An estimated 90 -100 million tons of fish are killed by humans every year.
Can you imagine how many trillions of individual lives that staggering figure represents?
Some people may find it difficult to empathize with fish, or to grasp that they feel pain and distress much as we do. Fish are not cute or furry, they live in an alien (to us) environment, and do not have recognizable facial expressions or make sounds we can readily interpret. As children we may have been told that hooks did not hurt fish because they were cold-blooded or did not have nerve endings in their lips. The fishing industry talks of “tonnes” of fish caught, encouraging us to view them as an amorphous mass rather than as individuals who can suffer and whose lives can go well or badly for them. We speak of “seafood” as though the huge diversity of aquatic life were nothing more than a giant smorgasbord for humans.
The truth is that fish have a highly developed nervous system just like all vertebrates, including humans, and compelling evidence suggests that they experience pain and distress just as we do. Their bodies produce natural opiate-like pain killing substances when they are injured. They have nerve endings near the skin similar to those of mammals, and their lips and mouths are particularly sensitive.
A two-year study by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the United Kingdom proved what many marine biologists have long believed; fish feel pain just as all animals do. They suffer when they are impaled through the mouth and hauled into an environment in which they cannot breathe.
Even the fishing industry tacitly admits that fish suffer. The Australian Seafood Industry promotes a voluntary code encouraging fishers to “kill fish quickly, use appropriate tackle, and attend lines frequently”. The Gippsland Aquaculture Industry Network endorses humane slaughter and the use of transfer and harvest methods which reduce stress to stock. Such recommendations would be pointless if fish did not feel pain.
Fish are communicative, sensitive and intelligent animals with complex lives and relationships, however this can be easily missed by humans without sophisticated equipment. An article by biologist Culum Brown in "New Scientist" magazine states: "In many areas, such as memory, [fish] cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates, including non-human primates." A recent issue of Fish and Fisheries Journal cited more than 500 research papers on fish intelligence, proving that fish are smart, can use tools, and have impressive long term memories and social structures. They are very capable of learning and remembering, and possess a range of cognitive skills that would surprise many people. Fish talk to each other with squeals and other low frequency sounds which humans can hear on special instruments. They like to be gently touched and to rub against each other.
“Every fish caught is entangled in the net, and come aboard one by one as the net is reeled in. It’s an invasive process, a personal one, each and every fish is handled by the workers. I watched as cod after cod was violently extracted from the net—hundreds of fish squeezed and torn out of the tangle, the net slicing into their bodies. They were roughly tossed into a metal bin, landing with a thud. Some were still thrashing, some were too tired; many were vomiting up their guts, their eyes bulging from the pressure change. Some of these fish may have been struggling in the nets for up to 24 hours. After a few minutes, their gill arches were slit and they were thrown into the next bin, where they twitched and gasped, slowly bleeding to death. Later, the fish were gutted and beheaded. The absolute worst thing for me, physically, was the overwhelming stench of fish vomit. It was not long before I was covered with fish blood, vomit and guts.” - Dawn Carr, PETA
This is a description of a trawling, or purse seining operation, the way millions of fish meet their grisly ends every year in the commercial fishing industry. Fishing boats use huge nets which may stretch for miles and wreak havoc on everything in their path. Hundreds of different life forms may be trapped and killed. Fish emerge from the nets with their skin scraped raw. As they are dragged from the depths of the ocean, the pressure change causes their eyes to bulge and their swim bladders to burst. Longlining is another common fishing method in which thousands of baited hooks are suspended from a horizontal line and hauled in after a set time. Hooked fish may struggle to the point of exhaustion before finally being killed.
Factory Farms for Fish
Aquaculture is the farming of fish and other aquatic animals in salt or freshwater. The rapidly growing Australian industry farms around 70 species, including tuna, salmon, trout, prawns, yabbies, eels and barramundi.
Fish raised on aquafarms are penned in indoor tanks where hi-tech systems control food, light and growth stimulation. To be profitable, farms must raise large numbers of fish in intensive confinement, leaving them no more chance to exercise their natural habits and instincts than a hen in a battery cage. The overcrowded and sterile environment leads to stress, injuries to tails, snouts and fins, and epidemics of parasites and disease. Fish may be pumped full of antibiotics to control infections.
Southern Bluefin Tuna are large, fast-swimming fish who spend their lives ranging the breadth of the southern oceans, reaching speeds of up to 70km per hour. They can live for up to 40 years and do not reach maturity until 8 – 11. On a fish farm they are raised in 30-50 meter diameter sterile plastic pontoons. A standard cage holds up to 2000 tuna.
Fish are often starved for days or weeks before slaughter to reduce waste contamination of the water during transport. Slaughter methods include exposure to air, ice slurry, bleeding, gutting, carbon dioxide poisoning, and spiking. Most of these do not render the fish immediately unconscious, and there is no consistent commercial application of stunning prior to slaughter. Many fish have their gill arches cut and are left to bleed to death, flailing and convulsing. Others are killed by draining away the water so that they slowly suffocate.
