Fisheries and fish welfare: an uncanny silence

Dinesh Wadiwel considers the global growth of fish consumption and the sorry state of fish welfare.

It has been acknowledged for decades that wild capture fisheries are over-exploiting fish populations. When Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer proposed the term “Anthropocene” to describe our distinct geological epoch where human populations shape the geology and ecology of the earth, industrialised wild fishing was one of the examples they were thinking of. Over the last three decades, environmental groups have continued to campaign against netting practices such as drift nets and trawling, and the unintended impact on “by-catch” (such as dolphins). Human induced climate change poses its own mix of challenges, including for the economic viability of small scale fisheries.  Closer to home, “super trawlers” have been making the headlines in Australia, as has the durability of fish populations in the Great Barrier Reef. And while aquaculture grows in importance as a source of food for much of the world’s population, there is a continuing focus on how to minimise the environmental impact of fish farming.

Despite all this focus on fisheries, there has been relatively little interest in the welfare of fish used for human food. This is curious given the scale of human consumption of sea animals, and the rapid growth of per-capita global fish consumption. When fishcount.org.uk attempted in 2010 to calculate the number of wild fish killed annually by humans for food, the numbers were staggering. Their estimate was that between 0.97 and 2.7 trillion wild fish were caught by humans every year.  Aquaculture also makes a significant contribution to the number of fish that are killed globally for food. In a follow up study by fishcount.org.uk it was  estimated that between 37 and 120 billion farmed fish were slaughtered for food in the 2010, an annual figure that is set to rise dramatically (in 2012 world farmed fish production exceeded that of beef).  These numbers of individual sea animals who are killed for food substantially exceed the number of land animals that are killed for human consumption, which now exceed 60 billion animals slaughtered annually. While most land animal slaughter is regulated by welfare laws, there is minimal (if any) regulation of fish slaughter. In other words 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 philosopher Peter Singer has noted, fish are the “forgotten victims on our plate.”

The welfare issues are potentially enormous in scope. For example, the most common way fish are killed is by asphyxiation, where fish are left on the deck or on a line to suffocate. This is a potentially slow way to die, and research has indicated that some fish, such as sea bass, will take up to 60 minutes before they are effectively stunned if left to suffocate in this way. Other fishing practices, such as cutting fish across the gills (“bleeding”) would be intolerable if they were applied to land animals. The methods used to catch fish also produce undesireable welfare outcomes. For example, in industrial net fishing, such as mechanised purse seine fishing, many fish will die in the process of being caught by being crushed or damaged by other fish (when scooped or “brailed” onto the deck of the ship).

At least part of the slow progress in relation to fish welfare regulation relates to the lack of consistent agreement on whether fish suffer or have cognitive abilities which would warrant moral consideration. There has been some remarkable recent work demonstrating that fish feel pain by researchers such as Lynne Sneddon and Victoria Braithwaite; and interesting work on fish cognition and emotion, including by Australian based scientist Culum Brown. However the area remains controversial, particularly with some scientists, such as James D. Rose, claiming that fish do not feel pain in a way that is comparable to human suffering.

While this controversy stirs, there has at least been some progress towards providing minimal welfare protections – the voluntary fish welfare guidelines developed as part of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS) are an example of slow progress. However we are a long way from seeing strong legal regulation of fish welfare within fisheries. And, for those who want to see more discussion on the ethics of eating fish, or ponder if fish might have lives worth protecting, the silence seems quite deafening.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation suggests that fish will play a more prominent role in food consumption globally. This future will pose increasing challenges for thinking about environmental sustainability, particularly in a context of anthropogenic climate change. However, as the world continues to ramp up fish consumption, it may also be time to start thinking more carefully about the welfare of those who will increasingly be found on our plates.

Dinesh Wadiwel will be presenting research as part of a fish welfare seminar co-presented by the Human Animal Research Network (HARN) and Food@Sydney.

Image: lizardwisdom via Flickr Commons