When you come across wild fish at the supermarket, do you ever wonder where it really comes from? You might assume what you’re about to buy is an alternative to factory farmed meat — more sustainable and without the animal suffering. But the reality is that half of all captured wild fish — which evidence overwhelmingly suggests are sentient creatures who experience pain — go to fishmeal and fish oil production that mostly ends up as feed for farmed fish and other factory farmed animals.
In our research, we interviewed 18 experts from the fishing and seafood industry, fisheries management, scientific research community and animal and fish advocacy organisations in Europe and the U.S. We found widespread agreement on two points — that fish are sentient and that they are harmed in the capture process.
Commercial fishing operations are one of the few types of food production that don’t have to comply with any welfare rules at all. Globally, anywhere from 787 billion to 2.3 trillion fish are captured each year in ways that subject the fish to severe stress during capture. Stunning is rare, and gutting alive is common practice.
Our findings highlight a massive gap between how most consumers would like farm animals to be treated and what wild fish experience when they are captured. Most countries, including the U.K., do not have any regulations in place to protect wild fish that are caught for food.
Even Fish Industry Experts Acknowledge That Fish Feel Pain
Most of society tends to dismiss fish as cold blooded, insentient and unfeeling. Yet evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that fish do feel pain just like humans, pigs and chickens. Fish pull away from painful stimuli, for example. They even avoid returning to locations associated with a past painful experience.
All of the study participants agreed — or at least didn’t dispute — that fish are sentient. “Fish have a nervous system, they have to feel pain. I just think as humans we ignore it,” said one fishing industry representative, adding… “we put a barrier between ourselves and fish more so than we do with other animals.”
Another representative, a U.K. fisheries manager with a background as an ex-commercial fisher, explained that he didn’t give much thought to sentience and was skeptical that smaller species felt things in the same way as larger ones. However, as he continued to think about his response, even he ultimately acknowledged that “from the sentience perspective [they] are probably no different.”
Experts from the industry aren’t eager to talk about fish welfare with colleagues, we found. They worry that discussing fish welfare might be akin to opening Pandora’s box. One fishing practitioner expressed concern that once the industry starts discussing fish welfare, “you’ve got no idea where it’s going to end.” On the other hand, some representatives we spoke to saw welfare reform as inevitable, and welcomed discussions for realistic and practical reform now to avoid more unworkable impositions that could come later.
How Wild Fish Die in Commercial Fishing Operations
Many consumers aren’t aware that fish can suffer but the reality is that for virtually all commercial fishing operations, the methods, gear and vessels are all designed for efficiency and profit rather than wild fish welfare. In other words, nearly all methods cause high levels of stress to individual fish — from their first encounter with the fishing gear until they die, escape or are discarded.
It’s not uncommon for commercial fishing gear to be vast, especially in larger industrial fishing vessels that can catch hundreds of thousands of fish in their nets at once. For instance, purse seine nets can stretch thousands of yards long and depths of over 660 feet with the largest hauls catching up to half a million individual fish.
Yet it’s not just large operations that cause fish suffering. The stakeholders we spoke to raised a variety of welfare concerns across many different gear types, with an overall sense that the duration of the capture experience — the time spent on a hook, in a net or conscious on deck — is the most critical to fish stress levels. Tow times can range from mere minutes to a few hours, depending on the density of the target species and the size and power of the vessel, while long lines, gillnets or traps may be left out for days.
Research shows that when fish are caught they experience exhaustion, physical injury, suffocation and even asphyxiation. For example, one method called a bottom trawl — considered by most stakeholders the most damaging method overall — involves dragging a weighted net along the ocean floor, which disturbs everything in its path, releasing carbon from the seabed while sweeping up large numbers of creatures.
Many fish die during the early stages of capture, but for those that are alive when they land on deck, they are very rarely stunned prior to slaughter. Indeed, few fish will undergo a deliberate slaughter process at all. Most are left to asphyxiate on the deck or to die during further processing, often gutted while fully conscious. Some fish are put on ice while still alive, which can further extend the suffering.
To make matters worse, commercial fishing methods also capture other fish and animals along the way called bycatch, and these creatures suffer right alongside the target fish. Even fish that are discarded or who escape still often end up dying prematurely or otherwise suffering. Stunning, or rendering the fish unconscious, is rare. Even in the European Union, where legislation requires that farmed animals must be stunned before slaughter, wild-caught fish are exempt.
Even after the fishing vessels have departed the fishing grounds, so-called ‘ghost fishing’ with its discarded and lost fishing gear, continues to cause welfare and biodiversity harms as wild fish and other aquatic animals and seabirds find themselves trapped inadvertently and left to die.
Better Regulations Are Needed
Last year, U.K. lawmakers passed the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act , which now requires the government to establish a committee of experts to review how policy decisions impact animal welfare, including the welfare of wild fish. Despite this promising development, there is still much more to be done to reform commercial fishing practices. There remain no U.K. laws that explicitly protect the welfare of wild fish caught at sea, despite all we know about the ways fish experience pain and suffering. It’s clear that legal reform in the U.K. and globally, is long overdue.
John Garratt has a Masters in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law from Winchester University and is a Director at the UK based National Animal Welfare Trust. Previously John served for thirty years in the UK Royal Navy (RN) during which time he qualified as a British Sea Fisheries Officer and undertook two stints of sea fisheries enforcement in UK waters with the RN’s Fishery Protection Squadron.
Dr. Steven McCulloch is Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Studies at the Centre for Animal Welfare, University of Winchester. Steven qualified as a veterinary surgeon from Bristol University and holds a BA Philosophy from Birkbeck College, London University. He has a PhD from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, for his thesis ‘The British animal health and welfare policy process: accounting for the interests of sentient species’. He is a diplomat of European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine and a recognised veterinary specialist in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law. Steven’s research is focused on science, ethics, and policy of animal protection.