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SILENT SCREAMS: Fish, the forgotten animal welfare disaster

The Circle of Compassion may have expanded to include other sentient beings like farmed animals, but nobody talks about what happens to fish. And we know they suffer, the science tell us that.

ESTHER TAUNTON: From the moment he hits the deck of a trawler, a fish can take more than four hours to die. If gutted alive, its last gasp could come anywhere between 25 minutes and an hour after being landed. Legally, that’s OK because there is no humane slaughter requirement for wild-caught fish. Now, Auckland animal rights campaigner Dr Michael Morris wants that to change. He says its time we talked about the slow and painful death suffered by half a billion fish caught in New Zealand waters every year…

British-based animal welfare NGO Fishcount says most fish caught on trawlers die from suffocation in air (drowning) or from suffocation with live gutting. In perhaps the most peaceful scenario, fish are put on ice which slows their metabolic rate and oxygen needs, leading to unconsciousness and eventual death. But even that process can take more than an hour for some cold water species…

Fishcount says many fish are also injured in the process of being landed. For example, fish caught in gill nets or long lines can be trapped for several hours, with all the accompanying stress. Their rapid ascent to the surface can also squeeze vital organs and cause the swim bladder, which helps fish maintain buoyancy, to rupture or collapse…

Morris, who has a PhD in zoology, says in the last 50 years, the “circle of compassion” has expanded beyond companion animals to include other sentient beings like apes, farm animals and those used in animal testing… .. “Humans tend to have compassion for creatures that are most like them and, so far, that doesn’t extend to fish”. “We talk about the welfare of cows and chickens but nobody talks about what happens to fish”…

However, the emphasis remains on mammals. “The worst aspects of animal cruelty, in terms of both numbers and suffering are still largely not cared about,” Morris says. ”Most of the public and most activists concentrate their attention only on mammals, in spite of scientific evidence that crabs and lobsters feel pain, that octopus and squid show complex behaviour comparable to mammals, and that fish also show evidence of similar complexities.”

Under the Animal Welfare Act, fish, squid, crabs and lobsters are classed as sentient. Morris says this means they are capable of feeling pain and suffering at the very least. Fish and squid also show complex behaviour that indicates higher intelligence and perception…

NZ National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which develops codes of welfare, is also intending to develop a code of welfare for farmed fish, but there is not a set timeline for that yet. But Morris isn’t optimistic about any significant change, particularly where wild caught fish are concerned. He says the fact that fish aren’t counted shows the indifference with which they are treated.

“Numbers of land animals slaughtered are collected by government and inter-government agencies and published. Fish are not even counted … they are simply weighed. However, individual fish deaths can be calculated by dividing the total catch in kilograms, by the average weight of fish and other sea creatures.

Catch data recorded by MPI and the New Zealand Salmon Farmers Association in 2018 shows 501.2 million fish were killed in a single year. “New Zealand’s 500 million is below average compared to other countries but that is still a prodigious amount suffering,” Morris says. “And we know they suffer, the science tells us that. So where does it stop?”  SOURCE…

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