While many people accept the fact that farm animals such as cows can suffer and feel pain, they don’t seem to understand that the same is true of fish. The Veterinary Merck Manual, perhaps the most standard reference in animal science and veterinary practice, states, “Based on what is known to date, all vertebrates, and some invertebrates, experience pain in response to actual or potential tissue damage.” Scientists have recently found pain receptors in fish, leaving little doubt that they do, in fact, feel pain. That means that fish such as tuna and salmon can feel pain just as farm animals do.
According to world famous physician and theologian, Albert Schweitzer, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Then why is it harder for some people to extend their compassion to fish as they do for farm animals? While it’s easier to see and relate to the unique personalities of farm animals, or empathize with their suffering, fish seem to be in another realm altogether for many people. To some extent, the reason is because the fish live in the ocean, and for most of us on land it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” According to fish biologist Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, “part of the problem is the large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality.” After reviewing hundreds of research papers that examined areas ranging from the cognitive abilities of fish to their ability to feel pain, Professor Brown makes a compelling case that we need to include fish in our “moral circle.” It also turns out that fish are much smarter than many people realize. They easily match land animals in many aspects of intelligence.
So how do fish experience pain? Most commercial fishing vessels use very long nets, sometimes as long as a mile or more. When the fish get caught in the nets, at first they experience being crushed as the net is brought in to the ship, and then they are left to suffocate until they die. Making the situation worse is the fact that these long nets also catch other fish which have no commercial value, plus sea mammals such as dolphins and porpoises, all of which are needlessly killed.
But there’s more to animal suffering than just feeling pain. More than 40 percent of all the fish consumed each year are now raised on land-based or ocean-based aquafarms, where fish spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures, and where many suffer from parasitic infections, other diseases, and debilitating injuries. Fish will naturally space themselves out in the ocean, but to increase profits, fish farmers cram as many fish as possible into the smallest possible spaces. Salmon farms are sometimes so crowded, there can be as a many as 50,000 in each enclosure. In terms of the harsh conditions, aquaculture is not much different than the factory farming of land animals, and so the fish suffer terribly.
We’ve written before about the health problems that eating fish can cause us, and some of the other problems caused by the fishing industry. Compassion for animals is another good reason for not eating fish. If after going vegetarian you still wish for the taste of fish, we recommend trying fish analogues such as Sophie’s Vegan Seafood, which was a popular option to sample at this year’s Vegfest. You can experience a similar taste and texture, without causing the fish any pain.