Fish Welfare, Labour Rights and Environment in Fisheries: Intersecting Problems?

We kill far more fish than any other kind of animal for food, yet we spend the least amount of time thinking about their welfare.

Dinesh Wadiwel considers the growing concerns in relation to social and environmental sustainability of industrial wild capture fisheries.

Environmentalists have been ringing alarm bells for decades over the sustainability of industrialised wild fish capture, with mounting evidence of dramatic over-exploitation of fish populations. Netting practices such as drift nets and trawling have also drawn much attention from environmental groups, particularly in relation to their unintended impact on “by-catch” (such as dolphins and sharks). While aquaculture grows in importance as a source of food for much of the world’s population, there is growing concern about the need to minimise the environmental impact of fish farming. And human induced climate change also poses a number of challenges including for the continuing sustainability of small scale fisheries.

Labour rights within the global fishing industry are also a source of growing concern. Over the last decade a number of campaigners have drawn attention to the use of forced labour and human trafficking within global seafood supply chains, particularly in relation to the Thai fishing industry. The use of low wage or forced migrant labour impacts wild fish capture, but also seafood processing, such as the repetitive and dangerous work of shrimp peeling. It is alarming that some investigations reveal the use of child labour in supply chains.

There has been some focus from environmental justice campaigners on the combined environment and labour rights impact of fisheries. Such campaigns demonstrate the potential for alliance based campaigning to draw attention to industries that exert multiple harms: for example in this case, fishing industries that damage living environments as well as exploiting workers.

Another potential alliance in relation to reforming fisheries might come from animal advocates.

So far there has been relatively little interest in the welfare of the fish who are caught for food. The numbers of fish caught each year are staggering: one estimate suggests that between 0.97 and 2.7 trillion wild fish were caught by humans annually. However at present there are minimal welfare protections offered to wild fish caught through industrialised fishing. For example the bulk of these fish will be left to suffocate without being stunned, or will experience injury from nets and other fishing gears when they are caught. We kill far more fish than any other kind of animal for food, yet we spend the least amount of time thinking about their welfare. As such, as philosopher Peter Singer has noted, fish are the “forgotten victims on our plate.”

One of the reasons that fish welfare is not given high consideration is the lack of consistent agreement on whether fish suffer or have cognitive abilities which would warrant moral consideration. However there has been some remarkable recent work demonstrating that fish feel pain by researchers such as Lynne Sneddon; and new research on fish cognition and emotion, including by Australian based scientist Culum Brown. Indeed as ethologist Jonathan Balcombe has recently suggested, fish are much more like us than we might believe. And while the controversy over fish pain still rages, there is a growing body of scientific and philosophical opinion suggesting that we should take seriously fish suffering and at least improve the welfare we offer fish that we capture in oceans.

The growing agreement on the need to consider fish welfare provides one more reason to talk about industrialised wild fish capture. These pressures occur at a time when global fish consumption continues to accelerate as UN Food and Agriculture Organisation figures demonstrate. Arguably the environmental impact, the serious labour rights abuses and now the growing animal welfare concerns suggest that it is time to think carefully about this industry and who exactly it benefits.

In November 2016 the University of Sydney Human Animal Research Network , the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre the Sydney Environment Institute are hosting a series of events to bring together researchers and practitioners engaged with questions relating to fish welfare, labour rights and environment in wild capture fisheries. These events will be a rare opportunity to trade notes on the complex problems that circulate wild capture fisheries, and explore opportunities for partnership. The program will include public talks by internationally renowned fish scientist Professor Victoria Braithwaite and labour rights expert Associate Professor Christina Stringer.


Image Fishing Nets Youghal by Kieran McCarthy