Underwater Torture Chambers: The Horror Of Fish Farming

Crossposted from my blog.

The horror of fish farming

One of my professors in college taught a class about effective altruism—a social movement about doing good effectively. Whenever he was talking about the scale of animal suffering, all the statistics he talked about were about the suffering of non-fish. It became a running joke—friends and I would make jokes like the following: “a gunman robs a bank, kills over 4 non-fish” or “one (non-fish) death is a tragedy, a million fish deaths are a statistic.” But this professor, despite explicitly ignoring fish whenever he talked about a problem, was nonetheless more pro-fish than almost all people. Because no one cares about fish—at all.

I remember when I was young, my grandmother would take me and my brother fishing. This was seen as a totally innocuous, fun way to spend a weekend. The general attitude towards fishing is almost exactly opposite to the attitude towards, for example, hunting: liberal parents in blue states are not happy letting their children hunt land creatures, the way they are happy to let their children hunt fish. This is unsettling—hooking fish into the mouth to yank them out of the water so that they suffocate to death is seen as just a bit of innocent fun.

Elsewhere, I’ve made the case against land-based factory farms—great, industrial torture chambers, that routinely mutilate animals, give them too little space to move around, castrate them with no anesthetic, and force them to spend their lives covered in feces and filth, in constant agony, disgust, and boredom. I’ve even argued that factory farming is the worst crime in human history—worse than whatever very bad crime you’re thinking of.

The cruelty of the farm industry is not limited to the versions that are on land. The fish farming industry is unspeakably horrifying. We have built hell and consigned the fish to it. And far more animals are tormented and killed in fish farms than in land-based factory farms. The aquaculture industry may be the single worst industry in the history of the world—causing more suffering than any other. This judgment may sound surprising, but it’s hard to deny if one thinks fish suffering matters at all given the sheer numbers. One undercover report on fish farms found:

Workers’ abusive handling of fish, including slamming and stomping on fish, and violently throwing fish, including treating them like basketballs performing “trick shots”

Workers cruelly killing fish by slamming them on the ground

Live fish have their eyes eaten by fish who are underfed and hungry and mistake their pupils as food

Ineffective anesthetization during vaccination and fin clipping

Fish thrown into buckets and left to suffocate in piles of the dead and dying

Conditions so filthy that fish must be vaccinated

Painful spinal deformities, and fungus growth on fish intended for human consumption, including fungus eating away at the faces of the fish

Extreme crowding in barren conditions and high death rates of eggs and fish

Lewis Bollard notes “The fishing industry alone kills 3-8 billion animals every day, most by slow suffocation, crushing, or live disemboweling.” So roughly the same number of fish are killed in horrifying, inhumane ways every few days as there are people on earth. It takes longer for the fish to suffocate than for us to drown, and so is probably more painful. The most up-to-date report—and also one of the most conservative—found that the least sentient fish that they surveyed experience suffering about one-twentieth as intensely as human suffering. Let’s grant this—and use the conservative estimate of how many fish are killed by people—only 3 billion per day. If a fish’s death is only one-twentieth as painful as a human death, then every day, the total painfulness of fish suffering is equivalent to the painfulness of one hundred fifty million human deaths. But if there was a disease that infected one hundred fifty million people every day, and gave them an experience as painful as being killed by “slow suffocation, crushing, or live disemboweling,” it would clearly be the worst thing in the world. This disease would cause the average person to experience a painful death seven times per year. Maybe you think that fish suffering is inherently only 1% as bad as human suffering (this seems like totally irrational prejudice, as I’ll argue later, but let’s grant it). Well then fish slaughter would only be as bad as inflicting on one and a half million humans, every day, an experience as painful as cruel slaughter. But if there was something like that—something that would force each human to endure the painfulness of disembowelment every 15 or so years—it would clearly be the worst thing in the world. So even by insanely conservative assumptions, fish slaughter alone—which is responsible for a minuscule portion of the cruelty of the fish industry—is the worst thing ever.

Fish are used to having open space in the ocean. So the cramped conditions of fish farms—totally antithetical to their natural ways of living—are extremely stressful for them. As a consequence, fish constantly crash into each other, causing painful injuries to their fins. Peta notes “Large farms can span the size of four football fields and contain more than 1 million fish.” Disease is common, and fish aren’t given enough Oxygen, making it hard to breathe and resulting in chronic stress and low energy. Often, up to 40% of fish are blind, and half have hearing loss because of the the extreme prevalence of disease. On fish farms, it’s not uncommon to see the bones of live fish, as parasites have eaten all the way to the bone.

