Farm Animal Welfare: Fish and Crustaceans

Wild-Caught Farm-Raised Welfare Health and Safety Fun Facts

Seafood – A New Form of Factory Farming

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that fish and seafood provides more than 2.9 billion people with almost 20% of their intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with about 15 percent of such protein. Fish proteins can be a critical nutritional component in countries where total protein intake levels are low. As fisheries and commercial fishing vessels respond to this huge demand, according to the FAO, an estimated 89.5 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished.

From The Sea

Commercial fishing vessels play a huge role in depleting marine populations and their habitats. Where over-fishing persists, it eventually causes fish populations  to collapse because the populations cannot breed fast enough to replace the individuals removed by fishing. In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature included our Atlantic cod on their list of fish that are being threatened with extinction, due in large part to extreme overfishing.

Methods used by large-scale fisheries often prove deadly to many other marine creatures who share their home with commercially-targeted fish species. Most large scale fishing vessels use huge nets, long-lines and/or bottom trawls which often trap or fatally wound non-target species, such as dolphins, whales, sea lions, seals, manatees, and sea turtles. Bait and catch in nets and on lines also prove to be a fatal attraction to seabirds and other scavengers. Nets lost at sea indiscriminately catch and kill marine life. Some fisheries use dynamite or cyanide to bring fish to the surface, which greatly damages ecosystems such as coral reefs.

From The Farm

Fish can be either collected from the wild, as discussed above, or farmed in much the same way as cattle or chickens. Currently, over 80 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported and more than half is farm raised.

Fish farms raise fish commercially in tanks or enclosures, usually for food. Fish species raised in fish farms include, among others, salmon, catfish, tilapia, cod, carp, and trout. Fish densities are often very high in these commercial enclosures; this increases the risk of infections by parasites, intestinal worms and bacteria because pathogens can easily invade fish bodies through the gills. Water pollution and oxygen depletion in these commercial enclosures can also swiftly destroy a fish population. Read The Humane Society’s report on the welfare of animals in the aquaculture industry.


There is increasing evidence that fish can suffer and feel pain, and yet, the majority of fish are killed with no consideration for their welfare. Current methods of slaughter, including asphyxiation on air, carbon dioxide stunning, exsanguination without prior stunning, and live chilling, are inhumane. They do not render the animals insensible to pain prior to slaughter. Farmed fish do not have any legislative protections to ensure their welfare, so these inhumane methods are, unfortunately, legal.

Percussive and electrical stunning are more humane methods of fish slaughter, if executed correctly. However, the large quantity of fish makes it difficult to ensure precision and accuracy, which can cause tremendous animal suffering. 

Safety Risks

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are highly toxic industrial chemicals. Although they were banned from manufacture in 1977, they are slow to break down and persist in bodies of water. PCBs can bioaccumulate as fish and other animals eat the chemicals. Continued low-level exposure, such as eating contaminated fish over an extended period of time, can damage circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine, and digestive systems, and can even cause cancer.

Similarly, mercury is a heavy metal that bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish. While fish can absorb it, mercury is highly toxic to humans and can damage the central nervous system. Fish that are higher in the foodchain tend to contain higher levels of mercury as the mercury from the animals they eat bioaccumulates. Humans that frequently eat fish and seafood must be careful not to consume high amounts of contaminated fish. See which types of fish are more prone to contamination here.

Be sure to choose sustainably harvested fish and seafood to ensure fish and other marine dwellers live a better life. Definitions of sustainable vary, but it generally refers to seafood caught or raised in ways that won’t deplete stocks and are sensitive to the environment.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a great resource to get advice on which types of fish and seafood are the best choices for the environment, and which ones you should avoid. You can even download their app for easy, on-the-go information!

What Can You Do?

Did you know?

Call Now Button

Stay up to date on animal issues

across the Commonwealth.