Fish endure prolonged suffering due to a failure to stun them before slaughter

I am troubled about fish. I eat fish because like millions of others I like it and it is nutritious. But I’m troubled with the way humankind relates to fish in terms of catching them and killing them. We seem to think that they are nuts and bolts rather than sentient beings which can feel pain. And because of this there is non-compliance with animal welfare issues in the UK regarding fishermen plying their trade in British coastal waters. There is anti-fish speciesism.

Caught fish in British coastal waters
Caught fish in British coastal waters. Image: Alamy.

There is a brilliant report on the Internet compiled by The Animal Law Foundation in conjunction with Animal Equality. They say that there is a key non-compliance welfare issue in respect of commercial fishing and it is summarised by them as follows: “Prolonged suffering due to failure to stun fish or adequately stun fish at the time of killing.”

77 million fish are reared in the UK and slaughtered annually. Atlantic salmon and trout and other fish species are farmed in large numbers. People are learning that fish can feel pain and experience pleasure like other livestock.

Despite this realisation fish are not provided with the protection they deserve and which is provided to farmed land animals.

In the UK, they are not provided protection under the Welfare at Time of Killing regulations. And there is a lack of oversight. Breaches of regulations are sometimes undetected and unenforced.

Prof Culum Brown, Director, HDR Biology Department Biological sciences, Macquarie University, Australia, says this about fish enduring extreme suffering due to lack of adequate stunning:

“In order to ensure improved welfare and reduce pain, suffering and anxiety at the time of slaughter it is important that animals are rendered unconscious rapidly and efficiently before they are killed. For most terrestrial animals this is a given, but that is certainly not the case for fish either in commercial fishing operations nor in aquaculture.

Best practice for fish is electrical or percussive stunning that renders the fish unconscious so that at the time of killing the fish can not feel pain and thus does not suffer. The mode of stunning must be sufficient to ensure there is no possibility that the fish will begin to recover before it is ultimately killed.

Far too often fish are simply not stunned at all and put directly on ice where they slowly suffocate. In fact, because fish are ectothermic, placing them on ice only slows their metabolism and prolongs the time it takes for them to die. It may be up to several hours. Even if the industry employs stunning methods, it is vital that staff are trained to recognise whether the process is effective. Partially stunned fish due to ineffective stunning will be aware right through the processing procedure and will undoubtedly suffer accordingly.”

In 2014 the Farm Animal Welfare Committee reviewed the welfare of fish at the time they were killed and concluded that “Stunning of farmed fish is necessary to remove fear, pain and distress at the time of killing.”

Mark Borthwick, OOCDTP Doctoral Fellow: Salmon Farming said: “[Animal Equality’s] footage is alarming. A significant number of salmon are clearly conscious when their gills are cut, which could result in extreme pain for as long as seven minutes.”

They report that most suffering of livestock in general occurs around the time of slaughter as a result of a failure to act strictly according to the law and to the codes of practice. A sufficient lack of enforcement allows this to happen.

I have dramatically summarised the report and focused on fish but in conclusion they state:

“There are nearly 300,000 farms in the UK, but between 2018-2021 an average of only 2.95% were inspected by public bodies.

There have been 65 secret investigations and in each case there was some form of illegality witnessed including “direct cruelty, untreated lameness, mutilations without anaesthetic, ammonia-caused body burns, prolonged suffering at slaughter and more”.

Britain is ostensibly a country other animal lovers. If you believe that you might wish to think again. Although relative to many other countries Great Britain does have good animal welfare laws and in general a decent attitude towards animal welfare but there are serious failings as mentioned.

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