The Aquaculture Problem: 5 Numbers to Show How Many Fish are Suffering

March 22, 2016


The sad truth is that the "cute" animals — the ones with big eyes, large foreheads, and other features reminiscent of baby humans — get all the attention. Take this Buzzfeed video as an example. Under the false premise of taste-testing some "gourmet bacon," the viral content producer invited a group of self-proclaimed "die-hard bacon lovers" into their studio and surprised them with a tiny, wiggly baby piglet. Here's a sampling of the initial responses when prompted with the question, "Do you love bacon"

"Everyone loves bacon. It's like asking people if they love, you know, oxygen…"
"I could live without having bacon, but it wouldn't be much fun…"
"I never even thought of a world without bacon."

At the 0:40 mark, these zealous statements turn into literal squeals of delight at the sight of a piglet, accompanied with such statements as, "Oh God, okay. I'm never going to have bacon again.

Zach shows the power of the pig on even the biggest bacon-loving heart. Image source: Buzzfeed

Here's the kicker summed up by "reformed" bacon lover Zach: "Are my beliefs that fragile that one little cute thing in my arm is gonna just change everything I know"

We know, we know. Just because someone says they've changed their ways doesn't mean their next slight hunger pang won't have them ordering a burger with the works. The point is that, independent of how much change in their diet occurs, it's easy to get an emotional response just through employing a simple visual tactic. It's easy to get an emotional response when you show meat eaters images of male day-old chicks being thrown into a grinder alive simply because they won't grow up to be the layers that their moms and sisters will be.

Fish, however, are another story.

Most people are not as passionate about protecting fish. It could be because they look and act a little different than the "cute," big-eyed animals. Most fish have scales covering their skin instead of hair like ours. They breathe water while we breathe air. And, we don't get to see them interact with their babies like we get to see pigs interact with their puppy-like piglets.

Regardless of our similarities and differences, these animals need our attention.

There are health reasons: Many humans who are consciously eating less meat rely on fish as a "healthy" alternative, but farmed fish have an unhealthy, high level of fat content and higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than wild fish — in fact, an Environmental Working Group independent laboratory test found that farmed salmon purchased from U.S. grocery stores had, on average, four times the levels of PCBs found in beef.

Aquaculture salmon are raised in unnatural nets like this one. Image source: USDA

There are environmental reasons, too: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "the high-input high-output intensive systems associated with aquaculture cause discharge of suspended solids, and nutrient and organic enrichment of recipient waters resulting in buildup of anoxic sediments, changes in benthic communities and the eutrophication of lakes."

But ultimately, the fact that fish do have feelings requires our utmost attention: In a 2003 study, researchers at the Roslin Institute discovered that neurons in fish react to painful stimuli in a way similar to the neurons of a human in pain. What's more is that when the fish became stressed, they took longer to resume feeding and exhibited a higher rate of gill breathing.

One could argue that the Roslin Institute must have tested an overly-sensitive group of fish. However, additional studies around the world found similar results, showing this was not the case.

Researchers from Purdue University and the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science tested how fish reacted to burning sensations (that were expected to be painful but did not damage any tissue). Before applying the burning sensation, one group of fish was giving morphine (to dull the pain), and another was given a saline placebo. Both fish wriggled in reaction to the burning sensation, but the fish given morphine quickly resumed normal behavior, while those given placebo exhibited "defensive behaviors indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety," said Joseph Garner, the researcher from Purdue.

"This indicates that the fish consciously perceive the test situation as painful and switch to behaviors indicative of having been through an aversive experience," Janicke Nordgreen, the doctoral student at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science told Live Science.


Fish like this one suffer from "death crown." Death crown occurs when sea lice eat blood and tissues, leaving the skull exposed while they're still living.

Millions of fish suffer in aquaculture each year. According to the NOAA, aquaculture is defined as "the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean." These aquaculture farms keep fish in very close quarters, making them a breeding ground for all sorts of painful afflictions. One such condition is caused by "sea lice." Sea lice feed on blood and tissues sometimes so severely that a live fish's skull is exposed, creating what is known as a"death crown."

Not only are living fish suffering during their lives in aquaculture farms due to the problems of intense confinement and overcrowding, but the methods of killing these fish are also horrifying. As reported by the Vegetarian Society, three ways that aquacultured fish are killed are:

- Carbon dioxide stunning: Being saturated in a carbon dioxide bath makes fish immobile, but they maintain sensibility for up to nine minutes after the bathing. After the carbon dioxide bath, these fish are bled out and some even have their gills cut when they're still conscious.

