I cannot tell you the amount of times I tell a waiter or maitre de that I am vegan/vegetarian and they suggest I have the fish. I have also come across a large number of people who state they are vegetarian and then later mention they eat fish. That is not vegetarian, that is pescetarian! I have to have a little moan here and say how annoying I find it that people have such limited understanding of these diets – we have to understand religious dietary requirements such as halal, kosher etc and we have to react to allergies like gluten or nuts but not many people clearly recognise and respond to veganism and the offering to vegetarians is usually one menu choice or “everything but the meat” or as I say above they offer whatever fish option is available.

This got me thinking about fish and why a lot of people do not seem to see them as animals. Do they not feel pain? Do they not deserve a chance to live? Are they different to earth walking animals like cows and pigs?

Then by coincidence somebody emailed me via the Parliamentary Animal Welfare Group to raise the issue of fish welfare and directing me to www.fishorg.org.uk. At first I was not sure how big an issue this was until I read the brilliant information on this website and went on to do my own research. Now I think there is a reason to think about eating fish and to recognise that fish do need some protection. It is my belief that all sentient animals used for food deserve compassion, and killing should be as humane as possible and the sustainability must be ensured. I think we have globally failed to do this for fish.

So are fish different to earth walking animals – in the last 20 years, animal welfare science has developed into a scientific field in its own right, and the evidence for fish sentience has grown. A sentient animal has capacity to suffer fear, pain or distress as well as a sense of well-being. Evidence that fish are sentient has been sufficient to achieve international recognition that their welfare matters. So no, they are not so different from earth walking animals; fish too experience fear and pain.

Do fish feel pain? Well most commercially-caught wild fish, that are alive when landed, die either from being left to suffocate in air, or by a combination of suffocation and live dissection. Fish treated in this way may take several hours to lose consciousness. Sometimes fish are put onto ice as they suffocate, or into iced water which may both increase and prolong their suffering. They have nerves and they are sentient so yes they do feel pain and this is prolonged pain often with no stunning.

Do fish not deserve a chance to live? Currently the number of just wild fish, not including farmed, is very high compared with other species slaughtered for food with fishcount.org.uk estimating that the number killed annually is in the order of 1,000 billion. This compares with the 3 billion mammals, 57 billion birds and, at a rough estimate, 10-100 billion farmed fish slaughtered annually. Those are some seriously scary statistics! Additionally, many fish are caught wastefully and include the fish caught unintentionally as bycatch (wrong species or size) and are then thrown back into the sea, dead or dying. What this means is that fish are being caught too young and are not able to have any sort of life or to grow large which is needed  to maintain or rebuild fish populations. Even if you were to argue that fish did not deserve a chance to live a life full of swimming, eating and mating, then you at least need to acknowledge the need for them to live in order to be sustainable, to breed and ensure continuity.

Finally, what really struck me on the fishcount.org site was the point made that between a quarter and a third of fish capture, by tonnage, is caught for reduction to fish oil and fishmeal used largely for animal feed, mainly for farmed fish. So by eating fish you are sort of eating double fish and this is totally unsustainable.

So it is not fine to think that you can call yourself a vegetarian if you continue to eat fish. Of course, I would never just dismiss those who have cut out eating meat and still eat fish as they have done something good which they may have found really difficult. I applaud that but what I am saying is that the lines should not be blurred and we need to be clear that all living creatures experience pain and all living creatures deserve the recognition that they are sentient, not treated as secondary or unimportant because they live in the sea and not the earth.  The purchase and consumption of fish needs to be considered and thought about as much as any other meat.