Friends or Food? The Ethical Implications of Eating Fish

Friends or food? Charlie Bedwell explores the ethical implications of our love for seafood and investigates the long-contested question: can fish feel pain?

When considering a vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian lifestyle, it is common for people to consider the environmental and ethical consequences of eating land animals. Veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants are becoming a staple of most high streets. But as fluffy animals dominate our social media streams, some of our slippery friends remain under the radar.

Seaspiracy, the documentary taking Netflix by storm, has called into question the ethics of industrial fishing, particularly those that claim to be sustainable. It covers an enormous range of topics from whale and dolphin hunting to human slavery on fishing boats. A final harrowing scene shows whales being driven into a bay and killed. The documentary ends by highlighting the sustainability of this approach and asking its audience – is sustainability really the goal here? Even when we are acting sustainably, there is a huge amount of suffering.

Image Credits: jokant

Can Fish Suffer?

The evidence that fish can feel pain has become increasingly concrete in recent years. In 2002, Rose argued that fish cannot feel pain on the basis that they do not have a neocortex. This is the part of the brain involved in sensory input. In a study, half of the tank was subjected to an electric current and the other would not. Fish stayed well away from the section of the tank with the electric current. Rose, however, concluded that this was simply a reflex. He believed that whilst the fish are aware that the shocks were bad for them, keeping away was not indicative of the psychological experience of pain.

Yue (2008) challenges the suggestion that a neocortex is required to experience pain by noting that pain does not take place in just one area of the brain. If a developed neocortex were necessary to feel pain some birds, amphibians and even mammals would be unable to feel pain. Dunlop and Laming (2005) provide experimental evidence that supports Yue’s argument: the existence of a pain pathway in fish. They examined the nervous system from the spinal cord to more highly developed parts of the forebrain and found neural responses indicative of an ascending pain pathway. In lesser developed areas of the brain, these responses could be simple reflexes. However, activation in the forebrain suggests that fish do have the ability to perceive pain.

Sneddon (2003) used neuroscience and behavioural research to examine this hypothesis further, concluding, too, that fish can feel pain. They discovered that trout had pain receptors with physiological features similar to higher vertebrates. Whilst this is not proof of the ability to feel pain, it suggests that they have the necessary requirements. To test this further, Sneddon injected venom into the lips of the fish. In response to these injections, fish took longer to resume feeding and engaged in behaviours such as rocking. These avoidance and comforting behaviours are similar to those performed by mammals.  When pain relief was offered, Zebra Fish – a species whose natural behaviours include hiding amongst corals – would risk entering open spaces more often, to resist application of the venom.

Image Credits: mya25

As we think back to Seaspiracy we might remember the dolphin and whale hunting, the fish farms riddled with disease and the sharks losing their fins. When we think of this in line with the research that we have considered, the documentary becomes all the more horrifying.

Catching Fish. Does it Cause Pain?

The Humane Slaughter Association (2008)  say that “as with mammals, a humane slaughter is one that results in an immediate loss of consciousness, or if slow acting, induces unconsciousness without discomfort or pain. The unconsciousness should persist until death intervenes”. The only method of fishing that comes close to complying with the aforementioned definition is fishing with a rod, spearing the animal upon its catch. This is not a method suitable to provide the large quantity of fish that present consumption demands, so we often turn to other, prolonged practises to increase our yield.

One such practise is trawling, the process of pulling cone shaped-net deep through the sea, attached to a boat. As the animals are pulled towards the surface, they suffer from scale damage, circulatory problems, burst swim bladder and are often crushed under the weight of those fish around them. Unfortunately, most of these fish are then thrown back in the ocean as they cannot be sold. This method of fishing is also responsible for a huge amount of damage to the seabed. By dragging the net along the ocean floor, corals and small sea creatures are crushed and a stable environment becomes much less so as the temperature and currents are altered.

Some fisheries will use gill nets to avoid this problem. They hang on the surface and make minimal contact with the seabed. They also come in a variety of sizes allowing fishermen to catch less bycatch. At first, they appear invisible to the fish, allowing them to swim half-way through before getting stuck. In an attempt to reverse, it then tugs at their gills. At this point the fish will thrash to free themselves, causing scale damage. Whilst this practise is more environmentally friendly, it still causes suffering as fish will be trapped there for hours on end. Gill nets also contribute to what is called ghost fishing. This is when nets are lost at sea and continue to catch fish. 10% of plastic in our oceans and just under half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “ghost gear” (old fishing gear). George Monbiot, interviewed in Seaspiracy, tells us that if we were to stop putting plastic into our oceans right now, the effect of fishing would still destroy the eco system.

Other more tropical regions do not use nets at all. Instead, they engage in blast fishing which involves throwing dynamite into the water. Th explosion causes the fish’s swim bladders to burst and their bodies to rise to the surface to be easily collected. The lack of plastic used here has its benefits, but the explosions are still damaging the seabed and resulting in a lot of bycatch. This is arguably the most eco-friendly method as its negative effects on the environment are contained to a small area.

Image Credits: HeidelX

So, how can we ensure that fishing practises are more ethical? Unfortunately, there is no easy fix with fish. As Seaspiracy highlights, sustainable fishing is hard to come by. Charities and organisations are often funded by companies who have investments in commercial fishing. This encourages them to certify as many products as they can as “sustainable”. With such an open definition, this is easily achieved. Even those who are stricter with labelling cannot guarantee that their fish are caught sustainably. What happens at sea is not monitored. It is impossible to tell if regulations are being met and so where sustainability is often a great goal – here it is called into question. Seaspiracy’s conclusion is simple. Whether you are concerned about the ethics, the animals, the people or the environment, the most ethical conclusion is to leave the fish off your plate.

About the Author: Charlie Bedwell is an English Masters student who is using her passion for writing to spread the green word.

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