On eating wild-caught fish

"The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" - Jeremy Bentham
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spindoctor
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On eating wild-caught fish

Post by spindoctor » Sun Aug 14, 2011 12:05 am

Most of us know Alan's invaluable Suffering Per Kilogram essay, which among other things points out that eating farmed salmon causes much more suffering per kilogram than beef or pork.

But what about the ethics of eating wild-caught fish? It seems to me this hinges on a number of other questions. Do they have net positive utility in the wild? Are their deaths by humans more or less painful than their otherwise natural deaths (from predation, starvation, disease)? At an ecosystem level, does the rapid decline in wild fish stocks due to overfishing provide a net gain in utility (fewer wild animals to suffer)? And are the fish we are eating predators of other fish, such that removing them may save prey from being eating?

Any thoughts?

rehoot
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Re: On eating wild-caught fish

Post by rehoot » Sun Aug 14, 2011 4:43 pm

Ocean fish are often captured with nets, put in a giant holding tank in the ship, and left to "suffocate" in the air. I have never died this way, so I don't know how it feels. I worked in a fish-packing plant on summer and saw the fish as they were unloaded from the ship. I think most, if not all, on the typical boat were dead as far as I can remember.

I suspect that there are more humane ways to kill fish at sea, and other types of fishing might kill the fish quickly (e.g., monk fish--the fishermen chop the heads off at sea because they are so big and waste storage space, but I'm not sure if it is done in a humane manner). I heard that some big Russian ships have freezers on board and can catch squid and freeze it as soon as they get it. I suppose that means being frozen alive in a flash-freezer at -40F (=-40C). Some fish are caught with hooks and fight for a long time (halibut, sword fish, sharks). Sometimes the fishermen hit them with clubs so they stop flopping around the deck, but I have seen big halibut that were just thrown into the cargo-hold with the other fish.

What would the suffering/kilo be if humans raised dinosaur-sized creatures that could regrow their tails as some lizards do? Humans could eat the tail (intermediate step toward in-vitro meat).

If I feel like I am going to break my diet, I prefer to eat seafood as opposed to meat.

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Brian Tomasik
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Re: On eating wild-caught fish

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sun Aug 14, 2011 7:37 pm

Thanks for those questions, spindoctor! I've often wondered many of the same things.

First, about slaughter. rehoot gave a great summary of what fish go through. (rehoot, it's awesome how much hands-on experience you've had with animals: You said previously that you lived near free-range cattle, and now I guess you've also worked with fish packing.)

I wrote most of the "Slaughter methods" section of the Wikipedia article on fish farming. I assume the same applies for wild fish. The articles cited in the footnotes are quite readable as well. Regarding ice baths:
Farmed fish are sometimes chilled on ice or submerged in near-freezing water. The purpose is to dampen muscle movements by the fish and to delay the onset of post-death decay. However, it does not necessarily reduce sensibility to pain; indeed, the chilling process has been shown to elevate cortisol. In addition, reduced body temperature extends the time before fish lose consciousness.
(Incidentally, contributing to Wikipedia is an excellent way to raise awareness of utilitarian issues, because those articles have such a wide readership.)
spindoctor wrote:Do they have net positive utility in the wild? Are their deaths by humans more or less painful than their otherwise natural deaths (from predation, starvation, disease)? At an ecosystem level, does the rapid decline in wild fish stocks due to overfishing provide a net gain in utility (fewer wild animals to suffer)? And are the fish we are eating predators of other fish, such that removing them may save prey from being eating?
I tend to assume that it's good to prevent the existence of wild fish (since their lives are short, and they have lots of offspring), but I'm not sure whether fishing (including overfishing) accomplishes that. Indeed, it's plausible that the opposite might be true. Here's an email from a friend:
I wrote to my friend about fishes:

When the population of fish in an area collapses because of overfishing, does the total number of fish decrease? At first, it seems that it would. But since humans catch only the big fish, maybe overfishing would make room for more small fish to live (there would be less competition for resources and fewer predators).

She replied:

I'm not 100% on your fish question, but I know that happens with sunfish in lakes. You end up having more small fish. Then there's sometimes a population boom which is also no good. The biggest problem with removing the big fish is that you're catching the reproducers. The problem with catching slightly smaller fish is that you're taking things before they even have a chance to reproduce.
In general, I would prefer to eat beef over wild-caught fish. There are lots of unknowns, but given my current knowledge, my expectation for the net effect of wild-caught fish is that it's negative.

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Brian Tomasik
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Re: On eating wild-caught fish

Post by Brian Tomasik » Fri Mar 09, 2012 5:17 am

Alison Mood's report on wild-caught fish, pages 76-77, confirms the idea that overfishing tends to increase numbers of small fish (thus, in my opinion, leading to more total wild-animal suffering). She cites a few reasons, including
  • Eliminating top carnivores means more smaller prey can survive and reproduce.
  • It's possible that fish evolve in response to fishing pressure to become smaller. This may have happened with the Pacific pink salmon in British Columbia and Alaska.

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Re: On eating wild-caught fish

Post by Brian Tomasik » Thu Nov 22, 2012 12:53 am

Discussion of wild-caught fish on Facebook.

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