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This article provides summarized information about fish in the context of animal rights, including injustices and suffering, humane labels and certifications, sentience and cognition, the environmental consequences of fishing and fish farming, and the health risks of fish.

It does not specifically cover other sea animals such as whales, dolphins, lobsters, and crabs, although they may be included in aggregate figures or in the context of collateral damage. When so referenced, their inclusion will be noted.

General Information


Over 34,000 fish species have been documented.[1] Only a relatively small number of species are used for food; of these, most are bony fish, belonging to the class Osteichthyes. This is one of three classes within the subphylum Vertebrata, part of the phylum Chordata within the animal kingdom.[2]

The types of fish most commonly caught in the wild are anchovies, pollock, tuna, blue whiting, mackerel, sardine, and cod. The most common species of farmed fish are carp (various species), tilapia, salmon, milkfish, and bream.[3]


It is difficult to say how many fish are pulled from the oceans each year, as the catch is measured by weight rather than the number of individuals. However, estimated counts using data from the United Nation's FAO. The most pertinent counts are shown in this table:

Annual Slaughter Counts of Fish
Caught Fish Farmed Fish
Global .79 - 2.3 trillion 51 - 167 billion
United States 6.29 - 13.51 billion 244 - 583 million

Caution is advised in quoting caught fish slaughter numbers, as scientists estimate the total number of fish in the ocean to be 3.5 trillion.[4] This makes the high slaughter counts seem questionable. This does not mean they are wrong, as the estimates are fraught with difficulties,[4] but it may be tactically better to use the lower figure in the range.

Injustices and Suffering

The injustices inherent in exploiting fish and other non-human animals stem from seeing them as commodities having only instrumental value, lacking any inherent worth apart from their usefulness to humans.

As Tom Regan put it, the animals we use "have a life of their own that is of importance to them, apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is."

As shown in the section on sentience and cognition, fish not only have a will to live and value their lives, just as humans do, but also have desires, preferences, emotions, families, social communities, natural behaviors, a sense of themselves, and a sense of the future.

The injustices discussed below—all arising from a failure to recognize the inherent worth of other sentient beings—are either standard practice or not unusual. And, as shown in the section below on humane labels and certifications, this is true even for products with a humane label or certification. To omit a significant number of these injustices would likely render the cost of such products unaffordable by all but the most affluent, and we would still have to slaughter them.

Loss of Life

To take the life of any sentient being is to harm that being by depriving them of opportunities for fulfillment, even if it is done suddenly and painlessly (which it is not, as explained below). We have no nutritional need for fish (or any animal product) so denying them their lives is unnecessary, as are the other forms of suffering enumerated here.


Commercially Caught Fish

Suffocation. Rather than being slaughtered, wild-caught fish are often left to suffocate to death after being hauled onto the fishing boat.[5]

Crushing and circulatory failure. When huge numbers of fish are caught in trawl nets, those at the bottom are inevitably crushed. This can stop their blood supply, often causing death.[5]

Decompression. Some fish who are caught at depths of 20 meters or more may suffer decompression injuries when rapidly pulled to the surface. This happens because the change in pressure causes their swim bladders to inflate too much. The fish may suffer prolapses, where their internal organs are forced out of their mouths or anuses. Their eyes may also be pushed out of their sockets.[5]

Freezing. Any fish who survive being caught and pulled to the surface may still be alive when they are put into freezers on the fishing boat. They are left to slowly freeze to death.[5]

Farmed Fish

Asphyxiation. The most common method of killing farmed fish is asphyxiation, either in air or ice slurry. Fish placed in ice slurry usually only struggle briefly before becoming immobile. However, studies suggest that their brains continue to function for at least several minutes. Another study showed that fishes' gill covers continued to move for several hours when left to asphyxiate in air. The same study found that fish placed in ice slurry continued to respire for up to 50 minutes.[6]

Bleeding, beheading, or gutting alive. It is considered necessary to bleed some types of fish when they are killed to improve the flavor of their flesh. This is often done while the fish is still alive. Fish may have their heads cut off or be eviscerated without first being stunned. Studies have shown that fishes' brains continue to function for some time even after decapitation. One study, done on eels, showed that the brain continued to function at least partially for up to 13 minutes. It is unclear whether the animals remained conscious.[6]

