No Animal Left Behind: investigations disclose the shocking experiences of Europe’s farmed fish


No Animal Left Behind: investigations disclose the shocking experiences of Europe’s farmed fish

8 May 2023
Essere Animali

Do you know how fish are farmed? While many of us can evoke pictures of chicken or dairy farms, fish farms have gone under the radar. Recent investigations by our member organisations Essere Animali and Animal Equality UK, as well as the Franz Weber Foundation, shine a spotlight on this overlooked industry: exposing high stocking densities, extortionate mortality rates and inhumane slaughter methods.

This year, Compassion in World Farming exposed the scale of global fish farming in a new research paper. Their findings revealed that since 1990, farmed fish numbers killed annually for food have increased ninefold, to a staggering 124 billion fish per year.

The majority of farmed fish (70–72%) have no legal welfare protection, and less than 1% have any fish-specific legal protection at slaughter, meaning that most farmed fish undergo inhumane slaughter practices and excessive suffering. 

This has to change. This year, the European Commission has the power to dramatically improve the lives of farmed fish with its revised animal welfare legislation. Until now, fish-specific laws have been glaringly absent. It’s time to leave no animal behind, and bring fish-specific protections in line with current evidence of fishes’ needs and natures.    

Poor practices in aquaculture are not an isolated occurrence. Footage captured on farms in Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK share a common thread of negligence. Read on.

Essere Animali: Italian and Spanish rainbow trout, sea bass and sea bream farms

In 2022, Essere Animali conducted investigations at several trout, sea bass and sea bream farms. What they documented is shocking: fish crammed into barren, concrete tanks; moved at high speed using pumps and often left out of water for several minutes.

The images show:

  • Dead fish floating on the water surface, indicative of the industry's high mortality rates and poor hygiene, resulting in disease; 
  • The barren and overcrowded conditions of the facilities again show the lack of  stimulation farmed fish are given - unable to satisfy many of their natural, behavioural needs, they are instead forced to be stationary or swim in repetitive patterns; 
  • Fish in agony after ineffective electrical stunning, either in ice slurry or out of water in wooden and marble containers: it takes many minutes for the fish to lose consciousness, as shown by the vigorous escape attempts made by the animals;
  • Fish still conscious during the packing operations in the processing plant. 

Transport represents one of the most critical phases in which farmed fish welfare is seriously endangered. Before being transported, fish commonly undergo prolonged periods of  fasting that can last up to several days, causing stress to the animals. Loading and unloading operations can occur carelessly, and without the use of suitable equipment, fish can be left out of water for several minutes. Poorly designed pumps and nets and careless handling cause physical injuries to the fish as well as acute emotional suffering.

Essere Animali also released footage from Greek fish farms in 2020. Greece is the EU’s largest farmed fish producer and exporter.  

Animal Equality UK: Scottish salmon and trout farming

This year, Animal Equality UK released covert footage showing trout and salmon suffering a string of abuses on slaughter boats across the coast of Scotland. 

A number of concerning practices were unveiled: 

  • Failure to stun fish or conduct adequate stun-checks, with some fish entering the stun-kill machinery backwards;
  • Fish being left to suffocate in an empty bucket;
  • Densely crowded in nets and bloodied slaughterhouse machinery;
  • Fish wounded and bleeding after being transported in pipes from sea pens onto boats;
  • Fish thrown violently by workers, causing some fish to slam against walls;
  • Dead and dying fish being discarded overboard by workers, a clear biosecurity risk.

Franz Weber Foundation: Spanish sea Bass, sea Bream and trout farms

The Franz Weber Foundation released footage from investigations carried out between 2020 and 2022 on 12 Spanish fish farms. Using a hidden camera and drones, images were taken at fish farms of the most commonly produced fish species in Spain: sea bream, sea bass, trout and turbot.

Spain is the EU's second largest farmed fish producer and the EU's top aquaculture producer by volume, with over 175.5 million finfish bred in hatcheries in 2019. 

The footage shows: 

  • Fish suffocating in ice for an hour and a half;
  • Forced spawning, where, every seven months, the animal is anaesthetised and its stomach is pressed hard to extract the eggs. The manager of one of the farms filmed explains that the spawning process can lead to injury or even death of the fish.

The video also shows the overcrowding of fish in the tanks, premature deaths due to poor production conditions and inadequate handling of the fish by the fish farm staff. At one farm, a worker reported that 1,823 trout had died that day alone, and the previous day there had been 1,300 casualties.

Farmed fish deserve better! Do you agree? 

The European Commission must factor in strong, precise, and targeted rules for fish welfare that take into account their sentient status and the best welfare practices that we know of. 

They should be handled with care, offered enriching lives and slaughtered in a way that doesn’t inflict intense suffering. There is no substitute for these basic needs.

This year, we’re calling for no animal to be left behind in the updated animal welfare legislation.

Add your voice to our call for change.