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Survey shows public backing for new fish slaughter laws

A salmon being stunned with a priest. Video capture: Animal Equality.
A salmon being stunned with a priest. Video capture: Animal Equality.

A survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by an animal rights group showed that 71% of those who responded believe fish should have the same legal right to humane slaughter as other farmed animals.

The poll was carried out this month by YouGov for The Humane League UK (THL), which also campaigns on issues such as ending the use of cages for egg-laying hens.

UK law has detailed legal requirements for how to slaughter pigs, chickens, and cows, but doesn’t offer the same protections for fish.

Inadequately stunned

Pre-slaughter stunning of fish is already practised by salmon farmers and is demanded by welfare certification groups. However, THL wants it to be mandated by law for all farmed fish species. It cites an incident at the Scottish Salmon Company’s Arnish harvest station in the autumn of 2019 as a reason why laws, rather than self-regulation, is needed.

An undercover investigation by the UK branch of vegan animal welfare group Animal Equality captured video footage of fish being inadequately stunned with wooden priests (coshes) before slaughter. Although Animal Equality said it was “concerned about the very serious animal suffering that we witnessed on the Arnish slaughter site”, it kept the video under wraps for more than a year before releasing it in February 2021.

The survey for THL targeted 2,173 adults.

‘Fish feel pain’

Asked “Do you think that fish can feel pain?”, 67% of the people who took part said yes, 8% said no and 25% said they didn’t know.

Asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree that fish that should have the same legal protections as other farmed animals?”, 35% strongly agreed, 35% said they tend to agree, 9% said they tend to disagree, 4% strongly disagreed and 16% didn’t know. The net number (rounded up) of those who agreed was 71%.

Asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree that fish farming companies can be relied upon to protect fish welfare without legal requirements?”, 7% strongly agreed, 21% said they tend to agree, 28% said they tend to disagree, 19% strongly disagreed and 25% didn’t know. The net number of those who agreed that fish farming companies can be relied upon to protect fish welfare without legal requirements was 28%, while those who disagreed made up 47%.

Finally, asked “To what extent, if at all, is the welfare of the fish you buy to eat important to you?”, 22% said it was very important, 38% fairly important, 15% not very important, 5% not at all important and 8% didn’t know. The rest said it wasn’t applicable because they didn’t buy fish.

Petition

THL’s head of campaigns, Cordelia Britton, said: “Despite the scientific and public consensus that fish feel pain, they are still being excluded from crucial legislation. Fish must not be forgotten, and it is outrageous that the government is so behind the curve on this, entrusting the wellbeing of millions of animals to the whims of private industry.”

The group, which has started a petition to pressure MPs into changing the law, points out the world’s biggest salmon farmer, Norway, already has legislation regulating how fish are slaughtered.

It also argues that while certification schemes such as RSPCA Assured demand humane slaughter, any punishment for inadequate stunning isn’t strong enough because doesn’t feature legal repercussions.

THL also points to welfare abuses at a Test Valley Trout farm in Romsey, England, that led to it being withdrawn from the RSPCA  Assured scheme.

Best technology

Hamish Macdonell, strategic engagement director at fish farmers’ organisation Salmon Scotland, said producers were using the latest and best technology at slaughter.

He gave the example of Scottish Sea Farms, which uses an award-winning in-water stunner at its primary processing plant at South Shian. Stunning fish while they are still in the water reduces stress before slaughter. SSF also checks the adrenaline levels of four different sample batches of fish at different times during the unloading from a wellboat, to ensure stress levels remain low.