Wild caught fish
Fish caught in the wild may experience freedom for some of their lives, but they suffer the same cruelty as farmed fish when captured and slaughtered.
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
They are then dropped on the ship’s deck where, those who are still alive, will flap around as they suffocate – a process that can take several minutes.
Transporting fish is a very stressful and painful experience for them. They are often injured when caught by vacuum pumps or nets and suffer as they undergo changes in water pressure and temperature.
It is common practice to starve fish for 48 hours prior to transporting them. This helps to slow their metabolisms and reduce the contamination of the transport water from their feces. Some fish, if they are known to be able to cope with it, are kept out of the water during the transport period.
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-meter wide swath of land for most days of the year. You would wipe out the New Forest in a few months and the rest of the countryside not long after that. Yet that is what we are doing to the seabed round Britain. Even worse, 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. More than 85% of world fisheries are considered at or past their biological limit. Portions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico have been declared disaster zones due to severely low fish stocks. [iii]
Watch this powerful video about the effects of overfishing on our oceans and marine life:
Fishing also includes the 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 untargeted sea animals caught in the nets. These can include other fish, whales, dolphins, porpoises and seabirds. Millions of tons of marine animals are thrown away each year worldwide as a result of this industry. Many are returned to the ocean dead.
There are a number of different methods used to slaughter fish, whether from farms or caught in the wild:
- Asphyxiation – the fish are removed from the water so that their gills collapse and they suffocate to death. It can take some fish, such as trout, ten minutes to die from this method. [iv]
- Hoisting the fish from the water with a hook and then forcing a spike through their brain – often used on tuna.
- Some fish are even sold alive and killed by the user (such as a restaurant) or consumer.
Before being slaughtered, fish are sometimes stunned. One of the following methods are used:
- Blow to the head
- Electrical stunning
- Cold water immersion
- Carbon dioxide gassing
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 anesthetized at this stage – so they are not unconscious when their gills are cut. [v]
Intelligence and character
Research has shown that several fish species have accurate memories that can last several days, or even years in the case of migrating salmon. [vi]
Some fish will migrate across thousands of miles of ocean, returning to spawn at the location where they themselves were spawned.
Fish respond to stress and threats through changes in their color or in their movements, such as swimming more rapidly, becoming immobile, or even swimming at different depths.
Research has shown that some fish, particularly trout, show fear and avoidance behavior towards unknown or unfamiliar objects and have been found to take their time before approaching these objects, sometimes even avoiding them altogether. [vii]
Numbers consumed in the U.S.
An exact number of aquatic animals killed each year is not reported, and probably not calculable. Scientific estimates say more than 53 billion sea animals are killed each year for U.S. consumption. This is at least five times more than all land animals combined. Industry and government statistics only value sea animals exploited for food by weight, not by individual lives. Data from 2009 says Americans ate 15.8 pounds per person, or 4.833 billion pounds. [viii]
[i] Braithwaite, V., 2010. Do fish feel pain? Oxford: OUP
[ii] 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].
[iii] WWF (2016) Overfishing. [Online] Available from: http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing [Accessed 18th November 2016].
[iv] Yue, S., 2008. ‘An HSUS report: The welfare of farmed fish at slaughter’ HSUS Reports: Farm Industry Impacts on Animals, paper 3.
[vii] 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.
[viii] NOAA Fisheries (No Date) Seafood and Human health. [Online] Available from: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/faqs/faq_seafood_health.html#6how [Accessed 18th November 2016].