Fish are smart, interesting animals with their own unique personalities, and just like dogs, cats, and humans, fish feel pain. Scientists who study pain are in complete agreement that the fish pain response is basically identical to the pain response system in mammals and birds.
Did you know that fish can also learn to avoid nets by watching other fish in their group and that they can recognize individual “shoal mates”? Some fish gather information by eavesdropping on others, and some—such as the South African fish who lay eggs on leaves so that they can carry them to a safe place—even use tools.
Sadly, the U.S. fish industry slaughters more than 6 billion fish each year, and sport fishing and angling kill another 245 million animals annually. Without any legal protection from cruel treatment, these intelligent, complex animals are impaled, crushed, suffocated, or sliced open and gutted, all while they’re fully conscious.
Fish on aquafarms spend their entire lives in crowded, filthy enclosures, and many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries. Conditions on some farms are so horrendous that 40 percent of the fish may die before farmers can kill and package them for food. Fish who survive are starved before they are sent to slaughter in order to reduce waste contamination of the water during transport. Salmon, for example, are starved for 10 full days.
In the wild, hundreds of billions of fish—along with “nontarget” animals, including sharks, sea turtles, birds, seals, and whales—are caught each year in ocean-ravaging nets or dragged for hours on long-lines for the commercial fishing industry.
Whether the fish are raised on aquafarms, caught in the ocean by giant nets or long-lines, or hooked at the end of a fishing line, eating them supports cruelty to animals.
FISH FEEL PAIN
Anyone who made it through Biology 101 knows that fish have nerves and brains that sense pain, just as all animals do. Dr. Donald Broom, a scientific advisor to the British government, explains, “The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”
Neurobiologists have long recognized that fish have nervous systems that comprehend and respond to pain. Scientists tell us that fish brains and nervous systems closely resemble our own. For example, fish (like “higher vertebrates”) have neurotransmitters such as endorphins that relieve suffering; the only reason for their nervous systems to produce these painkillers is to relieve pain. Researchers have created a detailed map of pain receptors in fish’s mouths and all over their bodies. A team at the University of Guelph in Canada recently surveyed the scientific literature on fish pain and intelligence. They concluded that fish feel pain and that “the welfare of fish requires consideration.”
A two-year study by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the U.K. proved what many marine biologists have been saying for years: Fish feel pain, just as all animals do. Anglers may not like to think about it, but fish suffer when they are impaled in the mouth and pulled into an environment in which they cannot breathe. Said Dr. Lynne Sneddon, who headed the study,“Really, it’s kind of a moral question. Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?”
A study by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast proved that fish learn to avoid pain, just like other animals. Rebecca Dunlop, one of the researchers, said, “This paper shows that pain avoidance in fish doesn’t seem to be a reflex response, rather one that is learned, remembered and is changed according to different circumstances. Therefore, if fish can perceive pain, then angling cannot continue to be considered a noncruel sport.”
Fish can also suffer from fear and anticipation of physical pain. Researchers from universities acrossAmerica have published research showing that some fish use sound to communicate distress when nets are dipped into their tanks or they are otherwise threatened. In a separate study, researcher William Tavolga found that fish grunted when they received an electric shock. In addition, the fish began to grunt as soon as they saw the electrode in anticipation of the torment that Tavolga was inflicting on them.
According to Dr. Michael Fox, D.V.M., Ph.D., “Even though fish don’t scream [audibly to humans] when they are in pain and anguish, their behavior should be evidence enough of their suffering when they are hooked or netted. They struggle, endeavoring to escape and, by so doing, demonstrate they have a will to survive.”
Commercial fishing is cruelty to animals on a colossal scale, killing hundreds of billions of animals worldwide every year—far more than any other industry.
Today’s commercial fishers use massive ships the size of football fields and advanced electronic equipment to track fish. These enormous vessels can stay out at sea for as long as six months, storing thousands of tons of fish onboard in massive freezer compartments.
Long-lining is one of the most widespread fishing methods. Ships unreel as many as 75 miles of line bristling with hundreds of thousands of baited hooks. The hooks are dragged behind the boat at varying depths or are kept afloat by buoys and left overnight, luring any animal in the area to grab a free meal. Once hooked, some animals drown or bleed to death in the water, and many others struggle for hours until the boat returns to reel them in.
Large fish such as swordfish and yellowfin tuna, weighing hundreds of pounds each, are pulled toward the boat by the baited line. Fishers sink pickaxes into the animals’ fins, sides, and even eyes—any part of the fish that will allow them to haul the animals aboard without ripping out the hook.
Billions of fish, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, birds, and other marine animals are injured and killed by long-lines each year.