Death Crown at The Scottish Salmon Company in Loch Carron on Vimeo

It’s hard to imagine that level of suffering. Hopefully, such parasites kill the fish quickly, so they don’t have to endure the horrorshow of their skin being eaten. A whopping 40% of fish die before they are ready to be slaughtered—they’re seen as a disposable byproduct, whose death is a minor annoyance rather than a tragedy. Something must be deeply wrong with fish farming, if it kills 40% of fish by accident.

Every part of the life cycle of fish is horrifying. Before slaughter on the fish farms, fish are starved for a few days to a month. One impressively detailed report on fish slaughter noted:

Animal welfare was not of concern during the development of slaughter methods for fish. Instead, the methods used to slaughter fish were developed to achieve a uniform product, efficiency, and processor safety. Common slaughter methods include carbon dioxide narcosis, live chilling, asphyxiation (suffocation) in air, live gutting, percussive stunning, and electrical stunning. The method of carbon dioxide narcosis is the method routinely used in commercial slaughter, which consists of placing fish in water with high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide. Studies on this method show that fish have an immediate and strong aversive reaction to entering the carbon dioxide solution. The fish are left in the water until they stop moving, then they are taken out of the water, sliced, and bled out. However, they do not immediately lose consciousness via this method, but are merely rendered immobile. And because they are slaughtered as soon as they stop moving, most are killed when fully conscious.

There are no legal protections of fish. It’s totally legal to kill them by, for example, pulling the skin off them while they’re still alive—as is sometimes done. Whatever you could imagine doing to a fish to kill it is perfectly legal. In addition, Animals Australia notes:

Up to a quarter of fish in fish farms have stunted growth and float lifelessly at the surface of the tanks. These fish are known as ‘drop outs.’ According to research by Royal Society Open Science, these fish exhibit behaviours and brain chemistry almost identical to those of very stressed and depressed people.

The ‘drop out’ fish were found to have significantly higher levels of cortisol, a stress-response hormone, as well as increased activity of the serotonergic system, which is involved in sleep, hunger, respiration, mood and more. Problems with this neural system have been associated with severe mental illness, including depression.

“I would not go so far as to say they are committing suicide, but physiologically speaking, they are on the edge of what they can tolerate, and since they remain in this environment, they end up dying because of their condition.”
– Marco Vindas, Royal Society of Open Science

Farmed fish live in very stressful conditions, vastly different to what they have evolved to cope with in the wild. Fish in aquaculture farms are forced to live in crowded tanks and endure unwanted interactions with other fish, handling by humans, struggles to get food, and sudden changes in lighting, water depth and currents. Just like pigs and chickens, fish in intensive farms live a life of suffering.

Here’s a plausible principle: if a being is conscious enough to essentially get depression, we should not put them in situations where a greater population of them does get depression than there are humans on earth. If oodles of fish are aimlessly floating, totally dejected, unwilling to perform basic tasks, something has gone deeply wrong. And we know what has gone wrong. We have put them in cruel, alien conditions. If fish designed farms for us, they’d be horrifying—fish neither know nor care what brings us joy. But the same is true when we design farms for fish.

It is undeniable that we are inflicting profound mistreatment on literally trillions of fish. There are relatively few ways to defend this unimaginable infliction of suffering and, to quote GA Cohen, “some of them are lousy and others are just as bad.” But each of the basic arguments falls into one of two categories of argument. The first type of argument claims that fish can’t feel pain, the second claims that their pain isn’t bad.

Series: Plenty of Fish on the Farm | The Breakthrough Institute

Yes, fish feel pain

The evidence that fish feel pain is relatively widespread. Here is some of that evidence:

When fish are injected with venom, their heart rate goes up, just like ours does when we’re in pain.

This isn’t just an automatic response. We know this in the following way. Trout are scared of new objects. When they’re in a lot of pain, on account of being injected with vinegar, they ignore their fear of new objects and swim in a random direction to get away. But if they’re given morphine—an anesthetic—then they start being scared of the object again. So fish respond to painkillers.

In one experiment, some fish got a shock whenever they went to some part of a tank. They learned to avoid that part of the tank.

Trout make tradeoffs. In the earlier experiment where they get shocked if they go to part of a tank, if a friend is hanging out in that part of the tank, they’re willing to go to that part of the tank to hang out with their friend (this is the one time I’ve found fish sort of endearing).

When fish are given painkillers, their abilities to detect harmful external stimuli are hampered. This is best explained by the painkillers numbing the pain, which is part of how they detect external stimuli.

Fish are pretty smart. They can solve mazes and remember where tide is low and high, after just seeing it once. Some fish can remember the identities of fish they’ve watched fight.

There’s decent evidence that fish dream. But to dream, they have to be conscious. If they’re conscious, they can feel pain.

This evidence has been enough to change the minds of the majority of people studying the topic, who started out pretty skeptical.