Percussive stunning. This method, often used for salmon, involves stunning the fish with a blow to the head. When done correctly, it leads to prolonged and sometimes permanent unconsciousness. However, there are several factors that could cause suffering. These include removing the fish from water sooner than is necessary, holding the fish in the wrong position, and stunning in the wrong location or without enough force. Though this method may cause less suffering than others, it is still likely to be a stressful and frightening experience as it involves handling fish and removing them from the water. Additionally, this method is not suitable for many types of fish due to their size, the shape of their skulls, or the location of their brains.[6]

Electrical stunning. Electrical stunning may be carried out either in or out of water (known as wet or dry stunning). When done correctly, it causes prolonged insensibility. However, the necessary parameters can vary hugely depending on species, the conductivity of the water, and so on. If the wrong voltage is used, the fish may be paralyzed but retain consciousness. Alternatively, they may recover consciousness too soon. Some species can survive in low oxygen levels and may recover if not killed soon after stunning, even if placed in ice.[6]

Dry stunning is potentially much more stressful as it involves removing the fish from water and placing them on a conveyor belt. The fish are stunned by electric paddles. If they are not arranged correctly, they may accidentally receive electric shocks prior to stunning, especially if they are struggling.[6]

Carbon dioxide. Salmon are often killed by being placed in water infused with carbon dioxide. However, this is slow and the fish show clear signs of anguish. The practice has been banned in Norway because it is considered inhumane.[6]

Spiking. Some fish are killed by driving a tool into the brain to destroy it. Studies suggest that the tool misses the brain up to 50 percent of the time, causing suffering due to tissue damage. The process also typically involves removing the fish from the water — this, along with handling, inevitably causes suffering.[6]

Other methods. Since they are difficult to kill, eels are often killed with cruel methods such as immersion in ammonia or salt water, or gutting alive. Tuna may be shot in the head while still in the water, and carp are often sold alive and killed by buyers at home. In the latter case, they are likely to be kept out of water for long periods and killed poorly without proper equipment.[6]

Living Conditions

Farmed fish experience a number of stresses due to their living conditions. For example:[7][8]

  • Overcrowding can cause stress, loss of scales, lack of oxygen, and possible gill damage. Fish may develop heart problems due to insufficient exercise.
  • Poor water quality can occur due to the amount of feces produced in overcrowded conditions.
  • Disease and parasites are rife due to overcrowding, causing irritation and discomfort. Sea lice can eat the flesh of farmed fish, causing lesions and even exposure of the skull in severe cases.
  • Health issues such as skeletal problems, cataracts, and soft tissue malformations are common.
  • Abrasion may occur when fish come into contact with the cage walls.
  • Noise from cages in rough weather may cause stress to the fish.
  • Cannibalism is an unnatural behavior that may occur if large and small fish are kept together.
  • Handling may cause injury to fish, potentially leading to infection. When removed from the water, fish may suffer from a lack of oxygen and even death due to stress.
  • Artificial light is used to manipulate fishes' growth and reproduction. The welfare impacts of this practice are not yet known, but there is evidence that it may cause stress.
  • Predation occurs when fish are kept in pens or cages in natural bodies of water. Animals like seabirds, seals, and otters may injure or prey on the fish, who cannot easily escape because they are confined.
  • Denial of natural behaviors is inevitable on fish farms. Fish who would swim several kilometers a day in the wild are kept confined in small cages where they cannot exercise natural behaviors such as feeding and migration.

Selective Breeding and Reproduction

Some types of salmon have been genetically engineered to grow faster. This has caused a range of welfare problems such as an enlarged head, an impaired immune system, and breathing difficulties in some cases.[9]

A method known as triploidy is sometimes used to breed sterile salmon, mainly to prevent escaped fish from breeding with wild ones. It is also said to improve meat quality and make fish grow more quickly. However, it causes a number of health issues such as cataracts and spinal deformities.[8]

Some species, such as carp, cannot spawn naturally when kept in artificial conditions. They are sometimes injected with hormones to force them to produce sperm or eggs. These hormones are often obtained by slaughtering other carp to remove their pituitary glands.[10] Other species are slaughtered so that they can be cut open and their eggs or sperm removed to be used for breeding.[11]

Treatment and Handling


For more information on the pain of hooking, see the section on pain below.

