Animal Equality fights for farmed fish

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In this exclusive interview, hear from Animal Equality’s Executive Director in the UK–Abigail Penny–as she recounts the highs and lows of her fight for farmed fish.

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Q: Why has Animal Equality in the UK chosen to focus on farmed fish?

A: In the UK, up to 77 million fish are farmed and slaughtered for human consumption each year. The majority of those animals are Atlantic salmon. 

These migratory fish would swim for hundreds of miles in the wild, but they’re forced to live in crowded, underwater cages that act as a hotbed for lice infestations and disease outbreaks. Millions die before they even reach slaughter, and for those who do, there are so few legal protections in place that they face the very real prospect of being beaten to death or slowly suffocating.

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Q: Fish are perhaps one of the least understood animals on the planet. Why do you think that is, and how can we increase empathy for suffering fish?

A: Fish are among the most neglected animals on the planet and are also seriously misunderstood. Overwhelming scientific consensus and a body of expert evidence prove that these animals feel pain and can suffer. It’s our duty to defend those trapped in this cruel system, hold the aquaculture industry accountable for its crimes, and fight for future generations of fish.

Just like any other animal, the slaughter of fish is bloody and brutal. In the UK, our investigations have shown farmed fish being bludgeoned to death, having their gills cut while conscious, and bleeding out while still alive. These horrific scenes resonate with the British public–a nation of animal lovers–and we’re seeing a serious backlash against the farmed fish industry as a result of our work.

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As our campaign continues to gain momentum and garner extensive media attention–having been featured in The Guardian, The Times, BBC Countryfile, The Mirror and more–empathy towards these animals is rapidly growing too. Millions have seen footage that we have shared showing the plight of farmed fish.

Nobody enjoys seeing fish being eaten alive by lice or suffering from red, raw wounds, and we’ve been delighted to find that many people are boycotting fish products as a sign of consumer protest.

Fish in a aquatic factory farm


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Q: Animal Equality in the UK has conducted multiple investigations of the fishing industry. Is there a particular one that stands out to you? Why?

A: Having personally visited Scotland to expose the horrors that take place within these fish factories, I am enormously proud of the consistently pioneering and creative approach that our team takes to investigative work. 

Using drones, we captured evidence of farmed trout and salmon suffering immensely on Scottish slaughter boats on accredited farms. Some fish were left to asphyxiate in an empty bucket; many entered the stun-kill machinery backward, while others were violently thrown overboard by workers. These chaotic moments are emblematic of an industry that is poorly monitored and poorly regulated.

Q: If you could share just one fact about the fishing industry with our audience, what would it be?

A: When we imagine Atlantic salmon, we typically envisage them courageously swimming upstream, their silvery scales glistening in the sunlight. In reality, the farmed fish flesh being sold in UK supermarkets is nearly all from fish factories, and this has been the case since 1982. These nightmarish facilities confine naturally migratory animals inside crowded underwater cages that act as a breeding ground for lice infestations and disease outbreaks.

The farmed salmon industry is well aware that the negative connotations linked to intensive farming are damaging to their brand image, so in a particularly outrageous move, the industry is now attempting to remove the word ‘farmed’ from labels. Animal Equality is fighting hard against this, concerned that this would inevitably mislead consumers.

What many people are unaware of are so-called ‘cleanerfish.’ These sweet animals are exploited in the cruelest way by the animal agriculture industry. In the wild, ‘cleanerfish’–lumpfish and wrasse fish species–hold a symbiotic relationship with salmon; they will eat any lice off of the salmon and, in return, the salmon will not predate upon them. The aquaculture industry abuses this natural relationship, with most major salmon producers confining millions of ‘cleanerfish’ inside the fish farms; however, lice infestations are so rife that the animals are unable to prevent the outbreaks and, over time, many are eaten by the salmon, with nowhere to escape. This is an industry that goes to great lengths to line its pockets with profits, with these animals paying the ultimate price in return.

Q: How has the fishing industry deflected responsibility for its rising mortality rates? 

A: Thanks to an exposé from Animal Equality and our activist peers in the UK, we revealed that 16.7 million fish died on farms in 2022; tragically, 2023 figures surpassed this, with over 17 million reported salmon deaths on Scottish farms. This data marks the highest recorded death rates ever on record in the UK.

Tensions too have risen, thanks to Animal Equality’s work. Members of the Scottish Parliament have demanded an inquest into the industry, and high-profile conservationist Chris Packham has called for consumers to boycott salmon products. For their failure to curb this serious problem, companies are seeing a loss of revenue, and investors are becoming rightly and increasingly concerned.

These giant companies have the audacity to play the victim, but it is the aquatic animals who are the true victims. Millions of farmed fish are dying every month under their watch, paying for this staggering corporate failure with their lives.

Animal Equality’s exposés continue to prove critical in encouraging the public to reduce or eliminate fish flesh from their diet, and also to mobilize them to take action and call on the UK Government to use its power to properly legislate.

Q: This January, you met at the UK Parliament for a second time for a roundtable discussion with retailers, industry experts, lawyers, and fellow animal advocates. What were your top demands and how were they received?

A: As I entered Parliament, I reminded myself that I was there to speak on behalf of the millions of aquatic animals who are currently trapped inside floating factory farms. I spoke passionately and proudly of our investigative findings, of the need for increased oversight and regulation of the aquaculture industry, and for species-specific laws to be enacted for farmed fish at the time of killing. 

2024 discussions at the UK Parliament
2024 discussions at the UK Parliament

Based on science-based recommendations, we are calling for mandatory CCTV in fish abattoirs, mandatory stunning, increased penalties for those found to be flouting the regulations, and heightened transparency when it comes to on-farm deaths. Our demands were heard loud and clear by the influential politicians and decision-makers in the room, and we continue to meet with them regularly to ensure that our requests are locked into law.

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