In production systems where animals are bred and raised to be used for food, animal pain and suffering are often viewed as the cost of doing business. While there is increasing consumer awareness of animal suffering in industries like meat and dairy, this consideration is rarely extended to fish. Between 51 and 167 billion farmed fish are killed annually for global food production, with people in the United States spending $102 billion per year on fish for consumption. Much of this is salmon and farmed salmon accounts for nearly 74 percent of worldwide salmon production. Given the staggering numbers of individual fish involved in the aquaculture industry, the capacity for pain and suffering is immense.
Animal Outlook, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization, is bringing the issue of pain and suffering in farmed fish to the forefront by demanding that Atlantic Sapphire, a Norwegian company with facilities in Denmark and Florida, be held accountable for 800,000 fish deaths under Florida’s animal cruelty laws. The organization alleges that Atlantic Sapphire failed to take proper action in two instances at their Florida facility, resulting in massive suffering and deaths in fish. Animal Outlook has filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), prompting an active investigation by these agencies into whether Atlantic Sapphire violated state law and Florida’s Aquaculture Best Management Practices (BMPs).
Will Lowrey, counsel for Animal Outlook, states that Atlantic Sapphire had been on their radar for over a year due to the vast scope of their proposed activity. The company, which calls itself “the largest global onshore aquaculture company in the world,” according to their website, began construction on a massive salmon farm in Homestead, Florida in 2019. The company plans to produce 220,000 tons of salmon by 2031, an estimated 41 percent of the U.S. market. At Atlantic Sapphire, the fish live out their entire lives indoors in enclosed tanks using Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) that are dependent on water being continuously filtered and treated as it recycles through the system. In the intensive RAS used by Atlantic Sapphire, the safety of the fish confined to these tanks depends on the careful management of their water system.
Prioritizing Profit Over Welfare
According to Lowrey, Atlantic Sapphire has demonstrated a pattern of prioritizing profit over fish welfare. On July 28, 2020, the company killed 200,000 fish who had become stressed and ill due to construction noises and vibration when they were held in tanks in the unfinished facility. The sickened and distressed fish were given electrical shocks to stun them, the arteries in their gills were slit, and they were left in totes filled with chilled water as they bled out. In an August 2020 investor’s update, Atlantic Sapphire admitted that chronic and acute stressors due to the construction weakened the fish, and the company failed to commission “critical equipment” that would have prevented the prolonged suffering and deaths.
In a second incident on March 23, 2021, Atlantic Sapphire killed an additional 600,000 fish due to a faulty filtration system that caused increased water turbidity and a possible increase in harmful gases, leading to water flow disruptions and abnormal behavior in the fish. A March 24, 2021 press release indicates that the company was aware of the flaw in the filtration system even before it caused over half a million fish deaths. A similar incident had occurred at their Denmark facility in February 2020 due to a faulty design, causing elevated nitrogen levels and subsequently leading to 227,000 salmon deaths. In the reported incident, the company said it was addressing the problem at both its Denmark and U.S. facilities but apparently continued stocking fish in the U.S. before making the necessary modifications. Lowrey points out that this incident, like the one in July 2020, was preventable and caused by Atlantic Sapphire’s failure to take necessary actions to ensure fish welfare.
Fish Feel Pain and Suffer
A key element in this case is that fish suffer, and their suffering matters. This extends beyond fishes’ ability to feel and respond to pain in nerve endings (called nociception) but also speaks to their consciousness and how they may perceive their own suffering. Scientific studies have established that fish feel pain—they exhibit both behavioral responses and changes in their brains in response to painful stimuli, and fish who are in pain experience attention deficits, become less willing to acquire food and will pay a cost to access pain relief when offered. Growing evidence also reveals advanced consciousness and cognition in fish, including the presence of self-recognition using chemical (rather than visual) cues, long-term memories, and complex communities that utilize social skills like cooperation and reconciliation.
For the fish killed at Atlantic Sapphire, it is likely their suffering was intense. Animal Outlook’s complaint letter points out that increased turbidity in water has far-ranging negative effects on salmon, including gill trauma, increased aggression, and compromised respiration and oxygen exchange in the gills. Fish also have acutely sensitive hearing and can sense vibrations through the water, and construction noise can cause hearing loss, physical injury and permanent impairment, inability to feed, and immediate or prolonged death. All of this means agony for the fish contained in tanks with nowhere to go.
The way the fish were killed may have also contributed to their suffering, as this method—cutting the gills following electric stunning—risks salmon regaining consciousness after stunning and being fully aware while bleeding to death. In one study of salmon, one in three fish awoke after stunning and before bleeding to death from gill cuts.
Call for Enforcement of Fish Protections
Lowrey emphasizes that fish are protected by robust Florida state anti-cruelty laws and the FDACS’s Best Management Practices, and Animal Outlook is simply asking that the laws be enforced in this case. Lowrey says, “These are incidents that they [Atlantic Sapphire] have experienced before, and they had prior knowledge that these were problems. This is not a random one-off mistake that happened. These incidents happen over and over again. And I think that prior knowledge only further emphasizes the need for criminal punishment.”
Atlantic Sapphire could not be reached for comment.
Ingrid L. Taylor is a writer, poet, and veterinarian whose work explores strategies for fostering multispecies solidarity and deconstructing speciesism. She has worked in clinical veterinary medicine and public health.