Billions of fish living in misery, says report

Leaping salmon: “From the tip of his back-lash-tail, to his shot-grey-silver nose.” © Getty

Should we stop eating fish? Experts recommend seafood as a healthier alternative to meat, but animal welfare campaigners say fish farming is cruel and damages wild ecosystems.

The salmon run is a wonder of the natural world. The “king of the fish” spends most of its life at sea, until it has grown to over a metre long and is ready to make the epic journey back to the mountain stream where it was born. Swimming against the flow and leaping over waterfalls, only a few make it home to spawn the next generation.

But billions of Atlantic salmon never make this great migration. In the UK alone, one million salmon dishes are plated up every day. And most come from aquaculture farms, where animals are grown in captivity. In Scotland, the industry is worth £2bn annually. Globally, more fish are farmed than caught in the wild.

Now a report by Compassion in World Farming accuses Scottish aquaculture of keeping fish “crammed in barren underwater cages”, infested with sea lice and dying of disease, injuries and deformities. The group calls them “underwater factory farms” that should be banned. In response, the industry says the report is “wrong, inaccurate and misleading”.

More fish are farmed than any other animal on the planet, but we rarely discuss their welfare. Research shows we feel more empathy and compassion for species that are closer to us on the evolutionary chain. Compassion in World Farming’s Philip Lymbery says: “if fish had fur rather than scales, screamed in pain and lived on land” we would treat them very differently.

Dieticians recommend that we should eat more fish. The NHS advises at least two portions a week, and a recent study showed Americans were eating less than half the recommended amount. Seafood contains important vitamins and minerals, essential for a balanced diet.

But do fish suffer? This is the fundamental question for animal rights, first posed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Scientists used to think fish did not feel pain – and the law does not protect them to the same extent as pets or farm animals. However, there is increasing evidence that fish do have feelings.

If farmed fish are unhappy, perhaps the solution is only to eat wild “free-range” seafood? But environmentalist George Monbiot says we must update our romantic image of the jolly fisherman with “twinkly eyes, sitting on a little red boat”. Modern commercial fishing means factory ships with 60-mile-long nets and bottom trawls scooping up entire ecosystems from the seabed.

Aquaculture is presented as the solution to overfishing wild stocks. But critics say farms do not exist in isolation. Every farmed salmon eats around 147 wild-caught fish, and escaped salmon pass disease into wild populations. In Scotland, activists claim farms are killing seals and denying dolphins and whales access to coastal waters.

For some, the answer is simple. The ocean explorer Sylvia Earle says: “eating fish is a choice, not a necessity”. For her, to protect the oceans we must stop fishing. Academic Ray Hilborn disagrees. He says it is the most environmentally-friendly source of protein and if we gave up fish we “would condemn several million people to starvation”.

Should we stop eating fish?

Catch of the day

Some say no, eating fish is good for us and the planet. Coastal cultures in Japan, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean have the longest life expectancies, partly due to a seafood diet. Grown in good conditions or fished responsibly, farmed fish is less cruel than cattle farming and better for the environment. Fish are not mammals and it would be sentimental to treat them equally.

Others say yes, we must give up fish. It is too easy to ignore what is going on underwater and we have a duty to stop all animal suffering. Our demand for cheap fish supports an industry that keeps animals in horrendous conditions and destroys entire marine environments. The ocean’s ecosystems are all interconnected so the only responsible way to save them is to give up fish entirely.

You Decide

  1. Would you give up your favourite food to save the planet?
  2. Is it possible to eat cruelty-free meat?


  1. Watch the video about the salmon run and write the diary entry for a salmon returning to its place of birth.
  2. Use the Expert Links to research and design a school menu of the most ethically-sourced fish.

Some People Say...

“No human being, however great, or powerful, was ever so free as a fish.”

John Ruskin (1819 — 1900), English art critic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is now generally agreed that fish feel pain. Although their brains are not as complex as our own, they have neurons known as nociceptors, which detect intense pressure and changes in temperature. These stimulate activity in the part of the brain responsible for conscious sensory perception, showing that their behaviour is not an automatic reflex. Experiments show the behaviour of rainbow trout alters when injected with pain-inducing acetic acid and pain-killing morphine.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is whether animals should have legal rights. Supporters argue that sentient animals, aware of sensations like pain, should be protected by the right to exist free from suffering. Critics argue rights are part of a social contract, an agreement between humans, which animals are incapable of making. Others argue we should try to reduce suffering, but the welfare of humans must come first. Therefore some animal suffering is necessary.

Word Watch

Salmon run
It is thought that fish use the Earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to locate the exact spawning ground of their birth.
To give birth or produce offspring. Spawn is also a noun that describes the eggs of aquatic animals.
The oldest known example of fish farming is in Victoria, Australia. There, 6,500 years ago, Aboriginal Australian people made channels and dams to raise short-finned eels.
Compassion in World Farming
The animal welfare group campaigns for free-range farming and has carried out many undercover investigations into animal cruelty.
Evolutionary chain
A 2019 study found we feel we understand primates the most, but have little empathy and compassion for ticks, worms and jellyfish.
Jeremy Bentham
Bentham was an early proponent of animal welfare. He wrote: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Biologist Victoria Braithwaite says: “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”
Bottom trawls
Beyond national territories, the “high seas” are relatively unprotected regions where some of the most intensive commercial fishing takes place.
Sylvia Earle
The 85-year-old American marine biologist has spent over 7,000 hours underwater and campaigns for the protection of the oceans.


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