Shocking footage of intensively farmed fish has emerged in Italy which raises questions about working practices on aquaculture farms for supermarket produce, and which has sparked fresh calls for regulation.
Unlike mammals, fish have almost no legal protections in the EU and the images, secretly filmed in 2017 and 2018, represent the first investigation into Europe’s “factory farms” for fish.
The video shows separate schools of sea bream, sea bass and trout being scooped out of cramped nets, before they are dumped into plastic containers, and left to slowly asphyxiate. Many spend their last moments flapping helplessly on the floor.
Some of the fish that survive endure a suffocation that can apparently last up to an hour on slabs or containers filled with slush and ice in the slaughterhouse. The footage shows that some are eventually killed with blows to the head from metal batons.
It also shows fish roe being manually squeezed out of some fish. Activists believe this would be stressful for the animals.
Claudio Pomo, a co-founder of Essere Animali, the campaign group which recorded the footage said: “Fish farms are simply underwater factory farms, but with more serious animal welfare problems. No law or EU regulation protects fish and, after spending their lives in a crowded cage, hundreds of millions of them are being left to slowly and painfully die of asphyxiation every year.”
The fish in the video were sent on to some of Italy’s biggest supermarkets, which Essere Animali will now be targeting in a national campaign of petitions, emails and, potentially, street protests, Pomo said.
“Scientists – and even the EU – have found that fish feel pain,” he told the Guardian. “Most European citizens agree with us that it is time to give them at least the basic rights that land animals have.”
Evidence that fish possess high cognitive functioning and conscious, prolonged reactions to painful stimuli has accumulated since the turn of the century.
In 2009, the EU’s health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, said there was “sufficient scientific evidence indicating that fish are sentient beings and that they are subject to pain and suffering”.
A European commission report earlier this year found that practices in several EU countries fell short of the Aquatic Animals Health Code, but it only recommended voluntary industry reforms.
A commission spokeswoman said: “The bottom line is that the European Commission has no concrete plans to legislate in this area in the near future.”
Existing EU laws say that animals should be “spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering” before slaughter. One EU study last year recommended the use of stun devices on fish to minimise suffering before their killing.
But no stunning appears to be in evidence on the four farms filmed by Essere Animali.
Anja Hazekamp, a Dutch MEP on the European parliament’s intergroup for animal welfare, told the Guardian that action was needed to tackle the “horrific” methods of fish slaughter revealed by Essere Animali.
She said: “We asked for a regulation several times and eventually the commission came up with a report – but no legislation. It was really disappointing. Animal welfare is not a priority of this commission, especially where fish are concerned. Commercial interests are always given higher priority, unfortunately.”
Industry groups approached by the Guardian did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Global fish production has more than doubled since the 1960s and half of the total comes from aquaculture. To meet projected global demand, that figure will have to double again by mid-century, according to the World Resources Institute.
As wild fish stocks continue an inexorable decline, giant factory farms at seaare already being mooted, despite the risk that they could spread disease and pollution.
Italy produces 185,000 tonnes of fish each year – 12% of Europe’s total catch. Estimates of the number of fish killed globally in commercial farms each year range from 37-120 billion, with as many as 2.7 trillion caught in the wild.