Do You Care If Your Fish Dinner Was Raised Humanely?


At some point or another, we’ve all cringed at the videos: lame cows struggling to stand; egg-laying hens squeezed into small, stacked cages; hogs confined to gestation crates, unable to walk or turn.

Over the past decade, animal advocates have made great strides informing us of some of the problems with how many of our favorite proteins are raised. They’ve also made progress bringing change to the industry by pressuring large-scale retailers — from Target to McDonald’s — to commit to sourcing livestock raised with higher welfare standards. But one important protein source has been missing almost entirely from the conversation: seafood.

Mercy for Animals, a U.S.-based animal welfare group, says that’s about to change. The group says it is beginning to lay the groundwork for a campaign that will target the aquaculture industry and shine a light on the conditions in which finfish like salmon, tilapia, catfish, trout, pangasius and other species are raised.

“More and more fish are being farmed in intense factory farms,” says Nick Cooney, executive vice president at Mercy for Animals. “At the same time, there’s an increasing amount of research discovering just how intelligent and social fish are as individuals.”

Do consumers care? Mercy for Animals’ own in-house studies suggest yes — and offer a roadmap of the objections the group is likely to raise with the aquaculture industry. Concerns like too many fish routinely crammed into pens and tanks, fish being raised in dirty water, high disease and mortality rates.

The group, a vegan organization, also cites slaughter methods it finds most inhumane — like letting fish suffocate in open air, chilling them while still alive, or cutting their gills without stunning. And then there’s the parasites known as sea lice, which feed on farmed salmon, costing the industry nearly $1 billion a year in losses.

“For individual consumers, our goal is simply to educate them on the way these animals are being treated,” says Cooney. “Our research studies have found that when people learn about these things — that half the fish being used in the food industry are coming from factory farms, or are confined in tanks with dirty water; that sea lice eats away the flesh and faces of fish — that educating them leads to more compassionate choices. And for large companies, our hope in the coming years is that if we show them their customers care, they’ll eliminate the worst practices in their supply chains.”

Mercy for Animals may have one important thing going for it — timing.

Humane treatment of fish is a topic that’s starting to bubble up elsewhere. Seafood industry gatherings like the Seafood Summit and the American Fisheries Society meetings are now including sessions focused on welfare issues for farm-raised fish. Supermarkets like Whole Foods are addressing the issue by including language in their seafood standards requiring producers to minimize stress, and have gone so far as to stop carrying live lobster in their stores. And in Seattle, a pair of commercial fishermen recently launched a new fishing vessel that they claim is designed to humanely harvest the wild Pacific cod they catch.

But will eaters care what fish feel?

Industry representatives say they paid close attention when animal advocacy groups went after the egg-laying hen and hog industries, but say they aren’t convinced eaters will prioritize humane treatment for fish in the same way.

“I’m not sure fish will capture the conscience of the public in the same way warm-blooded, furry animals have. People in this country don’t see fish as sentient animals, with a conscience requiring the same welfare standards they’d give to a brown-eyed calf,” says Craig Watson, who chairs the aquatic animal welfare committee for the National Aquaculture Association (NAA), a U.S.-based group of seafood growers.

But it’s a topic many in aquaculture are thinking more about, including veterinarian Stephen Frattini, president of the Center for Aquatic Animal Research and Management, who has spoken about fish welfare at industry conferences.

“As humans, we’ve utilized terrestrial animals as food, but also to pull carts and plow fields. And along the way, a moral contract evolved that acknowledged we should provide for them in a way beyond not being cruel to them,” Frattini says. “But with fish, we’re not there yet. We [as eaters] have yet to really struggle with that.”

Indeed, defining what constitutes humane treatment of fish may be a tricky proposition of its own.

For one thing, the debate over whether fish are sentient and feel pain is far from settled. read more