According to scientists, fish have a similar pain system to mammals and birds, and their mouths contain many sensory receptor cells. Hooking is painful, and studies show that fish avoid areas where they were hooked previously. In longline fishing, fish may be hooked for hours or even days until the lines are retrieved.[5]

In hook-and-line methods of fishing, baited hooks are used to catch fish. The hook becomes embedded in the fish's body, typically in the mouth but sometimes elsewhere. Studies show that fish experience an alarm response when hooked, especially when the line is pulled on. They inevitably struggle to escape, leading to extreme exhaustion. Sport fishermen may prolong this reeling process (known as "playing" the fish) to see the fish struggle, causing further suffering. As time passes, the fish's stress levels continue to increase for up to several hours after capture.[5]


Fish may be deprived of food for several days before slaughter, allegedly to empty the gut and prevent fecal contamination. However, the duration of fasting is often far longer than is necessary for these purposes. Studies suggest that this may depress the immune system.[6]


Farmed fish are often transported to slaughter. This is stressful and done with no regard for their welfare. Often, a net is used to encircle all fish in the enclosure. The process, known as "crowding," often leads to a shortage of oxygen. In some species, it causes panic when not done extremely carefully. This leads to injury, stress, and even death in some cases.

Following crowding, one of two methods may be used to transport fish. These are known as pumping and brailing.


Pumping involves inserting a tube into the net where the fish are crowded. A pump sucks the fish and water through the tube for a distance ranging from a few meters to over a kilometer. If badly designed, fish may be injured by projections or sharp edges in the pipe, or by colliding with one another. In some cases, blockages in the pipe can lead to overcrowding. Poor water quality may also pose a hazard to fish.[6]

Some types of pipe cause turbulence in the water flow, meaning the fish have to struggle against it. This leads to exhaustion, even on short journeys. On arrival, many fish are so exhausted that they cannot swim properly.[6]


Brailing involves transporting fish in a net called a brail. Some are small and hand-operated, holding a few kilograms of fish; others are operated by crane and can hold several hundred kilograms.[6]

Dry brailing. Often, there is no water in the brail. Since the fish come into contact with the net, each other, and other surfaces, this puts them at risk of crushing, bruising, abrasion, and puncture.[6]

Wet brailing. Sometimes, fish are lifted in water. This reduces the risk of harm, but fish can still be hurt when removed from the brail. For example, they may fall onto each other or onto a hard surface, causing injury.[6]

Live Bait

Live fish are often used as bait to catch larger fish. After capture, they may be confined for days or even weeks. Some are injured or die due to handling and overcrowded conditions. Many are then impaled live on hooks, causing pain and tissue damage. They experience fear as they are eaten alive by predators, unable to escape.[5]

Other bait fish are scattered into the ocean rather than impaled. This can be a frightening experience, as many bait fish naturally inhabit reefs or shallow waters and are unfamiliar with the open ocean. They are quickly surrounded by predators and eaten alive.[5]

Catch and Release

Some recreational anglers prefer to throw fish back into the water alive after catching them. While preferable to killing them, this approach is not without its problems. For example, hooks can sometimes puncture the throat or internal organs and can cause further injury if torn out with an automatic hook stripper. As a result, some fish die from their injuries after being released; studies suggest that this figure can be anywhere from 3 percent to 86 percent depending on the species and the type of hook and bait used.[5]

Humane Labels and Certifications

Investigations by Consumer Reports and the Open Philanthropy Project (and others) reveal that humane-sounding labels and certifications are largely meaningless, as shown below. In general, these investigations reveal that the standards are weak and unenforced, audits and inspections are rarely done, and if they are done and violations are found, which is infrequent, no one gets fined.[12][13] Here we address a few common labels and certifications for fish. Most of these certifications don't even pretend to pertain to the welfare of the fish, but nuances in the names of the certifications may lead consumers to believe they do.

