Unkindly killing

The state of Maine has cleared a Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm of animal abuse, according to various reports, or at least the state has decided it can’t prosecute the company because its employees were stomping live fish and composting unwanted fry.

An animal rights group called Compassion Over Killing had provided the Animal Welfare Program of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry with a videotape of employees behaving badly.

The employees “sometimes composted fish fry while they were still alive,” reported Undercurrent News.

Compassion’s videotape also shows Cooke employees tossing about and stomping market-size adult salmon, a practice frowned upon in the salmon business everywhere because of the risk of leaving bruises on the salmon’s flesh, making filets unsightly, distasteful and unmarketable.

Once a common practice in Alaska commercial fisheries, the tossing of fish became unacceptable once production shifted from canning to fileting in the 49th state. What happened to a fish before it went into a can didn’t much matter, but appearances are important in the market for filets.

Compassion’s concern, however, is not with marketability.

“Our shocking video illuminates the truth of how these animals are forced to live,” the organization said. “Carelessly and cruelly handled, the way fish are treated would be considered unconscionable if they were a dog or even a bird. Despite having a similar ability to feel pain as mammals and other animals, fish do not receive the same protection or consideration.”

The group wanted charges levied against Cooke, the parent company of Icicle Seafoods, a well-known business in Alaska. Icicle got its start in Petersburg. It is now based in Seattle but maintains fish processing plants in Petersburg, Seward, Larsen Bay on Kodiak Island and Bristol Bay. 

It was Icicle that provided the “salmon prechewed by a bear” that the New York Times erroneously claimed former President Barak Obama ate while on his global-warming tour of Alaska in 2016. 

Whether Icicle/Cooke treats the wild fish it catches and kills any better than the farmed fish it raises and kills in an unknown.

A rat is a dog is a boy

What fish do and don’t feel is greatly debated.

A team of German neurobiologists, behavioral ecologists and fishery scientists who studied the issue early in the decade concluded that fish lack the “neuro-physiological capacity for a conscious awareness of pain,” Science Direct reported.

Fish certainly respond to stimuli, but the Germans argued they lack the ability to translate that into pain.

“Injuries stimulate what is known as nociceptors,” as Science described it. “These receptors send electrical signals through nerve-lines and the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex (neocortex). With full awareness, this is where they are processed into a sensation of pain.

“However, even severe injuries do not necessarily have to result in an experience of pain. As an emotional state, pain can…be intensified through engendering fear, and it can also be mentally constructed without any tissue damage. Conversely, any stimulation of the nociceptors can be unconsciously processed without the organism having an experience of pain. This principle is used in cases such as anesthesia.

“It is for this reason that pain research distinguishes between a conscious awareness of pain and an unconscious processing of impulses through nociception, the latter of which can also lead to complex hormonal reactions, behavioral responses as well as to learning avoidance reactions.”

There are, of course, those who argue otherwise and would contend the world would be appalled if Alaska salmon dipnetters on the beaches at the mouth of the Kenai River spent their July days beating dogs to death instead of salmon.

Hug a fish

“It is impossible to definitively know whether another creature’s subjective experience is like our own,” Ferris Jabr  of Hakai Magazine wrote in a story the Smithsonian last year headlined “It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain.”

But Jabr argued it’s irrelevant whether humans can document a fish’s feelings.

“We do not know whether cats, dogs, lab animals, chickens, and cattle feel pain the way we do,” he wrote, “yet we still afford them increasingly humane treatment and legal protections because they have demonstrated an ability to suffer.

“In the past 15 years, (Penn State University biologist Victoria) Braithwaite and other fish biologists around the world have produced substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain.

‘More and more people are willing to accept the facts,” he quoted Braithwaite saying. “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”

Whether “a kind of pain” is anything like what humans feel would seem to be the difference between an ache and a pain.

