Fish are the most consumed animals on the planet, up to 3 trillion are killed each year, but are often overlooked in animal welfare research, largely due to debate regarding their sentience and intelligence. There can be a disparity between people’s compassion towards warm-blooded animals and towards fish, partly because fish do not have facial expressions and generally do not make sound. However numerous studies have shown that fish are intelligent animals capable of feeling pain, fear, stress and well-being. The huge global demand for fish has led to massive growth in the fish farming industry where conditions are often deplorable. There is very little legal protection for fish.

Fish have the capacity to feel pain and experience suffering. Image: SAV.

Current research suggests that only animals are capable of sentience, other living beings such as bacteria and amoebas do not possess a centralized nervous system that allows them to feel emotions or have positive or negative experiences. Studies such as “Can fish suffer?: perspectives on sentience, pain, fear and stress” demonstrate how fish are likely to experience pain, fear and psychological stress and so have the capacity to suffer in fish farms due to the unnatural conditions and also when caught in the wild due to cruel treatment and inhumane slaughter. Another study, “Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics” reviewed current scientific research on fish cognition and revealed that “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates.”

Fish are either caught from the wild or farmed, which is known as aquaculture. As with all factory farmed animals, fish need more than basic water and feeding, they also need suitable stimuli and conditions in order to have a good quality of life. Intensive aquaculture conditions are often characterised by overcrowding, under-feeding, disease, parasites, and inhumane slaughter techniques. The Irish fish farming industry is relatively small with 14 coastal counties producing salmon, trout, oysters, mussels, and some other less common seafood. There are approximately 40 salmon farms.

Key Welfare Issues

Overcrowding in Farms: overstocking and bad aquaculture planning and management can cause serious health and welfare problems for the fish as well as environmental degradation and disease being passed on to wild fish. Fish can suffer from stress and aggression, physical injuries, disease, poor water quality and lack of oxygen.

Feeding: food is often withheld from farmed fish before transport, grading or slaughter. Some fish are starved for up to two weeks.

Disease: abnormally high densities of fish in intensive conditions has led to the outbreak of diseases such as the virus PMCV which is passed onto wild stock.

Parasites: sea lice infestations are the biggest problem with farmed fish and also spread to wild stock. Sea lice are incredibly adaptable and the use of pesticides and antibiotics has not diminished numbers. It is commonplace for farmed fish to be pumped full of antibiotics, growth promoters, pesticides, and other chemicals. According to the Irish Marine Institute, the use of “of malachite green, growth promoters, a variety of pesticide as well as an excessive amount of antibiotics and sea lice treatment medications on farmed salmon is illegal.” However, traces of malachite green, a chemical colourant and potent carcinogen, have been found in Irish farmed salmon. All these chemicals and antibiotics leak out into the seas and waterways. ‘Cleaner’ fish such as wild wrasse that eat the lice are used to try to combat the problem but there is little regulation around this and these fish can suffer appallingly.

Inhumane Slaughter: An undercover investigation by Compassion in World Farming discovered how many fish farms use inhumane tactics to kill fish such as being gutted alive, slow death by asphyxiation, or a common tactic used with sea bream and bass is to dump them in buckets of ice where they thrash about, struggling to breathe as ice gets stuck in their gills.

Abdominal massage: This is where the abdominal area of the fish is pressed in order to force eggs out. This practice is extremely harmful and stressful to the fish and is just one of a number of abusive practices found on fish farms.

Natural Behaviour: farmed fish are unable to carry out their natural swimming behaviour but can just swim in circles rubbing against each other and wire mesh.

Wild fish: wild caught fish do not suffer the welfare problems that farmed fish do but are subjected to inhumane slaughter. Also there are sustainability issues due to over fishing and some species are under threat. This is impacting other wild animals that are dependent on fish stocks for survival such as penguins. Wild fish are used for fish meal that is fed to other farmed fish along with other farm animals such as pigs and poultry.

Lice infestation – image: Salmon Watch Ireland

One fish farm in Kerry had its licence revoked in 2019 for continually breaching regulation and overstocking. This density of fish leads to parasites, disease, death, and a number of other dire consequences for the welfare of these fish.

“Salmon are packed into cages of up to 250,000 fish off the coast with just enough water to swim. They are basically being attacked and eaten alive by sea lice which can reach levels of 50 plus lice per fish.”

The majority of Irish salmon farms are organic which means the fish were fed an organic diet yet were likely reared in cages. A number of fish farms have been found to be mislabelling their fish as organic in order to get a higher price and some use pink dye to make the fish look more appealing. It is very difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are getting and where their fish is coming from.

In order to make ethical choices, purchasing fish which has not been farmed is the ideal choice. If you are purchasing farmed fish, try to look for fish that has been farmed extensively rather than intensively. In extensive systems the environment is still controlled but fish generally have more room and are not fed by humans as it is possible for them to get nutrients from their environment. In intensive systems, all feeding, reproduction, and environment is controlled by humans and conditions are generally crowded and stressful for the fish.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s (BIM) Responsibly Sourced Seafood (RSS) scheme provides the fishing industry and the consumer of wild caught Irish seafood with a ‘Certification of Good Practice’. Also look for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

Noteworthy, an online investigative journalism platform, has just completed an investigation into salmon farming and made shocking discoveries on poor monitoring and reporting of lice infestations and an appalling licensing process that has meant a large number of farms have been operating for up to 15 years without a valid licence. Read all about it here:

Part I   State issues licences to salmon farms to cull protected seals, documents reveal

Part II  Lice, infectious disease and taking reef fish: The impact of salmon farms on marine biodiversity

Part III Licensed to Fail: ‘Outdated’ salmon farm licensing system comes under fire from all sides

This Irish Times article is also very informative and explains just what is wrong with open cage finfish farms.

Why are open-pen salmon farms encouraged in Ireland but banned in many other countries?

EFI author: Tamsin Smith

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