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One trillion silent screams

When I was a kid I always lived near a beach, Williamstown snorkeling or Bondi body surfing, that was what interested my friends and I the most growing up. Discovering that wonderland just under the waves was magical to a young kid. When you swim with a school of garfish or disturb a stingray sleeping on the bottom, or see an octopus out for a stroll for the first time, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget. Just drifting with the tide and watching the sea life going on around you can be therapeutic.

Then you get older, and life’s responsibilities take hold, and you forget the things that brought you the most enjoyment in life. One day you wake up and see what we are doing to the billions of fishes and their habitats, which covers 2/3rds of our beautiful planet. To think of the amount of suffering we inflict daily on the inhabitants of our oceans is mind-boggling, yet we hardly give it a second thought, as we reach for that can of tuna on the supermarket shelf. Individual figures are hard to obtain because fishes are treated as weight and tonnage rather than the individuals that they are. In 2017 alone, the amount of fish caught worldwide was 174 million tonnes[i] plus 26 million tonnes of illegal fishing[ii]. This is 24% more than the 140.7 million tonnes caught in 2007.

Studies predict the total collapse of wild sea fish by 2048.[iii] A few years ago I would have thought that was impossible but if you watch the videos on youtube and see the quantities of fishes we are slaughtering daily you realise it is not only possible, it is inevitable.

The individual numbers are unimaginable, the estimates globally of fish killed start at 970 billion and run as high as 2,700 billion annually without by catch[iv] (2007)

The Question is not “Can They Reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Jeremy Bentham 1789 English Philosopher)

Credit: Unparalleled Suffering


Do fish feel pain and why does it matter?
Victoria Braithwaite, Sydney Environment Institute

Victoria Braithwaite, biologist of Penn State University and other fish biologists from around the world, have produced substantial evidence that fish experience conscious pain. It is possibly different from human pain, but it is still a kind of pain. At the anatomical level, fishes have neurons known as nociceptors, which detect potential harm, such as high temperatures, intense pressure, and caustic chemicals. Fishes produce the same opioids—the body’s innate painkillers—that mammals do. And their brain activity during injury is analogous to that in terrestrial vertebrates: sticking a pin into goldfish or rainbow trout, just behind their gills, stimulates nociceptors and a cascade of electrical activity that surges toward brain regions essential for conscious sensory perceptions (such as the cerebellum, tectum, and telencephalon), not just the hindbrain and brainstem, which are responsible for reflexes and impulses.[v]

Dr Culum Brown on fish intelligence
ABC Radio with Margaret Throsby


Fishes, more than 37,000 species

Fishes have been evolving for 500 million years

Fishes learn hook and net shyness and avoidance and commit it to long-term memory

Fishes develop cultural traditions

Fishes recognise themselves and others

Fishes are social animals, love to hang out with friends

Fishes primary senses are just as good as humans and in some cases better.

Fishes level of mental complexity is on par with most other vertebrates

Fishes can watch TV, some have better eyesight than humans so the TV must be HD

Fishes can find escape routes in trawling experiments after 4 trials and commit it to long-term memory

Fishes are aware of what other fishes are thinking about them

Fishes practice reconciliation and cooperation using Machiavellian intelligence

Fishes use tools

Fishes are individuals within their group the same as humans

There are many more fishy things that we will keep for later dates.


What a Fish Knows
 Jonathan Balcombe director of animal sentience with the Humane Society Institute

Marine biologists in the Bahamas studying giant manta rays found that they can recognise their own reflections. This indicates self-awareness, a mental attribute previously known only in great apes, dolphins, elephants, and magpies.

The Frillfin Goby is a smart little 12 cm doe-eyed fish with a pouting mouth. At low tide, Frillfins hide in rocky tide pools. But if danger lurks – a hungry octopus, say – the Goby will jump to a neighbouring tide pool, with remarkable accuracy. They accomplish this feat by memorising the tide pool layout while swimming over it at high tide. They can do this in one pass and can still remember it after 40 days.

A Greenland Shark caught recently was aged at 392 years old and he may have been middle-aged as he was in very good health.[vi]

Hunting partnerships between groupers and moray eels have been observed on the reef. By working together these two top predators have devised a system that is to their mutual benefit. The moray eel will flush out their prey from the small crevices where the grouper can’t go. In open water or an enclosed channel, the prey becomes an easier target.

An orange-dotted tusk fish has been videotaped digging up a clam then swimming a distance and using a rock as an anvil to open the clam. This type of tool use has been reported in different parts of the world and shows that fish are more intelligent than they have previously been given credit for.

Busy cleaner fishes with a good reputation sometimes have a cue of client fish waiting their turn to be cleaned.

Friendly groupers swim up to divers like dogs for a pat and moray eel will cuddle a trusted diver. Even some shark species like getting a belly rub from an experienced diver.

Fishes on a reef system have been recorded talking to each other with over 80 different species communicating with sound.

