Fishes and the Flesh Industry

By Joan Dunayer

Reprinted with the author's permission, September 2015

Originally published in American Vegan, Spring 2003, pp. 9-10
Copyright 2003 Joan Dunayer

Fishes are sensitive beings with as much right to life and freedom as other animals. To avoid cruelty and injustice, we need to avoid eating their flesh.

Partly because they think of fishes as unfeeling, many people who otherwise avoid eating flesh continue to eat fish flesh and even call themselves vegetarians. Biochemically and structurally a fish’s nervous system closely resembles ours. Fishes possess abundant pain receptors and produce chemicals known to counter pain and fear. When injured, they writhe, gasp, and show other signs of suffering. Each year, the U.S. flesh industry causes billions of fishes to suffer and die.
U.S. commercial fishers reported a 2001 fish “catch” of more than 8 billion pounds. That figure doesn’t include billions of non-targeted fishes who also were caught.
Long-lining is used to catch large fishes such as swordfishes, tunas, and sharks. A long-lining ship unreels up to 40 miles of line bristling with hundreds of baited hooks. Some long-liners don’t reel in their lines for about 20 hours, so hooked fishes may stay impaled for nearly a day. Many fishes who swallow the bait are hooked in the stomach; as they struggle, the hook tears their insides.
In gillnetting, curtain-like nylon mesh hangs to a depth of 10 to 40 feet. Gillnets range from several hundred feet to 40 miles long. Fishes swim into the netting, which they can’t see. Unless they’re smaller than the mesh size, they get no farther than poking their head through. When they try to back out, the netting catches them by their gill plates or fins. Many of the fishes suffocate. Others struggle so much in the sharp mesh that they bleed to death, whether or not they’ve pulled free. Fishes trapped in a gillnet that isn’t tended daily may survive for days, slowly dying. When they’re pulled aboard, many fishes—beset by sand fleas—no longer have scales, fins, or eyes. Many are dead, eaten away.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of ships trawl. In trawling, a moving boat drags an enormous funnel-shaped net through the water. The tow forces all fishes who enter the net into the tapered, closed end. Any fish larger than the net’s holes is caught. Netted fishes are squeezed and bounced, together with any rocks and ocean debris, frequently for several hours. Tumbled and dragged, the fishes rub against each other. Often their scales and skin are scraped off. Trawling also crushes, buries, and (by stirring up sediment) suffocates fishes and other animals on the ocean floor.
Trawling hauls up fishes from a substantial depth. As water pressure plummets, the volume of gas in a fish’s airbladder increases more rapidly than the bloodstream can absorb the gas. This causes excruciating decompression. Organs can hemorrhage from the intense internal pressure, which frequently ruptures a fish’s airbladder, pops out their eyes, and pushes their esophagus and stomach out through their mouth. Hauling up a trawling net commonly produces a great froth of bubbles because the airbladders of thousands of fishes have ruptured.
On board the trawler, smaller fishes are dumped onto chopped ice; most suffocate or are crushed to death by layers of fishes who follow. Larger fishes tumble onto deck. Fishes of all sizes are stabbed with short, spiked rods and thrown into separate piles by species. Next they have their throat and belly slit. If they’re still conscious and their belly is slit before their throat, they feel severe pain. Maimed, dying, or already dead, non-targeted fishes are tossed overboard, often by pitchfork.
Increasingly, the fish flesh purchased by consumers comes from captive-reared, rather than caught, fishes. Millions of salmons are reared in the U.S. for slaughter. Under natural circumstances they would migrate. In captivity they’re confined to crowded cages that sit in coastal waters. The water in the cages quickly fouls with waste and rotting food and often lacks sufficient oxygen. Because of crowding and filth, infections and parasite infestations plague intensively reared fishes, whose symptoms include scattered hemorrhages; red, swollen, and oozing gills; eroded skin, tails, and fins; and degeneration of internal organs. Fifty or more skin lice may latch onto a caged salmon from head to tail and eat into the salmon’s flesh. Afflicted fishes scrape themselves against their cage in a futile effort to relieve the intense irritation.
Before slaughter, salmons are starved for at least a week because starvation decreases feces and body fat. At slaughter they’re dumped into water infused with carbon dioxide, which is painful to breathe. The carbon dioxide paralyzes them, but most are still conscious when their gill arches are slit for bleeding.
U.S. confinement operations currently hold hundreds of millions of trouts, primarily rainbow trouts. Most are kept in shallow concrete troughs. Typically, five or more foot-long trouts have one cubic foot of space. Crowding and pollution reduce water’s oxygen content, so confined trouts frequently mass—gasping—at inlet pipes or the water’s surface, where oxygen levels are highest.
Like salmons, trouts are starved before slaughter, often for two weeks. They won’t lose much weight during that time, so, in the industry’s view, why waste money on feeding them? At slaughter, trouts are dumped into a mix of water and ice. Struggling to breathe, they suffer until lack of oxygen renders them unconscious in about 10 minutes. The mix is drained of water, and the trouts suffocate. In 2001, U.S. slaughterers killed approximately 42 million trouts.
Currently, about three billion catfishes (mostly channel catfishes) live in intensely crowded U.S. confinement facilities. Most are kept in ponds. In a typical pond, a catfish 15 inches long has one cubic foot of space. Even though commercial catfish foods are laced with antibiotics, and other drugs are added to the water, a high proportion of catfishes die from disease.
Before catfishes are trucked to slaughter, they’re denied food for several days, so that they’ll produce less waste and won’t vomit during transport. Catfishes travel in tanks so crowded that three 15-inch fishes may have only one gallon of water. En route, many die from oxygen deprivation.
At the slaughterhouse, catfishes may be confined to vats for days—still without food—before slaughtering begins. Usually, catfishes are paralyzed by a surge of electricity sent through the water in their container. Because the current is not directed through their brain, they feel a shock. If the current is too weak, they’re also conscious when a band saw or other blade cuts off their head. In nature, channel catfishes can live 40 years. In the flesh industry they’re slaughtered before they’re two. The catfishes killed by U.S. slaughterers in 2001 numbered about 400 million.
Fishes are sensitive beings with as much right to life and freedom as other animals. To avoid cruelty and injustice, we need to avoid eating their flesh.
Joan Dunayer is the author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001) and Speciesism (2004).

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