Certified Sustainable Seafood

Certified Sustainable has nothing to do with the well-being of fish. Not only that, but the sustainability claim itself is suspect. In a piece titled "Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable?" NPR reports that scientists and other experts believe fisheries are being certified that should not be. In addition, fish are being incorrectly counted, rendering the claims of sustainability doubtful at best.[16]

Aquaculture Stewardship Council Certification

The ACS fish farm certification currently has almost no animal welfare requirements, focusing mainly on sustainability. The organization has announced plans to incorporate fish health and welfare indicators into the standard, but the final draft will not be signed off until the end of 2021.[17]

Additionally, it is doubtful whether the standard can be described as truly sustainable. SeaChoice, a collaboration between three Canadian environmental groups, released a critical report on ACS-certified salmon in 2018. It points out that many farms have been allowed variances, meaning they can be certified without meeting all the standards.[18] A senior policy analyst for one of the groups involved in SeaChoice said the ACS had "diluted the value of its own standard."[19]

Best Aquaculture Practices

BAP standards do reference the welfare of farmed fish, especially with regards to salmon. In particular, farmed salmon are required to be stunned before slaughter[20] (though stunning methods are not always effective, as described previously). However, standards for fish other than salmon are weak, with stunning not required at slaughter.[21][22]

RSPCA Assured

Though comprehensive, the British RSPCA Assured standard applies only to salmon and trout.[23][24][22] Additionally, it is doubtful whether the standards are enforced. A 2018 report by animal rights group OneKind found welfare issues on a huge number of Scottish salmon farms.[25] The RSPCA does not disclose which farms it certifies,[26] but almost 78 percent of Scottish salmon farms are RSPCA Assured,[25] making it probable that some are included.

Other concerns have also been raised about the certification. For example, many farms shoot seals to protect salmon from predation, a practice that leaves many seal pups orphaned. Farmers are permitted to do this on RSPCA Assured farms "as a last resort," though many allegedly shoot seals without even attempting to use double nets to keep them out. Also, the RSPCA's standards for sea louse numbers are not any higher than the legal maximum. It even permits the use of triploid fish, despite their known welfare issues (described previously).[23][26] A member of the pressure group Scottish Salmon Watch said that the standard "makes a mockery of high welfare standards."[27]


Though GlobalG.A.P's fish farm standards do reference animal welfare, fish welfare is not assessed when inspections are carried out.[22] Any claims of animal welfare, therefore, have little meaning.

Sentience and Cognition

Although our concern for fish is typically less than it is for other animals, research in cognitive ethology and neurobiology reveals that fish show intelligence, feel pain, display emotions, and have many of the other characteristics of the land animals we use for food.[28]

According to Victoria Braithwaite, professor of Fisheries and Biology at Penn State University, "The evidence we have to support sentience and pain perception in fish is a good as anything we have for birds and mammals. Fish, like birds and mammals, have a capacity for self-awareness."[29]

While we are not suggesting that the degree of moral consideration given to an animal be based on their cognitive capacity, it seems that most people are not fully aware of the rich cognitive, emotional, and psychological lives that fish experience.

Brain Structure

Though the brain structure of fish differs from that of mammals, it performs similar functions. Fish possess both an amygdala and a hippocampus, regions of the brain that deal with learning, emotion, and memory.[30] Though they do not have a neocortex, a complex brain region associated with pain and suffering, its functions are likely to be performed by different parts of the brain. This is supported by the fact that birds and amphibians are known to suffer and feel pain despite not having a neocortex. As a result, it is not reasonable to conclude that fish do not experience pain or suffering based on their brain structure.[31]


A common misperception is that fish are incapable of feeling pain. However, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Studies have shown neural activity in fish cells in response to painful stimuli such as heat, acid, or probes. Nerve endings in trouts' faces were found to be more sensitive than those of humans.[32] Fish also responded to painful electric shocks, and their responses greatly decreased when they were given painkillers. The study concluded that their pain sensitivity was comparable to that of humans.[33]