Fish Sounds: Do Fish Talk To Each Other
BBC Earth Unplugged

(Things we do for the dinner table)

Credit: Unparalleled Suffering

If we consider that fishes are sentient beings, have an inherent interest in living and can feel pain, then we know that all methods of capture and slaughter are inhumane. Some of their suffering is listed below,

  • pursued to exhaustion by nets
  • crushed under the weight of other fish in trawl nets
  • raised from deep water and suffer decompression effects e.g. burst swim bladders
  • snared in gill nets
  • confined in constricted seine nets
  • spiked with hooks (gaffed) to bring them aboard
  • caught on hooks, often for hours or days
  • thrown live to tuna as bait
  • impaled live on hooks as bait
Source: Unknown

Fishes caught on long lines and gill nets can struggle for hours or even days before they are brought onboard the fishing vessel. Once landed most fishes are left to asphyxiate or will die during processing, which may include gutting alive, filleting alive and freezing while still alive.

The time taken to die will depend on the species, treatment, and also on the temperature. In a Dutch study, the time taken for fishes to become insensible was measured for fishes subjected to gutting and to asphyxiation without gutting. This was done for several species of fishes (herring, cod, whiting, sole, dab and plaice). It was found that a considerable time elapsed before the fishes became insensible, as follows:

  • gutting alive (gibbing in the case of herring): 25-65 minutes;
  • asphyxiation without gutting: 55-250 minutes

Sometimes fishes are put onto ice as they suffocate, or into iced water. This is likely to result in rapid chilling. It is sometimes believed that cold-blooded animals become less sentient as they cool due to slowed nervous metabolism. However, the process of chilling has been shown to be stressful to fish and may cause violent escape behaviour. It is likely that putting wild-caught fishes onto ice, as they suffocate, will increase the severity of their distress. This practice may also cause them to suffer for longer.


Trawling the Iceland waters of the North Atlantic

Fishes caught by trawling are chased to exhaustion by a bag-shaped net towed through the water. Once exhausted, the fish become overrun and swallowed by the net. Then they will start to panic and thrash their tails in attempts to escape. Collisions with the sides of the net and with other fishes may cause scale damage. As the fish collect in the narrow end of the net (cod end), they may be suffocated in the crush of other fish, or die from circulatory failure. Fish may experience decompression injuries, such as a burst swim bladder when raised from the deep water. The trawl tow may last for many hours. For species that have a closed swim bladder, the sudden change in pressure caused by raising them from some depth results in rapid decompression. Parts of the gut may be forced out of the mouth and anus, eyes may be forced from their orbits and the swim bladder may burst. Trawling especially shrimp trawling results in high levels of bycatch, it also destroys fish habitat.


Fishes that are caught using this method are fishes that travel in large schools near the surface or mid depth of ocean They include tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring and anchovy. 

There are 3 types

1 Free School Purse Seining

   A free-swimming school is chased down and encircled

2 Dolphin-set Purse Seining

   In the Eastern Pacific Ocean dolphins are known to swim with large schools of tuna. Fishermen encircle both dolphins and tuna.

3 Floating Object Purse Seining

   The nets are set around floating objects (eg. logs or seaweed) or around man-made structures called fish aggregating devices or FADs

In purse seining, a school of fishes is gradually surrounded by a long wall of netting hanging in the water (about 200 metres) and towed into a circle (about 2 kims circumference). Once the loop is complete, the net is drawn together like a draw-string bag from the bottom, constraining the fishes. Fishes are likely to experience fear during this encirclement. The eventual crowding and confinement has been shown to be very stressful. Panicking fish are liable to incur injury and scale loss from collisions with other fishes and with the net walls. Fishes released at this stage (sometimes deliberately to avoid excess catch) often die, as a result of these injuries. Fishes can also incur further injury as they are transferred to the fishing vessel. The duration of the whole fishing operation is probably generally shorter than in trawling but fishes are still injured as they are crushed into a confined space as the Purse Seine tightens and is dragged onto the fishing vessel. The by catch includes turtles, dolphins, sharks and manta rays, even whales.


Gill Net Left in Creek
Virginia Outdoors Unlimited
Note: We do not support the fact this person was out killing fishes in the first place and must acknowledge that his intended behaviour is also cruel. We hope he comes to realise that he is perpetuating the very activity he seemingly opposes.

A gill net is a wall of netting, hanging in the sea, which is invisible to fish. Fishes of a certain size, swimming into a gill net, will pass through it only as far as their head and become snared by the gills as they try to reverse. As the fish struggles to free itself, it may become yet more entangled, and is likely to experience fear and panic. Constriction of the gills by the netting can stop the fish from being able to breathe properly. Struggling results in cuts to the skin and scales. Sometimes snared fishes are attacked by predators, such as seals, leaving them wounded. Fish sometimes remain like this for many hours or even days, and some die before they are landed. Further injury can be caused during landing e.g. when fishes are gaffed (i.e. their bodies spiked with a hand-held hook) to bring them on board.


