9. Fishy Business | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

9. Fishy Business


You have now seen how land animals are treated by humans – as mere commodities devoid of any feelings. So what of the creatures of the oceans and rivers? “We don't have to worry about them”, we’re told, “because fish don't feel pain!" You don’t have to be an alien to split your sides with laughter at that ludicrous and convenient excuse. It ensures fish are treated as if they have no right to be on planet Earth. If we continue the way we're going, it won't be long before they won’t be.

Fish that are caught in trawl nets are often crushed to death under the weight of others or their eyes may balloon out (see  photo below) and their swim bladders burst as they are hauled up from deep water, where the pressure is much higher.

In 2004, the UK had 7,030 fishing vessels which landed 654,000 tonnes of fish valued at £513 million (Defra 2005). The global wild fish catch stands at about 90 million tonnes with a further 42 million tonnes coming from fish farms(19). Wild fish catches have passed their peak because the fish populations are collapsing across the globe.

Most of those caught come from five different groups - herrings, cod, tuna (jacks), redfish and mackerel. But they aren’t the only victims as all kinds of other creatures – creatures who depend entirely on fish – suffer as their main food source disappears. Every conceivable method has been devised for catching fish, including drift and gill nets. They can be 40km or more in length and usually hang from the surface, catching everything that swims into them, including dolphins, porpoises, small whales, rays, sharks, diving sea birds and species of fish which are not wanted. These all die from drowning and are discarded as by-catch.

The most common method of fishing is trawling, where huge sock-like nets are dragged along the sea bed. Fish that are caught in trawl nets are often crushed to death under the weight of others or their eyes may balloon out and their swim bladders burst as they are hauled up from deep water, where the pressure is much higher.

When the nets are emptied, every conceivable type of crawling, swimming and burrowing creature tumbles out on to the deck with the fish. It is simply shovelled back into the sea, most of it dead. This by-catch accounts for at least a third of all catches(16) (See Viva! guide 3: End of the Line.)

Those fish which are still alive have one of two fates. They are allowed either to suffocate to death in an alien environment or they are disembowelled with a gutting knife while still conscious. Fish such as plaice will desperately cling to life for hours out of water and may well be filleted alive. In an apparent concern at overfishing, the EU has instigated fish quotas for different species for each member country. What frequently happens is that once a boat has reached its quota for, say, cod it continues to fish for haddock. But as cod and haddock swim together the cod which are caught are simply returned to the sea – dead from suffocation, crushing or injury. (See Viva! Guide 9: Planet on a Plate.)

A growing sector is industrial fishing where ‘non edible’ (to humans that is) species such as sand eels and ling are caught to produce fish oil or to be turned into high protein livestock and salmon feed or simply to be used as fertiliser.

The effect of this mass killing of sea life is devastating the world’s oceans. Every official body is in agreement but still the fishing continues. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation reported in 2002 that 75 per cent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over exploited or significantly depleted. The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (the organisation dedicated to dividing up the oceanic spoils) went even further. In 2003, it said that only 18 per cent of fish stocks were ‘within safe biological limits’.  In other words, 82 per cent of all fish stocks are on the road to extinction(20).

The myth that fish are cold blooded and so can't suffer is difficult to shake off. The term 'cold blooded' isn't even accurate as the animal's temperature varies according to its surroundings. For example, some cold blooded animals that live in tropical waters can have higher temperatures than most ‘warm blooded’ mammals. And neither term can alter the fact that all fish have a central nervous system which determines whether or not a creature can feel pain.

Like all vertebrates, the fish nervous system consists of a brain, a single nerve cord along the back (spinal cord) and nerves which enable the animal to feel good and bad sensations. Of course fish feel pain! In 2003, the University of Liverpool published the first evidence to show that fish have pain receptors just like humans’. The University of Guelph, Ontario, took this a step further in 2004 and found that fish behaved in very similar ways to four-legged animals and felt fear, pain and stress in similar ways(21).

Professor Donald Broom, scientific advisor to the British government, reviewed all the available literature on fish suffering and came to this conclusion:

“The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals” (22).

Like land animals, fish are also factory farmed and the most common species are salmon (96 per cent) and trout (3.7 per cent)(23), although the factory farming of cod is now going ahead. There were 340 salmon farms in 2004, most of them sited in Scottish sea lochs. Between 1985 and 2000, salmon production grew 16-fold to over one million tonnes. Across the world, production of all the different species of farmed fish hit 42 million tonnes in 2004(24).

In the wild, salmon travel incredible distances and go to extraordinary lengths to find exactly the right spot in which to lay their eggs. On fish farms, their eggs are squeezed out by hand and when hatched, up to 20,000 young are packed into small, freshwater tanks before being transferred to cages in sea lochs at 18 months old.

Throughout their lives they are plagued by sea lice and diseases and so are dosed with antibiotics, pesticides, disinfectants and growth promoters in exactly the same way as any other factory-farmed animal. The environmental impact of all this, combined with waste food and faeces, can be devastating. Despite this prolific use of chemicals, between 20 and 50 per cent die from diseases such as cancer or pancreas and kidney infections.

There are no laws governing the way they are killed and a variety of methods are used. They may be cut across the gills and allowed to bleed to death, electrocuted in a water bath, hit over the head with a blunt object (‘priest’) or simply gutted while alive. Almost no concern is shown for their welfare.