Other studies show that if fish are caught with a hook and released, they remember the experience at least a year later and avoid the hooks. Not only that, but the entire population of fish becomes very difficult to catch, suggesting that fish learn from each other's experiences. This level of avoidance indicates that being hooked is a painful experience for fish.[34]

There is also evidence that fish brains have the capacity for feeling pain. Though the anatomy of fish brains is different to that of mammals, they function in a very similar way. According to Donald Broom, Emeritus Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Cambridge, "the evidence of pain system function in fish is so similar to that in humans and other mammals, it is not logical to deduce that fish cannot feel pain." He points out that the function of pain is to allow animals to respond to their environments and survive, making it a necessity for active animals like fish.[35]

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, fish "should be accorded the same considerations as terrestrial vertebrates in regard to relief from pain."[36]

A Sense of the Future

Many studies show that fish avoid areas where they have previously had negative experiences, showing that they are able to anticipate the same thing happening again.[37]

Fear and Stress

A scientific panel commissioned by the European Commission concluded that some species of fish are able to experience fear (not many species have been studied). It points out that fear is necessary for defense and escape. The panel also found that fishes' stress physiology is “directly comparable to that of higher vertebrates,” including primary, secondary, and tertiary stress responses. When exposure to stress is prolonged, it can become chronic and affect the immune system and growth. Eventually, it may even cause death.[38]


Several studies have shown that fish learn from one another. This includes predator avoidance, migration routes, where to find food, and how to choose a mate. In some species, fish even observe each other to determine fighting ability and use this information in future conflicts.[39]

This ability to learn shows that, contrary to popular belief, fish do use and possess long-term memory.[40]

Environmental Consequences


Commercial fishing is hugely destructive. Methods such as trawling involve dragging a vast net along the ocean floor and scooping up almost everything in its path.[41] As a consequence of methods like this, around three-quarters of the world's fisheries are now either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.[42] In other words, fish simply cannot reproduce quickly enough to replace the number we are killing. It has even been predicted that stocks of all species currently fished could collapse by 2048 if we continue to fish at the same rate.[43]


Commercial fishing usually targets specific species. However, many non-target species are also accidentally caught. In many cases, it is not economically viable to sell them and so they are discarded. These discarded species are known as bycatch or bykill.[44] Estimates suggest that in 2014, 837,867,783 pounds of bycatch was produced by US fisheries alone.[45] It is not just fish who are accidentally caught, but also other animals such as turtles, marine mammals (like dolphins), and seabirds.[44]

Species Extinction

Overfishing is pushing many species to the brink of extinction.[46] One of the most famous cases is the highly-prized Pacific bluefin tuna, which could soon be functionally extinct due to overfishing if nothing is done.[47]

Pollution from Fishing Gear

A 2019 Greenpeace report found that discarded fishing gear is a major cause of ocean plastic pollution. It is responsible for 70 percent of ocean plastics larger than 20 centimeters, and around 640,000 tonnes of it are dumped into the oceans every year. Fishing nets are especially problematic as they continue to capture and kill marine life even after they are abandoned.[48] According to the British charity World Animal Protection, 100,000 dolphins, turtles, whales, and seals are killed each year by so-called "ghost gear."[49]

Threat to Native Species

Some types of farmed fish, such as salmon, are raised in pens along the coast. These fish commonly escape and can pose a threat to native species. For example, they may compete with them for food, interbreed with them and affect the genetic pool, or prey on them.[50] Additionally, diseases and parasites often spread rapidly in fish farms due to high stocking densities and unhygienic conditions. When farmed fish escape, they can pass these ailments on to their wild counterparts.[51][52]

Destruction of Coastal Habitat

When farmed fish are kept in ocean pens, their waste flows out into coastal waters.[50] The production of such huge quantities of waste in a relatively small area can destroy habitat by making the water toxic to some species.[53]

Human Health, Nutrition

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Much, if not most, of the perceived health benefits of fish are associated with omega-3 fatty acids. However, omega-3s are present in high concentrations in plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans. As a result, it is not necessary to consume fish to obtain them. One study even found that women eating a plant-based diet had higher blood levels of omega-3s than those who were eating animal products.[54]