Jabr, however, claimed evidence of a new scientific consensus on the subject of fish pain pointing to 2013 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) “guidelines for the euthanasia of animals, which included the following statements: ‘Suggestions that finfish responses to pain merely represent simple reflexes have been refuted….the preponderance of accumulated evidence supports the position that finfish should be accorded the same considerations as terrestrial vertebrates in regard to relief from pain.”

The AVMA is an organization in the business of selling euthanasia services. It is unlikely to suggest people get rid of their tropical fish by flushing them down the toilet simply because that would be bad business.

“Yet this scientific consensus has not permeated public perception,” Jabr continued. “Google ‘do fish feel pain’ and you plunge yourself into a morass of conflicting messages. They don’t, says one headline. They do, says another. Other sources claim there’s a convoluted debate raging between scientists. In truth, that level of ambiguity and disagreement no longer exists in the scientific community. In 2016, University of Queensland professor Brian Key published an article titled “Why fish do not feel pain” in Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling. So far, Key’s article has provoked more than 40 responses from scientists around the world, almost all of whom reject his conclusions.”

Jabr’s references to “responses” appears to refer to other studies and articles linked at the bottom of Key’s abstract. Those are a mixed bag of science, philosophy and feelings.

“I argue that Key makes a number of conceptual, philosophical, and empirical errors that undermine his claim,” Robert C. Jones, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, argues in one.

Jones’ view is that the “precautionary principle” should apply, ie. people should presume fish feel pain just like we do barring proof that they don’t.

How exactly one would determine this is unclear. Unlike dogs, which whimper and cry when beaten, fish make no sound. Jabr dismissed this as irrelevant.

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“The thrust of (the) argument…that fish lack brains complex enough to generate a subjective experience of pain…that fish do not have the kind of large, dense, undulating cerebral cortices that humans, primates, and certain other mammals possess. The cortex, which envelops the rest of the brain like bark, is thought to be crucial for sensory perceptions and consciousness,” Jabr wrote.

“(But) the notion that fish do not have the cerebral complexity to feel pain is decidedly antiquated. Scientists agree that most, if not all, vertebrates (as well as some invertebrates) are conscious and that a cerebral cortex as swollen as our own is not a prerequisite for a subjective experience of the world. The planet contains a multitude of brains, dense and spongy, globular and elongated, as small as poppy seeds and as large as watermelons; different animal lineages have independently conjured similar mental abilities from very different neural machines. A mind does not have to be human to suffer.”

Authorities in Maine appear to have decided in the end that this great philosophical argument doesn’t matter to whatever was going on at Cooke because it was outside their regulatory purview given that Maine has no regulations governing the treatment of fish.

Maine lacks formal protocol for identifying or disseminating best management practices,” Seafood Source reported. Animal Welfare Division Director Liam Hughes told the website that he used Global Aquaculture Association’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) program standards to assess Cooke’s operation and expressed concern that hatchery facilities have not been designated for regulation to any branch of the Maine government.”

“The Department of Agriculture informed us on 8 November that they had closed the complaint, as we had made every effort to improve the standards of the facility,” CookeVice President of Public Relations Joel Richardson told the Source. “At this time, we are working with BAP to verify all corrective actions are in compliance with the BAP standards. We feel we have done what we needed to do with the state and are now working with our certification body.”

A relative newcomer on the animal rights front, Compassion says it has been “working to end animal abuse since 1995; COK exposes cruelty to farmed animals and promotes vegan eating. Our mission is to build a kinder world for all animals.”

On its website, it brags that its “groundbreaking work has been featured in: ABC News, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The New York Times (and) CNN.”

It is currently in the middle of a campaign to get iHop to add vegan pancakes to its menu and has convinced 14,916 people (as of this writing) to join a campaign to lobby food guru “Martha Stewart: Cut ties with cruel salmon and make a splash with vegan seafood!”

“True North Seafoods,” a Cooke company, has partnered with Stewart on her line of allegedly abused seafood.

