March 26 is the World Day for the End of Fishing (WODEF), which was created in 2017 in Switzerland by the association Pour l’Égalité Animale (PEA) – For Animal Equality – and has since been held every year with the participation of many animal advocacy organizations around the world.
Fishing is one of the biggest killers of animals. Although it is not known exactly how many animals are killed (as their numbers are measured in tons), it is estimated that, on a global level, annually:1
(1) between 787 billion and 2.3 trillion individual animals of all kind of species of fishes are caught and killed;
(2) between 51 billion and 167 billion animals are bred in fish factories;
(3) between 255 billion and 604 billion decapods (shrimp, crabs, and lobsters for example) are bred in factories. Note that these data do not include decapods caught directly at sea, which is a very large number.
Adding up these numbers, the number of animals killed by fishing or in fish farms annually on a global level may be at least between 1 and 3.1 trillion.
To get an idea of how large this number is, it is useful to compare it to the number of land vertebrates (birds, pigs, cows, etc.) killed for consumption worldwide per year,2 which is around 70 billion. If we add up the number of animals killed by fishing and the number of land vertebrates killed, animals killed by fishing account for 95% to 97.7% of this amount. That is, the number of animals killed by fishing is 21 to 58 times larger than the number of land vertebrates killed for consumption. These figures could be much higher if we included the total number of decapods caught in the sea.
In the future, these figures could multiply, extending animal suffering even more.
Some people think that the animals typically killed by fishing are not sentient – that they are mere “living machines” without any consciousness. On this basis, one would then think that, despite the appearance to the contrary, fishing does not cause suffering, and that although it does cause deaths, it does not harm anyone (without sentience there is no subjective experience). However, physiological, behavioral, and evolutionary logic evidence strongly supports the conclusion that these animals are sentient.
In terms of physiological evidence, it is important to note that these animals have centralized nervous systems with brains. It is the centralized processing of information in the brain that gives rise to experiences. There is debate about what the minimum number of neurons and interaction between them would have to be for consciousness to appear, but several studies suggest that animals typically killed by fishing meet these conditions.3 Additional physiological evidence of sentience in these animals is the presence of nociceptors,4 which allow the nervous system to detect the presence of noxious or potentially noxious stimuli, making it possible for them to experience pain, cold, heat, etc., and the presence of receptors in the brain for substances that act as analgesics.5
The behavior of these animals is also plastic, meaning it changes in response to different stimuli, and it seems that the best way to explain this behavior is based on the assumption that they are trying to avoid negative experiences and seek positive ones.
Furthermore, since these animals can move around in the environment and need to respond to changes in the environment, it is very likely that, in their case, sentience represents an evolutionary advantage, as it increases the likelihood that they will survive and pass on their genetic information. This evidence, taken together, strongly supports the conclusion that these animals are sentient.6
In fishing, animals are harmed not only by death, but also by suffering, either at the time of death or before death (as they often spend hours or even days trapped in nets before dying). Typically, in fishing animals die for the following reasons:
(1) decompression when they are pulled to the surface, which causes their internal organs to explode;
(2) asphyxiation when they are pulled out of the water;
(3) as a result of injuries from the capture process or extreme fatigue caused by stress while trying to escape from the nets;
(4) being pierced by harpoons or impaled by hooks;
(5) being crushed by the weight of other animals being captured at the same time;
(6) being frozen alive in refrigerators where they are immediately placed after being captured;
(7) being cooked alive (as in the case of lobsters and crabs);
(8) being eaten alive while still conscious; and
(9) being used as bait – and thus eaten alive by the animals being captured.
A common attempt to justify fishing is to claim that because these animals do not belong to the human species, they should not receive moral consideration. However, the criterion of species seems to be as arbitrary as the criteria of skin color and gender.
Another attempt to justify fishing claims that what makes it right to morally disregard these animals is not the fact that they do not belong to the human species, but the fact that they (allegedly) lack sophisticated cognitive capacities. However, this argument would imply that it would be right to cause suffering, kill and eat any human who lacks sophisticated cognitive capacities such as babies, children up to a certain age, and humans who are victims of certain diseases or accidents that severely affect their cognitive capacities.
The lack of sophisticated cognitive abilities in humans is not accepted as a justification for treating them worse, much less for disregarding them altogether. On the contrary: given that the lack of these capabilities increases their vulnerability, it is usually seen as a reason to give them greater care, rather than to cause them suffering or death. When we are talking about humans, it is already usually recognized that what matters for moral consideration is the capacity to be harmed and benefited, not intelligence.