Keeping many fish concentrated in a small area causes pollution of the surrounding environment. Fish wastes, excess feed and farm chemical form sediment beneath the cages and in surrounding areas, killing other marine life. Decaying sediment causes deoxygenation of the water and releases damaging compounds such as phosphates, hydrogen sulfide and methane into the water. For every ton of salmon produced, an estimated 100kh of nitrogenous compounds such as ammonia are released.
Many people think that fish farming spares wild populations, but actually the reverse is true. Farmed fish are fed on meal made from wild fish, and more than 3 tons of wild caught fish are required to produce 1 ton of farmed salmon. For some species such as halibut and cod, the ratio is more than 5:1.
A Sadistic “Sport”
Fishing for recreation is one of the world’s most widely practiced “sports”. But when you think about it, sticking a barbed hook through the mouth of a living, feeling creature, perhaps stabbing it with a bigger hook to haul it onto land, then beating it to death or leaving it to suffocate, is an extraordinary way to relax. Anyone who thought it good sport to treat a dog or cat in this way would quite rightly be condemned as a sadist, perhaps mentally ill, and prosecuted under the various Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Acts. Yet the billions of fish who meet their agonizing deaths this way do not rate a mention under the Acts, and most people do not give them a second thought.
As with the hunting of land animals, fishing requires that sentient creatures be tortured and killed for human amusement. It is every bit as much a bloodsport as fox hunting or deer shooting.
Prolonged “playing” of fish on a line causes extensive stress and exhaustion. Lactic acid accumulates in the fish’s muscles, which remain in prolonged fatigue as they work to eliminate it. A completely exhausted fish will be unable to move for several hours, leaving it vulnerable to predators or injury from the environment.
The outer surface of the fish does not consist of scales as often believed. Scales are located within the dermis, or middle layer of the skin. The outer layer, or epidermis, is a delicate transparent tissue which waterproofs the fish and protects it from disease producing micro organisms. Netting and handling of fish will damage this delicate layer and may cause severe trauma.
“Catch and Release” is commonly considered a humane alternative to killing.
But many fish who are released after being hooked will die from their injuries
or from shock. They may suffer the loss of their protective outer coating,
dangerous build-up of lactic acid in their muscles, oxygen depletion, damage to
their fins and mouths, pain, distress and death. Claimed high live release rates
do not account for the many fish who will later die.
The Invisible Victims
In October 2004, Victorian fisherman called for a cull of fur seals, which they say are depleting fish stocks and forcing fisherman out of the industry. A fisherman said that “seals should be culled the same as kangaroos when they reach plague proportions”. While this is still under debate in Victoria, the fishing industry has already taken a huge toll on seals in other parts of the world. Around 3,500 seals are killed every year around Scottish fish farms in an attempt to control “predators”, while Canada’s notorious seal hunt is driven in large part by the perceived need to protect dwindling cod stocks for human consumption. Seals have no choice in what they eat, yet they are begrudged their food supply by humans who have a wealth of choice. Similarly, cormorants in the UK, attempting only to feed themselves and their young, are under attack by anglers for stealing “their” fish.
The NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service databases show that a large variety of marine vertebrates, including whales, sharks, penguins, turtles, seals and seabirds, are harmed by fishing debris. Entanglement in lines, hooks in the mouth and gut, and wounds caused by line or net are common. A 1997 survey of beaches in the western Gulf of Carpentaria, NT, found that the overwhelming majority of debris was related to fishing gear, while a UK study found that in just 2 weeks, fishers discarded or lost 36,000 pieces of line – totalling 6km – along a 2km stretch of embankment.
It is estimated that almost 1500 seals die annually in Australia from entanglement.
A beach survey conducted in Arnhem Land in 2000 found 500 derelict fishing nets in 8.25 kilometres of coastline, and many entangled turtles. A study of 173 estuaries along the NSW coast found 10% of the pelican population to be entangled in line.
Bycatch is another way that fishing hurts other animals. This is the part of the catch which is discarded because it has no commercial value or because regulations prevent it being kept. Every year, more than 20 million tons of unwanted fish, most dead or dying, are dumped back into the ocean. Many other animals such as turtles, birds and seals are also caught.
How you can help
Don’t go fishing. If your family or friends fish, encourage them to consider the evidence that fish feel pain and distress, and to take up a sport or relaxation which doesn’t harm and kill marine animals.
Reduce your consumption of sea animals or preferably stop eating them altogether. Despite the promotion of fish as healthy, many plant foods provide the same or greater benefits. Contact ALV for information on going vegan. The fishing industry only exists because humans can’t wean themselves off a cruel and unnecessary food. Are your tastebuds really worth the suffering and death of millions of fish and the associated devastation of our oceans?