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Illustrated portrait of Catalina Lopez Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Catalina Lopez is fighting the horrors of fish farming

Fish are often overlooked in animal welfare debates. Lopez is trying to change that.

Marina Bolotnikova is a deputy editor for Vox’s Future Perfect section. Before joining Vox, she reported on factory farming for national outlets including the Guardian, the Intercept, and elsewhere.

When we talk about factory farming, we’re usually talking about land animals like cows, pigs, and chickens. But fish are intensively farmed, too, in terrible conditions often described as “underwater factory farms.”

Few people are doing more to transform the treatment of farmed fish than Catalina Lopez, the Mexico City-based director of the Aquatic Animal Alliance, a project of the Aquatic Life Institute (ALI). Lopez, who joined ALI in 2021, is a leader at the forefront of a growing global movement for fish welfare that is finally getting its due.

Of the billions of animals that suffer and die in the global food system, fish are by far the most numerous — and the most neglected. While humans slaughter an already mind-boggling 80 billion land animals every year, the number of fish and shrimp killed for food — both directly consumed by humans and fed to factory-farmed fish — likely dwarfs that total by at least tenfold.

Because fish are so different from us, they’re still widely misunderstood as lacking intelligence or even a subjective experience. But “scientists have amassed evidence over the past 20 years that fish are sentient — that they feel pain, experience emotions, and engage in complex social behavior that we once thought was limited to humans and land animals — upending decades of received wisdom that they don’t matter morally because they can’t really suffer,” as Vox contributor Garrison Lovely put it.

ALI pushes “sustainable” and “responsible” seafood certification labels to include meaningful standards for animal welfare — a strategy that has proven effective in welfare advocacy for farmed land animals. It won a major early victory toward that end in 2020 (the year after its founding), when GlobalGAP, a certifier of seafood that impacts the lives of about 2 billion aquatic animals annually, agreed to implement welfare standards recommended by ALI and a coalition of other animal welfare organizations, including, for example, banning the gruesome practice of cutting off female shrimps’ eyestalks to induce fertility.

ALI formalized that coalition under the Aquatic Animal Alliance, comprising dozens of animal advocacy groups working to implement strong welfare standards for farmed fish around the world. Under Lopez’s leadership, the alliance coordinates fish advocacy among this wide swath of groups to help set common welfare standards because, as ALI puts it, “if multiple organizations [independently] ask certifiers, labeling regimes, and producers for many different standards, the effect may be that the lowest ask is what gets enshrined in the standards.”

ALI also advocates for policy proposals on fish welfare — currently a major blind spot in livestock welfare legislation, which primarily covers land animals. The group has recommended including fish among the animals protected by European Union humane slaughter laws, for example, so that fish are stunned before slaughter rather than suffocated to death or cut open while still alive. It’s also campaigning to ban the farming of octopus, a species known to be highly intelligent, for food and to head off a planned octopus factory farm in Spain’s Canary Islands, thereby stopping an industry with the potential to become morally catastrophic before it becomes entrenched.

Before ALI, Lopez led corporate engagement at Mercy for Animals’s Latin America division, a region where, as Vox’s Kenny Torrella put it, “the future of animal welfare will be decided.” In that role, Lopez persuaded more than 100 corporations to commit to sourcing eggs produced without confining hens in tiny cages. She has a reputation for getting things done on problems that feel overwhelming or intractable.

However bleak life is for land animals confined on factory farms — and it is extraordinarily bleak — the lives of farmed fish may be even worse. Yet these creatures have long been an afterthought even within the movement against factory farming. Thanks to advocates like Lopez, the animal movement is finally learning to see them.

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