Animal welfare aspects of commercial fishing: a juvenile codfish caught in a gill net

A juvenile codfish caught in a gill net.
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they
talk? but, Can they suffer?”.
J Bentham 1748-1832.
Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)

It is widely accepted that animals killed for food should be slaughtered humanely. Humane methods of killing are ones that cause an immediate loss of consciousness which lasts until death (or if not immediate, where the method of inducing unconsciousness does not cause suffering).

There is increasing concern for the welfare of farmed fish during rearing, transport and at slaughter and, in the last few years, some progress has been made here. argues that the welfare of commercially-caught wild fish during capture and slaughter also needs to be addressed.

Wild-caught fish are captured and killed in a manner entirely inconsistent with the concepts of humane treatment and slaughter. Suffering is likely to be high, both in its severity and duration. The capture of fish in commercial fishing may last for several hours, or even days. Most fish are likely to die from being crushed in nets, from suffocation in air or from live dissection. They may be rapidly chilled as they suffocate, a process which may both increase and prolong their distress.

The number of wild catch fish is also very high compared with other species slaughtered for food. estimates that the number of wild fish killed annually in recorded catch is in the order of 1,000 billion. This compares with the 3 billion mammals, 57 billion birds and, at a rough estimate, 10-100 billion farmed fish slaughtered annually.

How big is a problem of animal suffering? This depends on the numbers of animals involved. The total magnitude of animal suffering may be quantified with the equation:

Magnitude of welfare problem = Severity x Duration x Numbers.

“Duration” is relative. Remember the last time you accidently touched something hot? Even a whole second is a long time to be in acute pain or distress. Most fish are likely to die from being crushed in nets or from suffocation, freezing or live dissection after landing. This process will probably take many minutes, or even hours. In this context, the duration of suffering is likely to be high, as is the severity.

Multiplying together the severity and duration of suffering caused, with the numbers of animals affected, make this a huge animal welfare problem.

In 1980, the UK RSPCA’s Medway report concluded that fish can feel pain and fear. Since then, animal welfare science has become a field in its own right, and the evidence that fish can suffer has grown. As stated by Professor Donald Broom, University of Cambridge:

“at least some aspects of pain as we know it must be felt by fish.”

The suffering of fish in commercial fishing is therefore a major animal welfare issue. proposes measures and strategies for reducing the suffering in fisheries.