Today, Compassion is hosting an international gathering of experts to look at the welfare of farmed fish. As someone who has long taken a personal interest in this subject, I am delighted to see fish welfare rising up the public agenda. After all, in terms of the number of individuals involved, fish farming is the biggest area of animal husbandry bar none.
However, for society to start really taking notice of fish welfare has been a long, uphill struggle. There has been a sense that because they’re not mammals or birds, it doesn’t matter as much if they suffer.
I remember an experience that illustrated this attitude quite vividly.
I was invited to Strasbourg, Alsace, to the Council of Europe, which promotes cooperation and human rights amongst European governments. Officials were drafting common standards for fish farming and I was there to observe.
The meetings were long and intense. European government officials would pore over complicated texts, arguing over whether a sentence should read ‘shall’ rather than ‘should’. ‘Should’ was a wishy-washy guideline, whereas ‘shall’ meant something had to be done. Sometimes, as ‘expert’ observer, I would talk into the microphone and get the right result: I wanted as many ‘shalls’ as I could get. That way, I felt we were at least beginning to get some protection for a kind of animal that frequently gets none at all.
Our itinerary involved a day trip to look at examples of inland fish farms. Along with thirty or forty government officials, advisers and vets, I boarded a coach for the day trip.
We stopped at a farm rearing trout in rectangular concrete ponds surrounded by grass. The water came from a local spring and flowed through successive ponds, each one lower than the next. Each pond had bigger fish than the last. They seemed in reasonable condition, as did the water. You could see the bottom easily, though by the time it finished going through the farm, it was probably less pleasant. The fish were fed by hand twice a day every day except Sunday. I wondered whether the Sunday fast was for the benefit of the fish or the owner.
Our final stop was billed as a ‘modern raceway site’. As I could probably have guessed from the euphemism, this was the factory-farm version of trout rearing.
We were told that it came complete with automatic oxygen injection systems. It certainly needed them. Compared with the previous farm, three times as many fish were being reared in the same space. The water was a murky brown. The fish were barely visible, let alone the bottom.
I stood incredulous as government people, vets and other experts watched fish in obvious distress without a word of criticism or alarm. Lots of the fish had worn tails from rubbing the sides of the tanks and each other. Some had raw red flesh exposed above their tails; others had no tails at all. They were crowding round the water inlets, desperate for oxygen. The grids across the inlets churned the water, allowing oxygen to dissolve more readily. Schools of larger fish swam in tight lethargic circles, their backs reaching high out of the water. They were clearly not happy. One expert told me that this was probably due to ‘clogged gills’, which made for ‘uncomfortable fish’.
I chatted with the farm owner, a tall amiable man in workaday wellington boots. He said he was happy to answer any questions and let me take photos. I took pictures of this stark factory-style place in the open air. It was very different to the farm we’d seen earlier that day.
I saw fish with their eyes apparently popping out. A fish vet who was standing beside me said that they were probably suffering from ‘impact damage’ or infection. I took photos, much to the distaste of one of the other vets. He asked in a voice that barely concealed his anger whether I would use the photos publicly. He repeated the question a couple of times. I wasn’t willing to give him any reassurances. He didn’t like the idea that the pictures might be used to show what goes on in such places.
In the end, I never did use the photos. The water was so murky you couldn’t really see anything.
Yet ten years on, the memories of that day remain vivid. I can still see those fish in my mind’s eye, with their missing tails and bulging eyes, swimming in appalling conditions.
I can see a huddle of vets and legislators looking down, and saying nothing. I can remember how odd it felt getting back on the bus, with no one else concerned by what we’d seen.
Vets are seen by many as the animals’ champions; that some seemed unfazed by such poor rearing conditions really shocked me. I couldn’t help wondering whether the veterinary profession was failing somehow to properly stand up for animal welfare, instead following and thereby supporting the status quo.
In the complex moral maze presented by farming on land or water, it is easy to get lost in the profit bottom line: to lose sight of the patient – the animals – when dealing with the customer – the farmer.