- Suffocation on air — or worse, on ice: As fish breathe in water, they are sometimes killed by being pulled out of water and suffocated. Some fish are moved from water to ice and suffer greatly, as the cold increases the time to unconsciousness to up to fifteen minutes.

- Percussive stunning: Fish are hit on the head with a club — often multiple times since the stun is not experienced immediately.

We know that an individual fish have the drive to avoid pain, and that fishing and aquaculture cause these animals great harm, but the scale of this type of animal agriculture is relatively obscure. That's why we were thankful to discover "The Fish We Kill to Feed the Fish We Eat," a number-crunching animal advocate's dream article written by Harish Sethu of Counting Animals. Here are five key stats from the Counting Animals piece that we think make the case for urgently cutting fish from diets.


1. "About 5.5 billion pounds (in live weight) of aquacultured sea animals were consumed by Americans in 2013."


We have to measure these sea animals in live weight because data is reported in terms of weight rather than in terms of numbers of individuals, a heartless move that further emphasizes that fish are not treated or looked at in the same way as the cute pigs that we eat.


Counting Animals Table


This large number shows that the "healthier" route of just eating fish oftentimes leads to eating way, way too many fish. 5.5 billion pounds in live weight paints a picture of how unsustainable this is, especially as it just relates to the aquacultured sea animals, not even counting wild fish or the fish killed to feed the animals — sea and earth dwelling — that we eat, which leads to our next notable stat…


2. "We use more than 5.6 billion pounds of wild-caught fish to feed the animals we eat."


Notice the word "animal." We're not talking about fish that are captured and killed to feed the aquacultured fish that becomes our food. Rather, a high percentage — 20% — of the world's production of fishmeal in 2010 was fed to weaning piglets and another 5% was used to feed day-old chicks in the poultry industry. In total, approximately 2.691 billion pounds of fishmeal was fed to pigs and another 673 million pounds to chickens worldwide that year. Numbers like these make John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future's estimate that we could be just 35 years away from having no fish left in our oceans seem not that far off.


3. "Between 144 and 293 wild sea animals are captured and killed annually to feed the aquacultured fish and shrimp eaten by the average American consumer."


The Counting Animals article makes another good point that sums up why it's so difficult to advocate for fish: "These 144 to 293 sea animals, however, die in service of someone's appetite who rarely, if ever, learns of their existence. They die unseen, unheard, and unknown by those of us who cause their deaths." Not only are we killing billions of land animals in factory farms each year, as well as killing billions of fish to feed them, but we're also killing even more fish to feed the fish we consume. These lives go essentially unacknowledged.


According to Counting Animals, "a disturbingly indiscriminate variety of sea animals" are labeled as “feed fish," including anchovies like those in this school, capelins, hake, herrings, mackerels, krill, menhadens, sardines, and sand eels. Image source: Magnus Manske


4. "Considering the impact of aquaculture alone, American consumers of aquacultured animals have had a causal role in the capture and death of 5,602 million pounds of wild fish in 2013."


Aquaculture is often touted as the solution to overfishing, as if it would sacrifice captive fish to save those living in the wild. Not only is aquaculture responsible for the death of millions of pounds of wild fish, but it's messing up the natural ecosystems that thrived long before we decided we needed more fish and we needed them fast. Furthermore...


5. "American consumption of aquacultured fish and shrimp...demands the capture and death of 45 to 92 billion wild-caught sea animals each year!"


While point number four speaks to the millions of pounds of wild fish that are killed because of aquaculture, this point demonstrates that aquaculture is an unsustainable solution that leads to the killing of wild animals as well. It is essentially impossible to consume animals without some form of suffering.

To summarize, fish have feelings. Fish deserve freedom. Fish don't deserve the horrific deaths that they're facing by the billions in aquaculture. The numbers in the Counting Animals article "The Fish We Kill to Feed the Fish We Eat" makes it clear that fish ought to be kept off our plates, and the sooner, the better to halt the far-reaching consequences of aquaculture.

Here's where you come in: YOU can help end fish suffering by sharing this summary on social media, and with family and friends, to offer insight into the horrors and lack of transparency in the aquaculture industry.