In hand line and “rod and line” fishing, the fish is caught individually with a hook and line. In trolling, lines bearing baited hooks or lures are towed through the water by a slow-moving vessel. Hooking is stressful to fish and causes an alarm response in which they will struggle to become free. This can lead to severe exhaustion. Hooking fishes causes injury which is sometimes severe, especially when fishes become hooked through the gills. Live fishes are sometimes impaled on hooks as bait in all forms of hook and line fishing. Sometimes fishes are gaffed to bring them aboard.


In “pole and line” fishing, the fishers create a feeding frenzy in a school of fish by scattering bait fishes such as anchovies and sardine, usually alive, over the side of the vessel (a practice called “chumming”). In this feeding frenzy, the fishes snap at barbless hooks attached to the fishers’ rod and lines. When a fish becomes hooked the fisher swings the rod, bringing the fish flying onto the deck behind and disengaging it from the lure. Sometimes live fish are impaled on hooks as bait. From the point of view of the target fish (as opposed to the bait fish) this method, although still horrific, may cause less suffering than others on account of the short duration of capture. The use of live bait fish greatly adds to the welfare cost of this fishing method.


Long line fishing, or long lining, is a commercial fishing method that uses hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks hanging from a single line which may be 50-100km long. Unlike the other hook and line fishing methods discussed, which catch fishes quickly, fishes caught on long lines are landed hours or days later when the gear is hauled up. In this method of fishing, it is common for live fishes to be impaled on hooks as bait. The target fish, once hooked, may themselves be subsequently attacked by predators. Many sharks that are caught on long lines are “finned”. Their fins are cut off and they are thrown back into the sea, often still alive where they will endure a long, drawn-out death on the ocean floor. Long lines kill seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, and other non-target fish, which are attracted by the bait.


Australian Fish Farming as exposed in Dominion
Watch the entire ground breaking documentary here.

Over 50% of global fishes produced come from aquaculture.

Fishes are crammed into pens like all the other intensive farming methods (think battery hens and dairy cows) where they are unable to perform their natural behaviours. Atlantic salmon, for instance, are deprived of swimming the great distances they would normally swim in the wild. Trout larvae hatch from eggs deposited in a stream bed. As they mature they gradually move downstream to live in a river or a lake or in the case of seagoing populations in the sea. Then as adults, they migrate upstream to lay their eggs.

Halstein T. 2004. writes that under intensive farming conditions, fishes “may reach the outer limit of their physiological margin due to maximal exploitation and stress, making them susceptible to a wide range of diseases, threatening ethical and welfare standards”.

Some production related diseases include skeletal deformities, soft tissue malformation, cataracts, and associated blindness.

High stocking densities can also lead to fin damage, fin lesions. bruising, scale loss, reduced growth, and feed intake.

University of Alberta researcher Martin Krkosek and University of Victoria’s John Volpe have predicted that some salmon runs in British Columbia will disappear because of aquaculture and its associated sea lice. The sea lice are suspected of killing baby salmon as they pass by the farms on their way to the ocean. Alexandra Morton moved to the Broughton Archipelago in British Columbia in 1984 to study the Orcas in the area that were plentiful. These days they are a rarity. The numbers of wild salmon have depleted and the orcas have gone. Other animals with salmon on the menu are the bears, eagles, and seals. So, it is expected to see a decline in their numbers as well.

Humans who eat fishes for their health are being duped yet again when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids. Because of the cost of feeding fishes smaller fishes, some farmed fishes are being fed corn and soy or other foodstuffs that contain little or no omega-3. On top of that farmed fishes are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic resistance in humans.


It is true that many people empathise less with fishes than they do with mammals or birds. For a start fishes are covered in mucous, and it’s not like you can cuddle them like you would a dog or cat. They also have a “public relations” problem in that their physiological and behavioural responses to painful or distressing events are not always obvious to humans. Fishes lack the ability to make facial expressions – they don’t blink and their vocalisations can’t be heard out of the water, so we can’t hear them scream if they’re in pain. But the more we learn about them, the more we find similarity with other animals.

Credit: Unparalleled Suffering

Charles Darwin taught us that evolutionary continuity, in which variations among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Then it follows, that a dog or chimpanzee or human pain experience may be different to a fish or a lobster pain experience. Still, each individual suffers his or her own pain.[vii]

Some humans have clearly evolved more than others and have found that having respect for all life on earth is the only way that we will survive. There is no need to eat fishes or any other animal for that matter. All our dietary needs can be sourced from plants except vitamin B12 in the amount we need (due to current food production practices) so we supplement in tablet form. The freedom of knowing I am not intentionally hurting a single animal makes me wonder why it took me so long to become vegan.

“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”

― Milan KunderaThe Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Steve Bacon
Occupation: Retired
Animal Rights Activist

Article cover image by Unparalleled Suffering







[vii] Marc Bekoff Professor of Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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