If fish had fur

Credit: Compassion in World Farming

This blog is based on an opinion article that first appeared in The Scotsman on 26th March

When I look back over three decades of progress on the way we treat animals, it has been heartening to see how attitudes and understanding has evolved to insist on better treatment. New laws have been instigated to raise standards. Labelling has been introduced so we can choose eggs from hens not kept in cages. Many companies have ditched products from chickens, pigs and cows kept in the cruelest of conditions. 

But there is still much more to do.

Factory farming with all its cruelty is still sadly dominant. And tragically, one area where our treatment of animals has changed very little, is with fish.

Credit: Compassion in World Farming

There are some who recognise the need for better fish welfare standards and know about fish sentience – how they feel pain and distress – but they are the minority.  The quiet suffering of wild fish in our oceans and in fish farms, tends to go unnoticed.  They suffer in silence. Humanity is largely indifferent to their fate.

Science has shown that fish not only feel pain, but also experience pleasure. Some species have demonstrated long-term memories. They exhibit problem solving abilities, and some can even use tools.

But despite being complex and emotional creatures, the welfare of fish is rarely considered in legislation or industry standards and things like slaughter without stunning, is widespread.  

Fish slaughter methods globally are particularly outdated and cruel. Although farmed fish in the UK are stunned before slaughter, in much of the rest of the world, most farmed fish are killed by suffocation in air, in ice water slurry or using carbon dioxide in water. Wild fish may also be killed by the gutting and processing itself.  In the case of wild-caught sharks, fins are removed whilst alive and their bodies cast back into the ocean where they sink and die. 

Credit: Compassion in World Farming

Like other factory farms, fish farms involve tremendous cruelty, with the water-borne animals kept in intense confinement. As revealed in undercover footage recently released by my organisation, Compassion in World Farming, the Scottish salmon farming industry is rife with these welfare issues as well as serious environmental problems. Up to 50,000 salmon are often kept in a single sea cage. They can suffer from blinding cataracts, fin and tail injuries, body deformities and appalling infestations with parasitic sea lice.  At current production levels sea lice infestation and disease are out of control, causing fish suffering on an alarming scale and threatening wild fish populations. 

There is nothing welfare-friendly or sustainable about confining essentially wild, migratory species like salmon on intensive fish farms. Especially when it takes several kilograms of wild fish as feed to produce a single kilogram of farmed salmon. None of it adds up to a future-fit system of food production. Instead, it is yet another aspect of factory farming that needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. That is why Compassion in World Farming is calling for a halt to the otherwise inexorable expansion of salmon farming in Scotland and other parts of the world as a first step to ending this cruel and damaging practice.

There is no doubt in my mind, that if fish had fur rather than scales, screamed in pain and lived on land, humanity would have a much closer connection with them and, as a result, a greater respect for their welfare and protection.  After all, few people could watch a land-based animal covered in fur, with a deformed body and little eyesight, and not feel something.  Why is it so hard for some to think of fish as sentient creatures who form friendships and experience positive emotions and have personalities? 

“What she taught me was to feel that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference,” Craig Foster says in “My Octopus Teacher.” | Credit: The Sea Change Project

It has been hugely encouraging to see public support for the British veterinary sector, calling for lobsters to be pre-stunned rather than boiled alive whilst fully conscious. This followed clear scientific evidence that lobsters suffer extreme trauma during the boiling process and that it can take up to 15 minutes to die. The recent and significant success of Netflix film ‘My Octopus Teacher’ , also demonstrated there are many individuals who are beginning to recognise the sentience of ocean creatures and only this week, Netflix launched a new, much acclaimed documentary ‘Seaspiracy with the promise that the film will radically transform the way we think and act on ocean conservation.  But will it?  And what will it take to encourage consumers and legislators to think differently? 

When all is said and done, there is no escaping the fact that fish are the most exploited group of animals on our planet.  They cannot speak or show facial expressions that we recognise as being like ourselves. We may not think we have a lot in common with fish, but in reality we do. They have brains and hearts and a nervous system, they bleed when they are cut.  

We all need to seize the opportunity of this year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit to move toward a global agreement to end the factory farming of all animals and of fish too. To reset our food system towards regenerative, restorative, nature-friendly ways of producing food.

To that end, I am honoured to have been appointed a ‘Champion’ of the United Nations Food Systems Network and that I will represent animal and fish welfare organisations in Europe and beyond, as a Food Systems Champion for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.  It has never been so important for humanity, for animals, ocean creatures and for all life on Earth, to manage our food systems in a genuinely sustainable way.

The current fishing and fish farming industries are built on animal suffering and must change.  In years to come, humanity will look back and be appalled at the way we treated fish and plundered our oceans.

There can be no doubt, that as our understanding of other creatures evolves, our empathy must also extend, to encompass those sentient beings covered in scales, as if they wore fur.

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