PRINCETON––Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation helped to ignite the animal rights movement, recalled in a 2010 guest column for The Guardian, of London, that some of his first awareness of animal suffering came during childhood walks with his father. “My father told me that he could not understand how anyone could enjoy an afternoon spent taking fish out of the water and letting them die slowly,” Singer wrote, discussing a report by Alison Mood of the British organization FishCount.org entitled Worse Things Happen at Sea: the Welfare of Wild-caught Fish.
“There is no humane slaughter requirement for wild fish caught and killed at sea, nor, in most places, for farmed fish,” Singer wrote. “Fish caught in nets by trawlers are dumped on board the ship and allowed to suffocate. Impaling live bait on hooks is a common commercial practice: long-line fishing, for example, uses hundreds or even thousands of hooks on a single line. When fish take the bait, they are likely to remain caught for many hours before the line is hauled in. Likewise, commercial fishing frequently depends on gill nets––walls of fine netting in which fish become snared, often by the gills. They may suffocate in the net, because, with their gills constricted, they cannot breathe. If not, they may remain trapped for many hours before the nets are pulled in.”
Mood estimates that humans kill about a trillion fish per year––about 150 per human, 17 times more than the sum of mammals and birds raised for slaughter.
“Let’s assume that all this fishing is sustainable,” Singer wrote, “though of course it is not. It would then be reassuring to believe that killing on such a vast scale does not matter, because fish do not feel pain. But the nervous systems of fish are sufficiently similar to those of birds and mammals to suggest that they do.”
Concluded Singer, “We need to learn how to capture and kill wild fish humanely––or, if that is not possible, to find less cruel and more sustainable alternatives to eating them.”