« Return to this article

Know the West

How should we treat fish before they end up on our plates?

Seafood harvesting is brutal — but it doesn’t have to be.


The “moon pool” under F/V Blue North’s deck minimizes the time that a fish is in stress before being stunned and killed.
Courtesy of Captain Mike Fitzgerald/Blue North

When, in 2016, the F/V Blue North ventured into the Bering Sea on her maiden voyage, onlookers in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, could have been forgiven for mistaking the sleek $40 million longliner for a yacht. The Blue North is perhaps the country’s highest-tech fishing boat, outfitted with fuel-efficient engines, automated freezers and cargo elevators. Its most radical feature, however, is its “stunner” — an electrified table that knocks cod unconscious with a direct current of around 35 volts.

On a typical long-lining boat, fish are hauled up over the side. Crewmembers impale each struggling cod with a gaffe, tear out the hook, and fling the creatures aside to bleed or suffocate. The Blue North’s lines, by contrast, emerge into a “moon pool,” an enclosed chamber that allows fishermen to control their catch rather than hurl it willy-nilly across the deck. Cod pass over the stun table within seconds of their arrival; only once a fish is insensate does a crewmember remove the hook and deliver the fatal cut.

It’s easy to forget, while gazing down at your spicy tuna roll, that fishing is a brutal business. Commercial fishers suffocate halibut, bleed out salmon and crush pollock in trawls. Since 1958, the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act has required that terrestrial livestock be rendered insensible to pain before death, but the law excludes fish. Now, however, one growing seafood company is beginning to consider the welfare of its catch — and, perhaps, fomenting a revolution in how we treat our finned brethren.

Commercial fishermen and recreational anglers — myself included — tend to justify our cruelty with comforting myths. Fish, according to conventional wisdom, are unfeeling loners with three-second memories and about as much interior life as kelp. That unkind stereotype, however, doesn’t withstand scientific scrutiny. Bluehead wrasse transmit culture across generations, groupers and eels cooperate, and cleanerfish appear to recognize themselves in mirrors. The axiom that fish don’t suffer pain — a claim based primarily on their lack of a cerebral cortex, the structure with which mammals process stimuli — is also belied by mounting evidence. In her 2010 book Do Fish Feel Pain?, Penn State biologist Victoria Braithwaite argued that “there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals — and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies.”

The F/V Blue North allows for the humane treatment of its catch by using high-tech features such as a stunner. The company hopes that welfare-related branding will catch on in the fishing industry.
Courtesy of Blue North Fisheries

Such findings haven’t ended the fish pain debate — indeed, it’s almost irresolvable, given that pain is a subjective experience as well as a physical response. Still, Mike Burns, the founder of Seattle-based Blue North Fisheries, gives his slippery quarry the benefit of the doubt. “Maybe they don’t feel pain — although I believe they do — but they certainly undergo stress,” Burns told me. “Just look how a fish acts when you take it out of water.”

Burns’s concern for piscine well-being arrived via a roundabout route. In 1994, Mike and his brother, Patrick, purchased a ranch in eastern Oregon to supplement their small commercial fishing business. As they boned up on the beef industry, they became acquainted with the work of Temple Grandin, the legendary Colorado State University animal scientist who revolutionized livestock treatment, developing, among other innovations, standards for pre-slaughter stunning and curved loading chutes to make cows’ final moments less stressful. The Burns brothers incorporated Grandin’s techniques on their ranch, then adapted her principles for fish when they designed the Blue North, their flagship.

“I think it’s a good approach,” Grandin told me. Rendering fish unconscious before slaughter, she says, is among the best steps fishermen can take to facilitate a humane death.

Although Grandin points out that inventors have filed dozens of patents for stunning devices, the Blue North is, so far as Burns knows, one of only two commercial boats in the world to use one. Fish welfare has progressed further in the aquaculture industry, particularly abroad. Some Canadian fish farms, for example, knock salmon out with a pneumatic hammer before slaughter. U.S.-based Humane Farm Animal Care, which has developed humane labels for land-based livestock, is currently working on fish farm protocols, although Mimi Stein, the nonprofit’s director, said they have yet to be implemented.

For wild-caught fish, market pressures may ultimately spur considerate killing; a survey released last fall suggested that half of American consumers are more likely to buy well-treated fish. At the moment, Burns said, Blue North’s “Humane Harvest” cod is sold at a handful of Seattle-area restaurants and markets, and, like organic produce, fetches a modest price premium. Still, real reform must come from seafood purveyors themselves, Grandin said. In 1999, McDonald’s, its public image singed by a legal battle with animal rights activists, hired her to overhaul its slaughterhouses. “I saw more change (then) than I had in a 25-year career prior to that,” Grandin said. The fish welfare revolution will have truly arrived when the Golden Arches and its ilk source their pollock sandwiches from boats that humanely kill their catch.

Ben Goldfarb lives in Spokane, Washington. A frequent contributor to High Country News, he is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018). Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.