Ranging from 200 feet to more than a mile in length, gill nets are weighted at the bottom and held upright by floats at the top, creating what some have deemed “walls of death.” Fish are unable to see the netting, and unless the mesh size is larger than the fish, they get stuck. When they try to back out, the netting catches them by their gills or fins, and many suffocate. Others struggle so desperately in the sharp mesh that they bleed to death.
Because gill nets are set and then left unmonitored, trapped fish may suffer for days. Many bleed to death before the ship returns to take them out of the ocean. Those who make it to the deck alive are ripped out of the net by hand and suffocate or are cut open while still alive. Fish who were caught deep in the ocean suffer from decompression, and the extreme change in pressure can cause their stomachs to be forced out of their mouths.
Another fishing method involves the use of a purse seine, which is the primary net used for catching tuna but which is also used for a variety of other fish species. This method has aroused public outrage because dolphins are sometimes caught in the nets. However, purse seines also kill millions of tuna—intelligent animals who are just as capable of feeling pain as dolphins.
To catch tuna, fishers track pods of dolphins, who commonly swim with large tuna, and drop a net into the water to surround the school of tuna. The edges of the net are slowly cinched together, trapping hundreds of tuna (usually weighing from 6 to 40 pounds each) in the net, which is then drawn up and closed like a laundry bag.
If they are still alive when they reach the deck of the boat, large fish such as tuna, cod, and haddock are completely conscious when their gills are slit and they are disemboweled.
Bottom trawlers target species such as orange roughy, cod, and haddock. Enormous bag-shaped nets are pulled along the ocean floor, catching every rock, piece of coral, and fish in their paths. Large metal plates at each end of the net drag along the ground, keeping the net close to the ocean floor while stirring up sediment and forcing all the animals in the net’s path into the closed end. Bottom trawling literally scrapes the ocean floor clean of life and is considered by some to be the underwater equivalent of clear-cutting forests.
The nets rip hundreds of tons of animals out of the ocean, squeezing some of them so tightly against the sides of the nets that their eyes bulge and burst out of their skulls. For hours, trapped fish are dragged along the ocean floor with netted rocks, coral, and ocean debris. Many fish’s scales are completely ground off. When hauled out of the water, surviving fish undergo excruciating decompression. The intense internal pressure ruptures their swim bladders, pops out their eyes, and pushes their esophagi and stomachs out through their mouths.
When first developed, bottom-trawling nets were limited to parts of the ocean that had a soft sediment floor because rocks and coral tore holes in the netting, allowing fish to escape. Now, bottom trawlers have huge wheels along the entire bottom edges of the nets. The heavy metal wheels roll along the ocean floor, crushing everything in their path but keeping the nets just off the ocean floor to prevent them from being torn. This “advance” has dramatically expanded the range of bottom trawlers, killing fish and other animals who had been protected by their rocky habitats. Consequently, bottom trawling is one of the most environmentally damaging fishing techniques, killing animals and destroying endangered coral and other sea life.
SLAUGHTER ON DECK
Regardless of the method used to catch them, if the fish are still alive at the end of their terrifying journey to the surface, most have their gills cut and bleed out or are tossed onto ice to slowly freeze or suffocate to death—a horribly cruel and painful death for coldblooded animals, who can take a very long time to freeze or suffocate to death. Scientists estimate that fish endure up to 15 minutes of excruciating pain before they lose consciousness.
FISHING HURTS OTHER ANIMALS TOO…
Sharks, sea turtles, birds, seals, whales, and other nontarget fish who get tangled in nets and hooked by long-lines are termed “bycatch” and are thrown overboard. They fall victim to swarming birds or slowly bleed to death in the water.
Scientists have found that nearly 1,000 marine mammals—dolphins, whales, and porpoises—die each day after they are caught in fishing nets. By some estimates, shrimp trawlers discard as much as 85 percent of their catch, making shrimp arguably the most environmentally destructive fish flesh a person can consume.
More than 40 percent of all the fish consumed each year are now raised on land-based or ocean-based aquafarms where fish spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures and where many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the aquaculture industry is growing three times faster than land-based animal agriculture, and aquafarms will surely become even more prevalent as our natural fisheries become exhausted.
On aquafarms, high-volume systems control food, light (on indoor farms), and growth stimulation. Drugs and genetic engineering are used to accelerate growth and change reproductive behaviors.
In intensively crowded aquafarms, small fish are bullied and killed by larger fish, so fish are continually sorted to make sure that faster-growing individuals are moved to the appropriate size grouping.
At each sorting, they are netted or pumped out of their tanks and dumped onto a series of bars and grates with varying space gaps to divide them by size and redistribute them into different netted cages or tanks; small fish slip through the small grates while larger fish fall through the larger gaps. This practice, called “grading,” is very stressful and results in painful scrapes and a loss of protective scales, leaving the animals vulnerable to disease.
