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Fish - the forgotten farm animal


Fish are animals. They feel pain, stress and fear. They exhibit positive emotions, social bonds and advanced intelligence.

Scientific research constantly pushes forward our appreciation of how fascinating fish are. Far more complex than we ever realised, fish live rich and social lives: communicating; hunting cooperatively and even developing cultural traditions.

Both science and common sense tells us fish are sentient and therefore deserve good lives just as much as any other animal. Sadly, because of human activities, they currently suffer in their trillions all around the planet.

It’s time to reconsider how we think of fish and take a fresh look at how they are treated.

Changing Attitudes to Fish

Compassion in World Farming, in partnership with Eurogroup for Animals, engaged the polling agency ComRes to conduct a Europe-wide survey into attitudes towards fish.

Over 9000 individuals were interviewed across 9 European countries in 2018. The findings indicate a disparity between how the public feels about fish and how fish are treated by industry. The majority of adults across each of the European markets (79%) tested, say that the welfare of fish should be protected to the same extent as other animals eaten by humans, and a majority say that the welfare of fish could be protected better than it is currently.

Issues concerning fish are not well understood and are not well communicated by fish companies. For example, European consumers assume that fish certified as “sustainable” have lived improved lives when the reality is their welfare has not been factored in at all.

The majority of respondents say that the welfare of fish impacts their decision of which fish products to buy. This market force currently goes unmet because there are no labelling systems that address fish welfare. Therefore there is no incentive for industry to treat fish better. Aside from the ethical issues this is an economic misstep because a majority of respondents report that they would be willing to pay more for higher welfare products.

For adults across European markets, a clear majority (79%) would like information about fish welfare to be visible on the packaging of all fish products, in order for them to make informed decisions about the type, species and wellbeing of the fish they buy and consume.

school of fish swimming

The Forgotten Trillions

Fish are the most utilised animals on Earth. The numbers are vast. It’s hard to know exactly how many fish are killed globally, because there are too many to count. But based on how much they weigh, it’s estimated that between one and three trillion (a thousand billion) fish are killed for food every year.

Of all the animals that people eat, fish are the most misunderstood. Fish are sentient animals. They are able to feel pain, pleasure and other emotions. Despite this, fish receive very little legal protection and are either farmed in terrible conditions or caught from the wild using extremely cruel methods.

An animal welfare issue can be measured as: Duration of suffering x intensity of suffering x number of animals

The duration of suffering for fish at the time of slaughter may be measured in minutes or hours. One research project found that fish can take between 55-250 minutes to suffocate to death. Those gutted alive, still took 25-65 minutes to die. The intensity of this suffering is usually severe.

The above proves that this is the biggest animal welfare problem of our time.

What are the challenges?


In the wild, fish numbers are catastrophically plummeting due to over-fishing by humans. By some estimates, 90% of big fish have been removed from the sea. If fishing continues as it currently is, without allowing marine ecosystems time to recover, our oceans will become virtual deserts by 2050. Once these creatures and habitats have been lost there is no way for us to bring them back. Our children could inherit a world without fish.


The collapse of fish stocks globally means that it is not sustainable to eat most wild caught fish. From a welfare point of view the situation is also bad. Wild fish may have lived decent lives where they are free to express their natural behaviours but, their capture and slaughter can often be violent and cruel. Fish can experience being: chased to exhaustion; shepherded by electric shocks; snared in sharp nets or caught on hooks. When fish are dragged rapidly from the deep, their internal organs can burst and eyes pop from their sockets due to the change in pressure.

In some cases, it may be more sustainable to eat farmed fish - especially if the fish being farmed are not predators, for example, carp or catfish. However, most farmed fish are not killed humanely. Suffocation is the most widely used slaughter method and this can take hours. So in both the cases of farmed fish and wild caught fish, it is reasonable to say that nearly all the animals are killed in ways that are not considered humane.

aquaculture fish farm

Underwater factory farms

In aquaculture, fish are farmed in confined areas and grown to size before being killed and sold. The majority of farming systems are designed with economics in mind, rather than the needs of the fish. When we compare a tank or cage with fishes’ natural environments they all severely restrict the animal’s natural behaviours. Fish are overcrowded in conditions where parasites and diseases flourish. Most farmed fish are reared in what can essentially be considered low-welfare, underwater factory farms.