Furthermore, studies suggest that the toxins in fish (described in the following section) may counteract any heart health benefits linked to its omega-3 content.[55][56] These toxins may also contribute to other diseases such as breast cancer[57] and diabetes.[58] Additionally, many types of fish are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, while plant foods contain no cholesterol and are generally much lower in saturated fat.[59][60]

Fish oil supplements are widely believed to help treat many conditions, but research suggests they have no health benefits.[61][62] They may even increase the risk of some diseases, such as prostate cancer.[63] However, increasing our intake of omega-3s from plant foods may have some benefits for heart health.[64] Algae supplements are also available, containing long-chain omega-3s completely equivalent to those in fish flesh.[65]

Food Safety

Bioaccumulation of Toxins

Due to human activity, the oceans are becoming increasingly contaminated with toxins like heavy metals, pesticides,[66] and PCBs.[67] Though many of the most harmful (such as DDT) have been banned in some countries, they persist in the environment and may still be used elsewhere in the world.[68] They are absorbed by sea creatures either through diet or through the gills. The toxins then concentrate in their flesh.[66]

Smaller sea creatures are eaten by fish, and these fish are consumed by larger fish. In this way, the toxins move up the food chain, becoming more and more concentrated with each step. This is because meat-eating fish eat multiple smaller creatures over the course of their lifetimes, ingesting all the toxins from each one.[69]

Humans often eat large meat-eating fish like salmon and trout,[70] which are at the top of the food chain and so have the highest concentration of toxins. Eating fish can cause these toxins to concentrate in our own flesh.[71] Many of these substances are neurotoxins, meaning they can damage the brain. Some can also cause problems with reproduction, immunity, the nervous system, the kidneys, and more.[66] This is becoming such a problem that in many countries, pregnant women are now advised to limit their intake of certain types of fish to avoid damaging the fetus.[72]

Fishmeal is also fed to some factory-farmed animals, leading toxins to bioaccumulate in their flesh. Eating these animals therefore also poses a risk to human health.[73]


Parasites are widespread in wild-caught fish. They are destroyed by thorough cooking, but eating raw or lightly-cooked fish can pose a threat to human health. One study carried out in Washington found that all wild-caught salmon tested carried parasites that could infect humans.[74] A survey of American gastroenterologists, quoted in a report by Public Health Ontario, found that parasite infections from fish frequently occur in the United States.[75]

Naturally Occurring Toxins

Some species of fish contain naturally occurring toxins used as a defense against predators.[76] Other fish eat algae that contain biotoxins, causing these toxins to accumulate in their flesh. This may cause serious poisoning when the fish are eaten by humans, or even death in rare cases.[77]

Diseases and Conditions


Fish and shellfish both appear on the FDA's list of the top eight most common food allergens.[78] Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and rhinitis. In rare cases, the allergic reaction can be life-threatening.[79]

Animal Protein Risks

All animal protein, including the protein found in fish, carries risks that are not associated with plant protein. A review by Dr. Sofia Ochoa cites 42 studies showing that animal protein:[80]

  • elevates hormone-insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which stimulates cell division and growth in both healthy and cancer cells and "has been consistently associated with increased cancer risk, proliferation, and malignancy"
  • "results in us having higher circulating levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO)," which "injures the lining of our vessels, creates inflammation, and facilitates the formation of cholesterol plaques in our blood vessels"
  • causes the overproduction of the hormone fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23), which damages our blood vessels, can "lead to enlargement of the cardiac ventricle, and is associated with heart attacks, sudden death, and heart failure"
  • can result in the overabsorption of heme iron, causing the conversion of other oxidants into highly reactive free radicals that "can damage different cell structures like proteins, membranes, and DNA" (heme iron "has also been associated with many kinds of gastrointestinal cancers")
  • can result in a higher incidence of bone fractures because of animal protein's high concentrations of sulfur
  • contributes to atherosclerosis—plaques of cholesterol that accumulate in the lining of our vessels; this condition is far less common on a vegan diet because absorbable cholesterol is not found in plants

See Also

Video: What Fish Feel


This article was originally authored by Bethany Chester with contributions by Greg Fuller . The contents may have been edited since that time by others.


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