So the evidence that fish feel pain is pretty overwhelming. As Braithwaite, author of the most detailed book on the subject declares, “there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals.” But let’s be super conservative and say that there’s only a 50% chance that they can feel pain. You shouldn’t cruelly mistreat trillions of beings unless you’re pretty damn sure they can’t feel pain. If you are not sure if they can feel pain, you should not risk causing more suffering than has existed in all of human history. Because of the mindboggling number of fish, even if they might not feel pain, their pain in expectation is enough to thoroughly outstrip the badness of all human pain.

Fish pain is bad

Fish pain is bad because pain is bad. Pain is bad because of the way it feels. Think about what it’s like to suffocate or be disemboweled. It doesn’t matter who is suffocating, the experience is still bad. That suffering is bad is just about the most basic ethical truth—denying it is insanity. I don’t just think this because I’m a weird utilitarian. Utilitarianism—of the type I endorse—says pleasure and pain matter and nothing else does. The nothing else part is what makes it radical—everyone sane agrees that pleasure and pain do matter. And if pain matters, then fish pain must matter.

Maybe you think that fish suffering isn’t bad because fish are very unintelligent. But why in the world does this matter? Suppose you’re in intense agony. Would that be made any worse if you were smarter? If intelligence amplifies your pain, then the pain of smarter people would be worse than the pain of stupider people. Is Von Neumann’s pain worse than mine just because he’s smarter? Of course not—intelligence has nothing to do with how bad pain is.

Suppose that when you were in pain, there was a pill that made you very stupid, but you experienced the pain just as intensely. Would it be worth taking the pill? If being unintelligent makes your pain less bad, then the pill would make the pain less bad. But this is clearly crazy. Pain is bad because of how it feels—but how it feels has absolutely nothing to do with how smart the victim of it is.

Some humans are severely mentally enfeebled. Some might even be as enfeebled as fish. Is their pain mostly irrelevant? No, of course not. Is babies’ pain irrelevant because babies are dumb? No! So it can’t be mere unintelligence that makes one’s pain mostly irrelevant.

Maybe what matters is that fish are part of an unintelligent species. But why does species matter? It seems like the badness of your pain depends on facts about you, rather than about others. But whether your species is intelligent is a fact about others. So it can’t affect the badness of pain.

Suppose we killed all humans except the most mentally enfeebled. Would their pain stop being bad? What if they had babies for many generations, such that almost all humans who ever lived were very unintelligent? Of course not! Or suppose we discovered that some mentally enfeebled people had a strange disease that didn’t affect them cognitively, but made them their own species. Would this make their pain not bad? Well, if species matters, and this disease made them part of an unintelligent species, then it would make their pain not bad.

Maybe you’re not sure about all this. Well, if you’re not sure, then you shouldn’t risk something that might be the worst thing ever by orders of magnitude. If you’re not sure whether something is the worst thing ever, it’s still a very, very serious problem.

Fish are a basic test of our empathy. They are weird and slimy and gross and hard to empathize with. They are not cute, they cannot cuddle with us. There is no political coalition nor side of the culture war that makes a big deal out of representing their interests. But they can suffer. Trillions of them scream silently because of our actions. We, as a species, are failing the basic task of having a modicum of empathy for these poor, defenseless creatures. Every three days, we kill more fish than there are humans, because we totally ignore the interests of such creatures. Humanity is carrying out a crime of unimaginable proportions.

If you only empathize with those who are cute and cuddly and look like you, that is not real empathy. If you only put yourself in the shoes of the victim when the victim reminds you of yourself, that is an utter failure of empathy. Even if you cannot imagine being the recipient of some experience, if you know it is a horrifying one—if you know you would scream in agony if you were to experience it—you should see it as something worth preventing.

The solution is relatively simple. We, as consumers, should stop paying for the cruel mistreatment of fish. Until fish farming becomes remotely humane, we should stop paying for fish. In addition, the government should impose strict regulations on fish farming, and potentially ban it altogether. As individuals, we should donate to organizations that help save fish from unspeakable cruelty.

Literally trillions of fish are being killed in horrifying ways. The world is almost entirely silent about this crime of unimaginable proportions. Compared to the crimes we commit beneath the seas, every other issue pales in comparison. If you eat fish, that is probably the worst thing you’re doing, unless you’re a serial killer. One shouldn’t take actions unless they could justify them to the victims of the actions. But we could not justify our actions to torture and disembowel fish to the fish themselves. If we ever come across aliens that are very different from us, but intelligent, they should pay very careful attention to how we treat fish. If we can’t meet the low bar of not torturing them en masse just because they are different, then we are truly a violent, cruel, and inhumane species.