Expanding rapidly, over half the world’s seafood now comes from aquaculture. Aside from the suffering of the fish themselves, fish farming can be hugely damaging to the environment and local communities. New guidelines and legislation, analogous to those for terrestrial farms, are urgently required to ensure this industry stops causing such extensive harm.


Farming should ensure two fundamental factors for the welfare of animals: a good life and a humane death. Farmed fish are slaughtered on farms or in specialised slaughter plants. Before killing, fish may be handled more than they are used to, which can be very stressful. For example grading, fasting, crowding and transport often take place in the last days / hours of life.

Traditionally, many of the methods used to kill fish have been inhumane, for example: submersion in a mixture of ice and water; suffocation in air; exposure to carbon dioxide and bleeding, among others. These cause considerable pain and fear. Violent struggles demonstrate the fishs’ attempts to escape. Suffering can be extremely prolonged. Many fish remain conscious and aware of pain for several minutes after having their gills cut and being left to bleed out.

Humane methods of slaughter exist but without due legislation in place most fish operations prefer to keep their costs down and do not buy the relevant equipment to enable a quick death.

dead fish in orange net

What are the solutions?

With appropriate guidelines and policies in place the total level of wild fishing can be reduced so that marine ecological systems can recover. The fishing that does happen can utilize shorter and less stressful methods of capture and landing, ensuring humane killing becomes the norm and banning methods of capture which use live bait. Packaging can clearly inform the consumer what they are buying, how it was produced and what the impacts are.

Farming does not have to be intensive, industrial, cruel and unsustainable. All over the world, examples can be found of people farming the right way. The solutions exist to bring fish to market ethically. What is required is to clearly articulate what best practice looks like and for industry to be open and transparent about their capacity to improve.

Currently, most governments have badly outdated fish policies that encourage: unsustainable overfishing, environmental damage, excessive waste and welfare is rarely considered. Governments should listen to the appropriate scientists and experts and shift policy away from maximum extraction to processes that are more animal and ecosystem friendly.

If decisive action is taken now we can once again have a thriving fishing industry and consumers who can buy fish in confidence, knowing that reasonable levels of concern for animal welfare and environmental sustainability have been taken into account.

What is Compassion going to do?

Compassion in World Farming will soon be launching a Europe-wide fish welfare campaign. This will be looking at fish farming practices throughout Europe. We want to establish best practice and work with producers, certification schemes and retailers to make sure that consumers are able to select higher welfare farmed fish in the EU. Ultimately, we will work with partners and key stakeholders to ensure that there is European legislation that protects fish in the same way that some other farm animals are protected.

What can we do?

Eat less fish

Consumer demand for fish is one major driver of overfishing. We can all help by eating less fish. Recently a lot of healthy eating advice has emphasized eating more fish. In many cases we can achieve a very healthy diet by being largely or entirely plant-based. For the conscientious consumer it is important to ensure that we are purchasing ethical fish. This means it is sustainable, with adequate welfare considerations. We need to encourage retailers to be transparent on where our fish comes from.

Improved choices

When buying wild caught fish it is important to only purchase fish with a sustainability certification such as MSC. However, unlike with some land-based certification schemes such as organic, MSC does not include any welfare considerations. Our Europe-wide survey found this to be a significant point of confusion for consumers. Ethical shoppers want fish welfare to be taken seriously by brands but there are currently no products that meet this criteria and no certification schemes to support these efforts.

Tell your friends

Currently, many people do not realize the extent to which fish suffer in order to satisfy market demands. We are encouraging our members to get informed and discuss these issues with our friends and colleagues. Compassion in World Farming will be publishing more information about fish and fish farming throughout Europe soon. Our campaign is launching in November 2018, so we encourage people to join our mailing list, follow us on social media and stay tuned for more actions coming soon.