Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Fish Farming Plumbs New Depths

Eighty billion (80,000 million) land animals are killed for food worldwide every year, producing around 340 million tonnes of meat. The world also produces about 800 million tonnes of dairy milk annually, along with 93 million tonnes of eggs and around 200 million tonnes of fish and seafood. Seafood production from aquaculture overtook the tonnage of wild fish caught about a decade ago, rising from two million tonnes in 1960 to 106 million tonnes in 2018, compared with 94 million tonnes of wild fish caught in 2015. (Aquaculture is defined as the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants, so it includes non-fish species). But how many fishes do these figures represent?

Using UN Food and Agriculture Organisation data on tonnages of farmed fish of different species produced and internet-sourced average slaughter weights, researchers from Fishcount and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) have estimated the number of farmed fish killed for food globally every year from 1990 to 2019. The findings were published in the journal Animal Welfare earlier this year, and showed that an estimated 124 billion farmed fish were slaughtered in 2019, a nine-fold increase since 1990, during which time global annual farmed fish production increased from 9 million tonnes to 56 million tonnes. (This number comes with a wide range, the true figure being somewhere between 78 and 171 billion, and does not represent the total number of fish farmed owing to deaths during rearing and fish reared for non-food purposes, including for use as bait or to feed carnivorous fish, which are also thought to number in the tens of billions. Nor do the estimated numbers include non-fish aquatic animals such as crabs, lobsters and prawns.) The vast majority of farmed fish (94%) are reared in Asia, with China alone accounting for more than half of the total. (By comparison, the UK is a minor player, producing less than 1% of farmed fish by weight and less than 0.1% by number, although this amounts to an estimated 51 million fishes.) Thus, the estimated number of farmed fishes killed for food worldwide is considerably higher than the number of land animals consumed.

Photo: The Humane League UK

It is worth remembering that fish are sentient animals, an attribute acknowledged by the World Organisation for Animal Health and the UK Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which recognises all vertebrate animals, including fish, as sentient. Despite this, the study’s authors point out that: “an overwhelming majority of fishes farmed throughout the world are currently killed with little or no consideration for their welfare, with most killed by asphyxia in air or ice slurry, without prior stunning.” In other words, most farmed fish either suffocate or freeze to death, and are fully conscious while this happens. To make matters worse, carnivorous fish such as salmon are fed on caught fish. According to CIWF, it can take up to 350 wild caught fish to raise a single farmed salmon. As their Global CEO Philip Lymbery puts it in his book Sixty Harvests Left: “the Scottish [salmon] industry feeds as much fish to its salmon as is eaten by the entire UK population.” Altogether, approximately one quarter of all wild-caught fish are used to make fish feed, so fish farming actually increases the pressure on wild fish stocks, the exact opposite of what was intended. Fishcount estimate that between 790 and 2300 billion fish were caught from the wild globally each year between 2007 and 2016, so it is no wonder that “90 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.”

Not all farmed fish reach the sales counter. Data from Marine Scotland, reported in The Observer newspaper, show that salmon deaths on fish farms in Scotland almost doubled in 2022, with nearly 15 million deaths reported in the first 11 months of the year. The industry attributes the increase in salmon deaths to unusually large numbers of jellyfish in British waters, but Abigail Penny, executive director of Animal Equality UK, blames overcrowding on salmon farms. “Deaths in fish pens have reached record levels for a number of reasons, including a sharp rise in infectious diseases among the fish who are packed into unnaturally overcrowded cages, as well as poor gill health and rough treatments to remove lice from the infested waters”, she told the newspaper. Don Staniford of the Scamon Scotland campaign believes that the figures on salmon deaths are likely to be an underestimate, claiming in the same article that: “About 25% of the salmon in sea cages are dying … If ramblers saw one in four cows or sheep dead in a field they’d be horrified, but because it’s underwater it’s out of sight, out of mind. There is no ethical way to farm salmon.”

Which begs the question: is there any ethical way to kill and eat sentient animals?

Sources and links:


Paul Appleby is a Fellow of the UK Vegetarian Society and a former trustee of the Society and the UK Vegan Society.  He was secretary of Oxford Vegetarians (the forerunner of OxVeg) for 25 years from 1983 to 2008.  Until he retired in 2020, Paul was a Senior Statistician at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, working mainly on long-term studies of the health of vegetarians and vegans, including the EPIC-Oxford study.

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