Chris Packham: ‘The government has forgotten fish for decades – this World Fisheries Day, it’s time for that to stop’

What do you picture when you think of farmed animals? I think of chickens, pigs and cows, or maybe sheep. But farming has radically changed over the last fifty years, and other species of animals have become increasingly exploited out of sight, out of mind – far from the ‘fairytale farmyard’.

This World Fisheries Day I’d ask you not to forget these animals, animals like fish. Fish are the second most farmed animal in the UK after chickens. With up to 77 million of them slaughtered each year, we produce considerably more fish than all the pigs, cows and sheep combined. The species we farm most of are rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon. 

Like the majority of farmed animals, these fish are reared in overcrowded factory farms. Giant sea cages, hundreds of metres across, house tens of thousands of salmon. They circle around in huge shoals in an utterly barren environment, the lack of space leading to increased aggression and downright despair. 

In the wild these beautiful creatures swim thousands of miles over the open oceans but crammed into pens for two years at a time, plagues of carnivorous sea lice attack the salmon, literally eating them alive.

Millions die every year and it’s getting worse – 8.9 million salmon had died on farms by the end of July this year, the worst year on record. The water is often thick with excrement and half of the animals can’t hear, a defect caused by fast growth, selectively bred into these fish to maximise profit. If you wanted to design a hell for these sensitive, complex animals you’d be hard-pressed to compete with modern aquaculture. Oh, and yes, that old rubbish that ‘fish don’t feel pain’ is just that – rubbish.

Aquaculture now provides more fish to people than wild fishing and Scotland is the third biggest producer of salmon in the world. But the Scottish government isn’t happy with third place. They have plans to increase production to between 300 and 400 kilotons by 2030 — that’s well over 100 million miserable fish every year. Predictably, as the expansion of fish farming has proceeded unchecked, the welfare of the animals has worsened considerably. 

The neglect of farmed fish is a government policy, baked into the law itself. This is crystal clear when it comes to slaughter. This autumn the government’s own animal welfare committee published an opinion arguing the government must legislate to ensure that fish are stunned before slaughter and killed before regaining consciousness, that they should be killed in water or shortly after being removed from it, and that a back up stunning process must be available. 

But the committee has recommended many of these policies for the last 25 years, and for 25 years consecutive governments have ignored them. This needs to change. 

Slaughter can be a moment of pain and terror for any animal, which is why there are laws in place which require chickens, pigs and other animals to be stunned before the blade is pulled across their necks. But farmed fish have minimal protections. 

Stunning may be practised by the industry, but this is not a standard which should be left to the fish farmers themselves. There are no routine welfare inspections in fish slaughterhouses in the UK. In fact facilities where fish are killed in their thousands aren’t even considered slaughterhouses by the law and therefore escape requirements to contain CCTV, something this new opinion argues must change. 

All this is despite the fact that undercover investigations have exposed welfare abuses at the point of killing.

In a 2021 Animal Equality investigation into a Scottish salmon slaughterhouse fish were seen repeatedly clubbed in the wrong places by poorly trained staff, fish writhed on the floor as they gasped for breath, and had their gills cut with knives while they thrashed about, clearly still conscious. Fish might be very different animals to us, but not so different that we can’t recognise the suffering they endure when they are abused.

Viva! has uncovered similar horrors in English trout farms – we know industry standards get flaunted and yet we’re compelled to rely on the industry itself to report these breaches. Moreover, half of UK trout farming isn’t even covered by optional regulation schemes – that’s 6 million animals with no practical protection from harm.

This is why I am supporting The Humane League UK to fight for fish and to campaign for their basic protections at the point of slaughter. So please can I urge you all to sign their petition, and demand that the government act now to make a difference. If we do not stand up for these fish then millions more will be killed behind closed doors, mishandled, mistreated and left to die in agony. The wellbeing of our second most farmed animals is far too important to forget. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.