• Becci Pigeon

Fish suffering at major Scottish slaughterhouse

A few weeks ago, Animal Equality released new footage taken at a salmon slaughterhouse operated by The Scottish Salmon Company, which supplies major UK supermarkets as well as many international retailers. Their investigation revealed fish clearly conscious and suffering after a failed stunning, being clubbed multiple times, having their gills torn by workers' fingers and being thrown to the floor to suffocate, among many other abuses.

'A significant number of salmon are clearly conscious when their gills are cut, which could result in extreme pain for as long as seven minutes.' (Mark Borthwick, Head of Research at the Aquatic Life Institute)

You can watch the footage below. This is far from the first animal abuse controversy for the Scottish salmon farming industry, however...

Despite claiming to be being environmentally sustainable, the salmon farming industry is anything but. (First, let's note that in the case of carnivorous fish like salmon, it takes three to four pounds of wild-caught fish meal to produce just one pound of farmed fish!) More than 200 farms in Scotland and the Northern Isles contain hundreds of thousands of these fish, who swim around in enclosed pens, fed processed foods and medicines in an attempt to curb the constant threat of parasitic sea lice and diseases.

A startling 9.5 million salmon--or a full 20%--die in these pens every year, the most common cause being illness: amoebic gill disease, salmon gill pox virus, proliferative gill disease, cardiomyopathy syndrome, pancreas disease, anaemia and fungus. In 2018, Marine Scotland, responsible for monitoring the welfare of farmed fish, visited Vacasay, a farm on Loch Roag, and rated parasite growth as 'satisfactory'. Inspection reports seen by the BBC, however, had showed significant lice damage to fish, so two weeks later, photographer Corin Smith went out for another look to film above and inside the pens and discovered a severe sea lice infestation.

'...what I saw was an incident of severe sea lice infestation, and the fish were being essentially eaten alive by the parasites. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, I couldn't believe the numbers and the damage.'

When these photos became public, inspectors Marine Scotland returned within days. This time, they reported high levels of the parasite and four farms were sent warning letters. They claimed that sea lice grow quickly and boasted that the problem was already under control.

As said previously, this is far from the only instance of cruelty; in June 2019, Don Staniford of Scottish Salmon Watch filmed in three farms in Loch Shieldaig. He filed a welfare complaint for what he saw, lice-infested cages with 'salmon gasping for air at the surface and covered in white lesions with visible damage to snouts, eyes, tails, fins and flanks...Such damage has occurred over a sustained period and has not just happened overnight – this is clearly as case of prolonged suffering and months of ongoing agony.' Upon seeing the footage, Compassion in World Farming backed his complaint; chief executive Philip Lymbery described himself as 'shocked anew', despite having worked on fish welfare issues for 30 years. '[This] reinforces my view that industrial salmon rearing is little more than factory farming at sea. Confined in vast numbers, these natural ocean wanderers have little choice but to swim in small circles liked caged tigers, all too often becoming diseased, riddled with parasites and wearing themselves sore in the process.”

And the latest numbers are even worse: more than ten million fish died prematurely in 2019, higher than in any previous year but part of a larger pattern of increasing death rates in fish farms. (The salmon fishing industry responded to this pattern, incidentally, by no longer reporting these numbers routinely as they had been, complaining that doing so was damaging their business.) 70% of these farms are certified 'RSPCA Assured', but their salmon standard advisory boards are staffed mainly by figures from the aquaculture industry itself--a clear conflict of interest. (Learn more about why 'RSPCA Assured' isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

All this disease and suffering affects more than just the caged salmon. Wild salmon, too, whose numbers continue to drop despite no longer being commercially fished, swim through the same waters as their caged counterparts. This decline is attributed in part to climate change, but fish farms are another culprit: as wild fish swim past and around them, they can pick up the infectious diseases and pathogens that kill so many farmed fish prematurely, as well as sea lice--and they do. In 2018, biologist Paul Hopper was alerted to an epidemic of dead and dying salmon making their way back to their spawning grounds in the Outer Hebrides. While wild fish always have 'background levels' of sea lice, Hopper explained, an epidemic like this in a wild population was 'really quite unusual'. The dead fish were found close to several fish farms on Loch Roag. (source)

It isn't just the fish who suffer: the seabed does too. David Ainsley is a marine biologist and a diver. By 2019 he had filmed the seabeds next to a Loch Shuna fish farm for eight years. Only fellow divers are aware of how bad the damage is, he reported: 'We found large areas of bacterial mat, we found lots of dead things on the seabed. In fact, there's very little left alive.' This should come as no surprise: fish farms use a great deal of chemicals and produce an enormous amount of food waste and faecal matter, all of which falls to the seabed below. According to marine ecologist Dr Sally Campbell, '...most people who choose salmon off their supermarket shelves have no idea of the waste that's going into our marine environment as a result of that. And they would be appalled.'

Check out our page on fish for more info--and if you haven't already included fish in your circle of compassion, it's time to do so! In fact, vegan seafood is predicted to be the next plant-based trend (see here and here). And just check out a few of these lovely fish and ocean-friendly recipes!

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