High mortality rates, disease, and parasite infestations are common. Deformities and stress-related injuries are also a regular occurrence; on some farms, as many as 40 percent of the fish are blind—a problem that is not addressed because blind fish net the same profit for farmers.
Because they are designed to navigate vast oceans and use all their senses to do so, many fish go insane from the cramped conditions and lack of space on fish farms. The tight enclosures inhibit their ability to navigate properly and cause them to knock against each other and the sides of the enclosures. This jostling causes sores and damage to their fins.
To increase profits, fish farmers cram as many fish as possible into the smallest spaces possible. Salmon farms are so crowded—with as many as 50,000 individuals in each enclosure—that a 2.5-foot fish spends his or her entire life in a space the size of a bathtub. Trout farms are even more crowded, with as many as 27 full-grown fish in a bathtub-sized space.
Many species of farmed fish are carnivorous, which means that fish must be caught from our already-exhausted oceans to feed the fish on aquafarms. It can take more than 5 pounds of fish from the ocean to produce just 1 pound of farmed salmon or sea bass. Aquafarmers have even begun to feed fish oil and fish meal to fish who naturally eat only plants in an effort to make them grow faster.
What’s more, fish farmers lace fish feed with powerful chemicals and antibiotics to help fish survive the deadly diseases caused by the crowding and filth. It’s likely that these fish pellets are the cause of the higher PCB and dioxin contamination levels found in farmed fish, which are seven times higher than the already-dangerous levels found in their wild counterparts.
Contaminants from ocean-based aquafarms (fish excrement, uneaten chemical-laden food, and swarms of parasites) spread to the surrounding ocean, and the rampant disease inside the cages is passed on to ocean fish in the area, in some cases increasing the incidence of sea lice a thousandfold.
These parasites eat at the fish, causing their scales to fall off and creating large sores. In severely crowded conditions, lice often eat down to the bone on fish’s faces. This is so common that fish farmers have taken to calling it the “death crown.”
In the United States, there are no regulations to ensure the humane treatment of fish.
As many as 40 percent of farmed fish die before the aquafarm operator is ready to slaughter them. Fish who survive are starved before they are sent to slaughter in order to reduce waste contamination of the water during transport. Salmon, for example, are starved for 10 full days.
Fish slaughter plants in the U.S. make no effort to stun the fish, who are completely conscious when they start down the slaughter line. Their gills are cut, and they are left to bleed to death, convulsing in pain.
Large fish, such as salmon, are sometimes bashed on the head with a wooden bat called a “priest,” and many are seriously injured but still alive and suffering when they are cut open. Smaller fish, such as trout, are often killed by simply draining water away and leaving them to slowly suffocate or by packing them in ice while they are still completely conscious.
Because fish are coldblooded, allowing them to suffocate on ice prolongs their suffering, leaving them to experience excruciating pain for as long as 15 minutes before they die.
Scientists are starting to learn more and more about our finned friends, and their discoveries are fascinating. Fish and Fisheries cited more than 500 research papers on fish intelligence, proving that fish are smart, that they can use tools, and that they have impressive long-term memories and sophisticated social structures. The introduction said that fish are “steeped in social intelligence … exhibiting stable cultural traditions and cooperating to inspect predators and catch food.”
Their long-term memories help fish keep track of complex social relationships. Their spatial memory—”equal in all respects to any other vertebrate”—allows them to create cognitive maps that guide them through their watery homes, using cues such as polarized light, sounds, odors, and visual landmarks.
Furthermore, a scientific review presented to the Australian Veterinary Association completely disproved the myth that goldfish have three-second memories; instead, the veterinarians found that goldfish have impressive memories and problem-solving abilities. One of the researchers said that after conducting the review, they wanted “to get the message out to vets to start looking more closely at fish and considering their welfare like they do other animals.
Fish talk to each other with squeaks, squeals, and other low-frequency sounds that humans can hear only with special instruments.
Fish like physical contact with other fish and often gently rub against one another—like a cat weaving in and out of your legs.
Dr. Phil Gee, a psychologist from the University of Plymouth in the U.K., trained fish to collect food by pressing a lever at specific times, demonstrating their ability to tell time.
Some fish tend well-kept gardens, encouraging the growth of tasty algae and weeding out the types they don’t like.
Like birds, many fish build nests where they raise their babies; others collect little rocks off the seafloor to make hiding places where they can rest.
Some fish woo potential partners by singing to them, but male sand gobies, tiny fish who live along the European coast, play “Mr. Mom,” building and guarding nests and fanning the eggs with their fins to create a current of fresh, oxygenated water.
Fish are interesting and intelligent animals and deserve the same respect we give to cute and cuddly animals such as dogs and cats.