Hide table of contents

I've been struggling with what "ethical" fish farming could look like. I have some friends who work at fish farms in East Africa and have tried to convince me that the farms are really quite good from an environmental and animal welfare perspective.

I thought this would be a good chance to clean up my beliefs about fish farming by pressure testing the question: "What would it take for me to be convinced that a fish farm was not unethical, and that it was fine to eat fish from it?"

Most of what I've been able to find, largely from FWI and this good Vox article, is that the downsides of fish farming are:

  • Fish feel pain when they are slaughtered without being stunned (e.g., killed slowly by cutting gills of frozen to death)
  • Fish suffer in crowded and polluted water
  • When fish feed comes from smaller fish, there are environmental impacts of wild-catching smaller fish for feed
  • Food is sometimes withheld before slaughter to empty the gut
  • “Under farming conditions, fish are often unable to express their natural behaviors. For instance, tilapia, a nesting species, are generally unable to form nests when raised in barren aquaculture tanks or ponds.”
  • As a result of being genetically engineered, fish may live generally more painful lives. And these engineered fish may also escape and cause havoc on the gene pool of wild fish

I'd be curious to get views from vegetarians on the forum: If there was a fish farm that systematically addressed all these concerns, would you feel comfortable eating fish from it? If not, are there other concerns that if added to the list and addressed, would satisfy you?




New Answer
New Comment
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Not an answer, but note that there are plausible theories that some kinds of fish might not suffer as much as others from the same conditions.

  • Some species of fish evolved in environments that become naturally clouded or turgid (river systems that dry up in parts of the year or have a lot of debris inflow in rainy seasons). 
  • Some fish may not have a lifecycle that involves migration, so they might not mind being in the same pond for a long time (as opposed to fish like salmon).
  • Also, some fish are probably OK living with large numbers of other fish.

I also think that slaughter can be done humanely. It is possible some kinds of slaughter don't inflict any suffering on the fish.


However, many of the traits above might be concentrated in species of fish that when farmed, have to live for very long periods of time, so suffering is larger. 

Also, none of the above might be true. I was thinking of river carp as not migrating, but actually they do, at least in one species.


I am cautious about writing this. But I think it is important to get a sense of animal experiences, which could differ a lot between species and be important in their suffering.

Yeah this uncertainty with regards to fish experience makes this really hard. I suppose this raises the bar in terms of what I would need to eat fish. We need to understand fish welfare better (for a given species) before we can confidently mitigate harm, likely erring on the side of not promoting fish farming until we’re confident we understand fish welfare for the given species of fish.

this might not be the sort of answer your expecting, but personally i think the mere act of killing a fish is bad. it does, after all, mean taking away everything that they have. so there are no welfare improvements that would make me consider eating fish.

(i'm posting this as a comment as it doesn't seem to give you, question-asker, any of the sort of information for which you're looking.)

Thanks for sharing! I haven't heard many (any?) people express this view so good to hear!

Most people don't care where their fish comes from. So I imagine that even if you eat a fish from a good farm, the person who would've otherwise eaten that fish will now buy some other fish which might come from a bad farm. Well, it's more complicated but you get the general idea, you increase the demand for fish and the question is how that extra demand will be fulfilled rather than where your particular fish comes from. I'm not sure to what degree this is actually the case. To make this argument formally, you'd have to look at cross elasticities of demand or some other economics stuff that I don't know about.

I'm also not sure how good farms can actually be right now when we don't seem to know that much about what is needed for each fish species to have good welfare right now (again, this is not my area, so please don't cite me on this). 

Also note that many farmed fish are carnivorous so other smaller fish are caught from the wild and killed to feed them. There is some suffering in how they are caught. E.g., those fish are left to suffocate in the air which is like maximally stressful for them, although it depends on species how long they are suffocating. Maybe most die quickly, I'm not sure. And they have to spend some time in really crowded nets. I don't know much about enviromental impacts of all this. But maybe it doesn't matter much because they can't catch any more of those fish from the ocean than they do now anyway so I'm not sure if the fish you would eat would change how many they catch.

Also, they are starting to farm insects to feed fish (to supplement protein from wild-caught fish which I think is currently limiting how fast fish farming can grow). Are insects sentient? Do they suffer in farm conditions? We don't know but I'd rather we didn't farm trillions of them just in case the answer to both questions is a yes.

Ah the elasticities is a good point! And the suffering of the smaller fish is also important. 


Elasticities is super interesting because something else I was considering was "would I be willing to work for a company like this". The elasticity is relevant in a pretty different way when I'm asking "should I eat this fish" vs. "should I work to expand the reach of this company that I think on balance treats fish well." There could be a scenario where I'm willing to work for the company but still not eat fish (that world is not this world though - I'm not convinced they treat fish that well)

Is there anything about this argument that is unique to fish? That is, you could almost as reasonably ask, "What cattle ranching practices would make you feel comfortable with eating beef?"

I myself am a pescatarian, largely because of an earlier belief that fish don't feel pain, from https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/12/11/acc-is-eating-meat-a-net-harm/ I no longer hold this belief as strongly, but cutting fish entirely from my diet would feel much more costly in terms of health and taste variety...

Nope, nothing unique to fish! I think it's also useful to think about this for other decisions, such as not eating beef, or not buying clothes made with child labor. I'm just most interested in fish specifically, because I've had a hard time finding as much discussion on fish farming vs other types of meat

Thanks for the SSC post - I'll check it out!

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities