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Fish are the most abused animal on the planet, and yet their suffering goes largely unnoticed. They cannot scream or make a sound, and they exist underwater in an entirely different world. Groups like In Defense of Animals, Compassion In World Farming, and Sentient Media have raised awareness of the harmful impacts of fish farming, but campaigns specifically dedicated to advocating for protections for farmed fish, but campaigns to protect fish have been overwhelmingly lacking even within the Animal rights space. This is even though as many as 408 billion aquatic animals are killed in farms each year worldwide.
There are three general categories of fish farming: freshwater, saltwater, and land-based farming. While each poses its own set of risks to the environment, fish, and human health, nearshore and offshore fish farms have severe negative impacts on the environment and other aquatic life. In 2020, former U.S. president Donald Trump issued an executive order to open federal waters to commercial fish farming operations and cut down on regulations limiting these projects.
Fish in farms live in high-stress environments, often in giant circular pens along ocean coasts or miles offshore. Fish face conditions similar to other commonly farmed animals such as chickens and pigs in that they spend their lives in crowded and deplorable conditions, which leads to injuries, aggression, and illness. They are often given antibiotics or treated with other chemicals.
Despite scientific evidence proving that fish are sentient and capable of feeling not only negative emotions like pain but positive ones like joy too, they are not covered under any existing animal protection laws in the United States. The Animal Welfare Act is a federal law that regulates the treatment and sale of animals used in research and testing, education, sale, and exhibition. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires certain methods of slaughter to be used on animals killed for food that renders them unconscious and result in an effective and rapid death. The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act addresses heinous animal abuse. None of these laws include fish within their protections, leaving them vulnerable to the worst cruelties in all manner of exploitation: testing, the pet trade, factory farming, and general abuse.
The common fish slaughter methods used to kill farmed fish are inadequate and inhumane, and there is room for the development of new and improved methods that significantly reduce the pain and suffering of these animals. A more humane slaughter method would involve not removing fish from the water, or if needed, not removing fish from water for over 15 seconds, according to the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA). In contrast, current slaughter methods include asphyxiation out of water, death on ice slurry, immersion in carbon-dioxide-saturated water, bleeding out, striking fish on the head, and electrical stunning. Some of these methods take minutes for fish to die, and others are thought to be extremely painful.
While fish are the main victims of fish farming, the industry has negative impacts on other marine animals that extend beyond just fish. Sometimes other animals who are considered nuisances are killed by fish farmers. This was the case in Tanzania where fur seals were shot at and killed with underwater explosives to keep them from approaching salmon pens in the area. Animals can also get tangled in nets that hold farmed fish. In 2017, an endangered monk seal died in a fish farm net in Hawaii. These farming operations bring harm to wild fish populations as well. Fish farms can be a breeding ground for diseases that can pass on to native wild fish populations. Additionally, there is increased pressure on wild fish populations from fishing since fish in farms are fed fish meal made from wild-caught fish.
If this wasn’t all bad enough, fish farming operations have detrimental impacts on entire marine ecosystems. In open pen farm systems, chemicals, bacteria, and fish feces flow freely into the ocean, creating algal blooms and ocean dead zones. This happens when less oxygen dissolves in the water, creating places that are uninhabitable to most sea life.
The ocean and marine life who live there are a concern for humans, but fish farming directly affects us as well. Residual antibiotics in fish can be harmful to humans consuming these animals. Aquaculture is an occupation with a high risk of injury and harm including drowning, fall-related accidents, electrocution, and exposure to chemicals and pathogens. Large-scale fish agriculture also has detrimental effects on coastal communities that rely on fish for food.
So what to do about this monumental issue contributing to the suffering of millions of animals, the decline of our oceans’ health and marine animals who live there, and human health and lives as well? The most straightforward way to oppose fish farming is to go vegan. There are plenty of good vegan fish alternatives that don’t contribute to the cycle of suffering and environmental destruction in the way that consuming farmed fish does. There is room to expand upon and share recent science proving that fish are sentient and therefore experience a multitude of emotions. Animal welfare organizations can work to ensure that fish don’t get left out of the conversation. In a world that should be moving away from large-scale animal agriculture, alarming developments are occurring in other aquatic sectors such as squid and octopus farming. Urging local officials to oppose new developments and expansions within the fish farming industry is crucial in this fight to protect fish from cruelty and save the ocean. And ultimately, we must remember that fish feel, too.
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