By Dr Natasha Boyland, Compassion in World Farming Senior Research and Policy Advisor (Aquatic Animals)
Even though fish are intelligent, social, and capable of feeling pain – just like other animals – they currently have very little legal protection from cruelty anywhere in the world.
Every year, an estimated 124 billion fish are farmed globally, yet there is almost no species-specific legislation to protect their welfare. Is our tendency to ignore fish sentience driven by the remoteness and unfamiliarity of the deep seas, or is it simply because fish sentience presents us with an inconvenient truth?
A critical gap in EU legislation
It has been thirteen years since the late renowned author and biologist Victoria Braithwaite published her book Do Fish Feel Pain? In it, she summarised the groundbreaking research that shows fish are not only capable of detecting pain on physiological level, but actually experience it too. Fish are sentient beings.
With over 34,000 described species around the world, fish exhibit greater species diversity than any other group of vertebrates, and each one is adapted to thrive in their aquatic habitat. Like other animals, fish learn, problem-solve, and explore. Some migrate, socialise, hunt. Like us, some fish care for their young and use tools. Yet despite this knowledge, and the staggering numbers we farm each year, there have been very few welfare improvements and legislation for fish is still lagging far behind.
And as our latest investigation into fish farming in the European Union (EU) reveals, welfare improvements cannot come soon enough. Investigators visited Polish farms rearing trout – the most commonly farmed fish in the EU – and the results were shocking.
They witnessed fish being thrown on top of each other in crowded barrels without water. They were then moved to the slaughter facility, but for some fish this meant they were suffocating and being crushed in the barrels for as long as 20 minutes.
Fish should be effectively stunned before being slaughtered to spare them the pain, stress and discomfort of the killing procedure. However, our investigators witnessed ineffective stunning with crude electrical equipment which instead added to their suffering. Some were subsequently processed or gutted alive, with investigators reporting incidences of live fish having their eyes gouged out.
The investigators also witnessed fish being sold to customers still alive and taken away in boxes or plastic shopping bags with no water.
They also reported welfare issues with rearing including fish with fungal infections, sick fish, fin erosion, evidence of injuries, and barren environments. In all but one of the farms the water quality was poor. Fish were filmed swimming through dirty water, with investigators noting that “dead animals were discovered at the bottom of the ponds, as well as faeces and feed remains.”
As the investigation video shows, tragically these cruel practices are not isolated to Poland. Many of the rearing and slaughter issues exposed in this investigation are common in fish farms across Europe and beyond.
Time for the EU to act
Reforms are urgently needed to ensure fish are protected from cruelty by law, to at least align with the basic laws afforded to other farmed animals. The consequences of this legislative neglect are significant: up to 1.2 billion fish are farmed in the EU alone each year.
The EU Commission has been reviewing its animal welfare legislation and promised to publish its proposals by the end of 2023, yet, to date, no proposals for rearing or slaughter have been put forward.
With an overwhelming nine out of ten EU citizens believing it’s important to protect the welfare of farmed animals, it’s time for the Commission to do the right thing and update the legislation to ensure that fish are given the legal protection they so desperately need.
Read more about how you can support the Rethink Fish campaign.