A self-described “undercover investigator for Compassion Over Killing” writes that “during my time at the hatchery, I witnessed workers throwing improperly anesthetized fish across great distances. Sometimes they were thrown into another tank; other times, into waterless buckets, where they were left to either be crushed by others or suffocate to death. Imagine the horror if this violence were committed against any other animal, like a dog, cat, or chicken! 

“At Cooke, it was like a game to the workers as they attempted ‘trick shots’ and blocked each other’s tosses.

“I also frequently saw hatchery employees stomping on fish’s heads and slamming them against the ground multiple times in failed efforts to kill them. Often, they were left on the ground, still conscious and writhing in pain.”

The undercover operative, who identified as “Pat,” wrote that “fish are intelligent, sensitive animals who feel pain, stress, and fear just like other animals. Recently, researchers have found that they use tools and can recognize themselves in mirrors. Fish pain receptors are remarkably close to our own–likely from a shared common ancestor. Fish scientist Becca Franks says it best: ‘The science on fish sentience is clear: fish have the capacity to suffer and feel pain.’ Yet they are denied even very basic protections afforded to other animals.”

Franks, according to the Campbell Center for Animal Welfare, is “a visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University” with a PhD in social psychology from Columbia University who earned a doctorate at  “Killiam Postdoctoral Research Fellowship with the Animal Welfare Program at The University of British Columbia (where) her research…addressed issues at the intersection of animal welfare, motivation and personality.”

Franks believes that not enough has been done to investigate the “positive welfare” of fish.

“A life without positive experiences is not merely a neutral life, it’s a bad life,” she argued during a lecture. “It actually is bad if we don’t have positive experiences….animals want to engage in the world, and that is important to them as well.”

Or not.

What “is important” to animals other than humans is impossible to know. All science can conclude is that most animals (suicidal humans being among the few exceptions) want to survive because they are hardwired to do so.

This is an evolutionary dictate. Animals lacking a desire to survive would be destined to become quickly extinct. Thus all animals want to survive. Rats want to survive. Mosquitoes want to survive. Even viruses want to strive.

But it’s a big leap from there to the idea that any animals want to “engage in the world.”

















5 replies »

  1. If you’ve ever caught a salmon that has survived an attack by an eagle or a seal you will quickly understand that they do not feel pain the way we do. When their flesh has been laid open for over half of their body length and they continue to swim, there is no doubt. When half of their guts are outside of their body because of their wounds and they swim on their is no doubt they do not feel pain the way we do, human would be dead just from the shock to their system.

  2. John McPhee, in his 1970s Alaska-book Coming into the Country, relates a wildlife behavior incident that took place out on the frozen Yukon river, in front of downtown Eagle, with many witnesses. Mostly-frozen.

    There’s a pronounced little mountain just north of town, hard against the river and sharply changing its course. The boiling turbulence often keeps a spot of open water there.

    One day, folks noticed a group of 12-14 caribou loitering up on the little mountain, which was odd. Then they picked their way down the slope, walked alongside the downtown area to the river. ‘That was weird … but you ain’t seen nothing yet’.

    The deer single-filed out onto the ice, changed course slightly for the small open patch of swift-moving water … and jumped in, one by one, each being promptly swept under the ice, in turn. In full view of all the other caribou, and half of the astonished town of Eagle.

    McPhee goes out of character and looks into the camera. ‘How sure are you about that old saw that animals don’t commit suicide’?

  3. Looks like animal rights activists have also been active this month in Alberta, Canada at large commercial sled dog lots as well…
    The animal agricultural industry is gonna have its hands full of lawsuits in the years to come…not too mention “disruption” and video uploads of the toxic environment many animals are forced to endure to benefit the needs and mouths of “Man”.

    • Agi, they wouldn’t bat an eye. Now stepping on a fish, oh my…as Steve S. says, let the lawsuits begin.
      People are insane and should be treated as such.

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