Thus, if the lack of sophisticated cognitive capacities in these humans cannot justify treating them worse, much less causing them suffering or killing them, then the lack of these capacities in the animals that are killed in fishing cannot justify it either.7
For these reasons, it seems that fishing, as well as all other forms of discrimination against nonhuman animals, is an example of what has been called speciesism. That is, it is an unjustifiable form of discrimination against those who don’t belong to a certain species. We should reject speciesism, and therefore fishing, and respect all sentient beings.
1 Statistics available at fishcount.org.uk (2020) “Fishcount estimates of numbers of individuals killed in (FAO) reported fishery production”, fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 24 August 2021]; (2019) “Reducing suffering in fisheries”, fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 24 August 2021]. For how fishing harms animals see Animal Ethics (2016) “Fishing”, Animal exploitation, Animal Ethics [accessed on 24 August 2021]; see also Animal Ethics (2016) “Sport fishing”, Animal exploitation, Animal Ethics [accessed on 24 August 2021].
Among marine animals captured, between 462 billion and 1.1 trillion are used as feed for other animals in fish farms.
2 Global Change Data Lab (2018) “Number of animals slaughtered for meat, World, 1961 to 2018”, Our World in Data [accessed on 25 September 2021]; Sanders, B. (2018) “Global animal slaughter statistics and charts”, Faunalytics, October 10 [accessed on 25 September 2021].
3 Animal Ethics (2019) “Invertebrate sentience: A review of the neuroscientific literature”, Sentience, Animal Ethics [accessed on 23 October 2021]; (2021) “Invertebrate sentience: A review of the behavioral evidence”, Blog, Animal Ethics, 30 May [accessed on 12 February 2022]. Braithwaite, V. A. (2010) Do fish feel pain?, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cabanac, M.; Cabanac, A. J. & Parent, A. (2009) “The emergence of consciousness in phylogeny”, Behavioural Brain Research, 198, pp. 267-272. Chandroo, K. P.; Duncan, I. J. H. & Moccia, R. D. (2004) “Can fish suffer? Perspectives on sentience, pain, fear and stress”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 86, pp. 225-250. Chandroo, K. P.; Yue, S. & Moccia, R. D. (2004) “An evaluation of current perspectives on consciousness and pain in fishes”, Fish and Fisheries, 5, pp. 281-295. Mather, J. A. (2001) “Animal suffering: An invertebrate perspective”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 4, pp. 151-156. Mather, J. A. & Anderson, R. C. (2007) “Ethics and invertebrates: A cephalopod perspective”, Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, 75, pp. 119-129 [accessed on 14 November 2021]. Smith, J. A. (1991) “A question of pain in invertebrates”, ILAR Journal, 33, pp. 25-31 [accessed on 15 December 2021]. Sneddon, L. U. (2003) “The evidence for pain in fish: The use of morphine as an analgesic”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 83, pp. 153-162. Sneddon, L. U. (2009) “Pain perception in fish: Indicators and endpoints”, ILAR Journal, 50, pp. 338-342 [accessed on 13 February 2022]; (2018) “Where to draw the line? Should the age of protection for zebrafish be lowered?”, Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, 46, pp. 309-311 [accessed on 19 November 2021]. Sneddon, L. U.; Braithwaite, V. A. & Gentle, M. J. (2003) “Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270, pp. 1115-1121. Animal Ethics (2021) “An illustrated physiology of nervous systems in invertebrates”, Sentience, Animal Ethics [accessed on 23 October 2021].
4 About nociception see Sneddon, L. U. (2004) “Evolution of nociception in vertebrates: Comparative analysis of lower vertebrates”, Brain Research Reviews, 46, pp. 123-130.
5 See Birch, J.; Burn, C.; Schnell, A.; Browning, H. & Crump. A. (2021) Review of the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. London: London School of Economics and Political Science [accessed on 22 March 2022].
6 Another review of evidence for sentience in cephalopods and decapods conducted in 2021 used eight assessment criteria: (1) possession of nociceptors; (2) possession of integrative brain regions; (3) connections between nociceptors and integrative brain regions; (4) responses affected by potential local anaesthetics or analgesics; (5) motivational trade-offs that show a balancing of threat against opportunity for reward; (6) flexible self-protective behaviors in response to injury and threat; (7) associative learning that goes beyond habituation and sensitization; (8) behavior that shows the animal values local anesthetics or analgesics when injured. Based on these criteria, the review concluded that there is very strong evidence for sentience in octopuses and crabs, and that there is considerable evidence for sentience in the other cephalopods and decapods studied. For the study, see Birch, J.; Burn, C.; Schnell, A.; Browning, H. & Crump. A. (2021) Review of the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod drustaceans, op. cit.