This past July, Andrew Tsui, a lawyer living in suburban Maryland, invited me and Vox podcast producer Byrd Pinkerton to his house to kill some fish.
Andrew had caught several (maybe seven or eight) white perch, a common small fish in the mid-Atlantic US. They were silver, maybe as long as my hand or a bit longer, and swimming in a cramped cooler that Andrew had placed them in post-catch. He’d done the actual fishing, and now it was our job to do the actual killing.
Most fish die a pretty horrible death: after fishermen catch them, they’re thrown on a hard surface (like a bag of ice) and left to slowly suffocate to death out of water. They thrash violently, beating their bodies against that surface in a struggle to breathe, bloodying themselves in the process.
And contrary to popular belief, there’s good reason to think that fish feel pain or something like it. Their bodies create opioids to fight pain, which also happens in humans and other mammals. Administering morphine to rainbow trout changes their behavior, suggesting that they feel pain, and a common human painkiller works to fight it.
Fish’s capacity to feel pain jumbles our thinking on animal welfare considerably. Many if not most animal activists focus on factory farming, which is undoubtedly a huge problem, killing about 9.2 billion animals in the US in 2015 alone.
While data on fish deaths is less reliable, a recent paper surveyed estimates of fish killed for US food every year of between 14.3 billion and 128.9 billion (a wide spread, to be sure); the numbers get even higher if you count shellfish. Even the lower-end estimate is nearly twice the number of chickens slaughtered every year in the US.
That suggests that reducing fish consumption should be very important to you, if you care about animal welfare. But it’s also worth thinking about better, more humane ways to kill fish than leaving them to suffocate slowly and painfully.
Andrew Tsui invited Byrd and me over to show one method, called ikejime. Japanese in origin, and used by gourmet sushi restaurants, ikejime requires stabbing or bludgeoning fish in the head to make them braindead, bleeding them out, and destroying their spinal cord with a metal rod.
It’s not just less painful for the fish. Tsui argues that it makes the fish meat more delicious. When fish suffocate, they flood their bodies with lactic acid and other chemicals, which sour the meat and produces that distinct “fishy” odor that most of us loathe. Ikejime prevents that, producing better, tastier, longer-lasting meat that’s closer to a fine steak than to the salmon you’d buy in most grocery stores.
I’m a vegetarian, so you shouldn’t trust my judgment, but noted carnivore Byrd Pinkerton said the fish Andrew ikejime-ed was the best she’d ever tasted.
- Cat Ferguson’s feature in Topic on Andrew Tsui and ikejime
- Ferris Jabr reviews the evidence that fish feel pain in Hakai Magazine
- Max Elder and Bob Fischer argue effective altruists should take fish pain more seriously
- Ikejime demonstrated by a chef at Go, a Japanese sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills
- More of Vox’s effective altruism coverage
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