Improving the catching and slaughter of wild-caught fish

In the wild capture fishery sector, an old and conservative sector, fish welfare is not on the agenda. The capture experience of wild fish is typically violent and lasts for up to several hours.

The various methods of capture all subject fish to injury or distress. Fish may be left to starve for days on the end of a long line or in a trap where they are vulnerable to attacks from predators, or be crushed to death in the pressure of a large commercial trawl net with thousands of other fish. Gill nets snare fish by the gills, and they are unable to free themselves. 

Removing fish from their aquatic home subjects them to pain and suffering as their gills collapse preventing breathing, and their internal organs burst as a result of the dramatic change in pressure from rising to the surface. Fish may be hit on the head to cause unconsciousness, sometimes multiple times, as revealed by our member Animal Equality’s exposé of the tuna industry, or have their gills sliced open and be left to bleed to death while still conscious. Most frequently, they are left to suffocate over a period of hours. If they survive this, they are often gutted alive. 

The non-selective nature of many fishing methods, in particular trawling, means that non-target animals such as other fish, marine mammals and other living creatures can be caught in large numbers. These animals are considered “bycatch”, with no commercial value, and are often simply cast back into the sea, dead or dying. Their living environments are destroyed, polluted and encroached upon not only by the fishing industry but by shipping, extractive industries and increasingly, windmills at sea.

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fish manipulation


Fish killed for human consumption are so numerous and so poorly documented that it is impossible to place an exact figure on the number of deaths. The best estimate is that between 830 billion and two trillion four hundred billion fish per year are wild-caught globally.

2400billion

FISH ARE WILD-CAUGHT GLOBALLY PER YEAR

73%

RESPONDENTS BELIEVE THAT FISH FEEL PAIN

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65%

RESPONDENTS BELIEVE THAT FISH ARE SENTIENT

WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

By proving that fish can and do suffer, Braithwaite’s 2003 research opened up discussion in both public and political spheres on the human obligation to protect fish from suffering. Since then, an increasing body of evidence has shown that fish are not just sentient but that some species demonstrate tool use and cooperation with others and exhibit complex social skills and even self-awareness, a high-functioning cognitive trait previously only attributed to humans, great apes and some dolphin and whale species.

In a survey commissioned by Eurogroup for Animals in Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the majority of respondents said that they:

  • Believe that fish are sentient beings (65%)

  • Feel pain (73%) 

  • Feel positive (55%) and negative (65%) emotions

With their heightened awareness of global crises such as climate change and extinction, the general public is becoming increasingly concerned about the wild fishery industry posing an environmental and biodiversity problem, as well as causing animals suffering and pain.  

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

Under EU law, fish welfare is covered by Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states: “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

While the welfare of farmed fish is covered by the EU legislation on rearing, transport and slaughter, the welfare of wild-caught fish is not. However, effective and humane fish slaughter methods are available not only for fish farmers but also for fishermen.