Immerse yourself in the fascinating world of our underwater friends, and you’ll discover that fishes are more like us than you ever imagined.

Fishes are sentient animals – they have positive and negative emotions and experiences that matter to them. Fishes have sophisticated social structures and a range of complex social behaviours. They communicate with one another, show curiosity, and can learn from experience and observation. Contrary to popular belief, fishes have a long-term memory and are capable of tool use, altruism and multi-tasking.

Like all animals, fishes deserve to have the freedom to display their normal behaviour in a natural environment. They don’t deserve to be the target of sporting competitions, used as bait or to be raised in intensive farming operations.

It’s time to let them off the hook.

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Fishes in New Zealand

Fishes are exploited in many ways in New Zealand. Whether intensively farmed, commercially fished or individually caught, the welfare of fishes is often overlooked.

Many New Zealanders have grown up going fishing and have been conditioned to not consider the welfare of fishes in the same way as that of land animals. Fishes are usually pulled out of the water by a hook through their mouth and are often killed with a blow to the head, or simply left to suffocate on land as we would underwater.

Fishes are also affected by pollution. Oil spills, farm runoff and plastic waste in the ocean are all huge threats to fishes and their habitats.

“The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”

Dr Donald Broom, Emeritus Professor of Animal Welfare, Cambridge University

Fishes feel pain

Scientific research conclusively shows that fishes feel pain. Nociceptors are nerve-cell endings found throughout the bodies of humans and other animals and on the skin of fishes, which initiate the sensation of pain. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have studied the role of nociceptors in the behaviour of fishes in response to painful stimuli.

The researchers found that fishes learn to avoid unpleasant stimuli such as electric shocks and the piercing of their lips by sharp hooks. This suggested that fish behaviour was adversely affected by painful experiences and that these behavioural changes were not simple reflex responses.

Fish farming in New Zealand

Salmon farming is big business in New Zealand and is expected to expand in the coming years. Most farmed salmon is produced in marine environments in the Marlborough Sounds and Stewart Island. The species farmed in New Zealand is the non-native Chinook salmon, also known as King salmon.

The salmon are reared in land-based hatcheries and then transferred to sea cages or fresh-water farms, where they are fed a synthetic diet, fortified with fishmeal and fish oil. Around 50 percent of salmon farmed in New Zealand is exported, with Japan and Australia being the biggest markets.

Invasive farming methods

Salmon need to be regularly sorted by size and separated, as trapped bigger fishes will bully smaller fishes. This repetitive manipulation in fish farms is a significant cause of stress and pain for fishes. Other invasive practices include vaccinations, loading, transportation and breeding techniques in which the males are stripped of sperm and the females of eggs.

Farmed fishes can suffer high mortality rates from injury and disease, and they are also vulnerable to predators and other hazards. In one incident in 2010, thousands of fishes were killed when jellyfish floated into a salmon farm. Attacks from seals are also an issue on New Zealand fish farms.


In salmon farms, large numbers of fishes are crammed into unnaturally small spaces. Overcrowded cages deprive salmon of the freedom to swim long distances and the ability to carry out natural social behaviour. A fish three-quarters of a metre long can spend their entire life in a space the size of a bathtub. Physical injuries, abnormalities and blindness are common in farmed fishes. Keeping large numbers of fishes in crowded conditions also encourages the spread of infectious diseases and parasites such as sea lice.

Trawling the oceans

There are many types of commercial fishing, but by far the most destructive method is trawling. Trawling involves dragging huge nets through the ocean, scooping up everything in their path. This results in the wasted lives of many non-target species, who are thrown back into the sea, injured, dead or dying.

Bottom trawling is particularly destructive, as it involves dragging heavy nets across the seafloor. The nets destroy entire marine ecosystems, depriving many species of food and shelter. Bottom trawling is one of the most wasteful fishing methods, due to the high percentage of non-target species caught.

Longline fishing

Longline fishing is a commercial fishing method that uses a line with as many as 10,000 baited hooks. The technique is controversial, as it catches many non-target species as well as juveniles. Fishes caught in this way may suffer for lengthy periods before being pulled in or thrown back into the water, injured, dead or dying. Other marine animals, such as sharks, turtles, dolphins and sea birds get hooked and dragged behind the fishing boats, eventually drowning. It is estimated that 300,000 sea birds, including 100,000 albatross, die on long lines each year.

Bycatch and pollution from fishing

Non-target species caught in fishing nets are referred to as bycatch. Every year countless New Zealand animals, including sharks, turtles, dolphins, sea birds and sea lions, die needlessly as victims of bycatch or as a result of being caught in discarded fishing equipment. Some of these animals are endangered species, such as Hector’s and Māui dolphins, Antipodean albatross and yellow-eyed penguins.

A 2019 report by Greenpeace revealed that 640,000 tons of fishing gear is dumped into the ocean each year ‒ the equivalent in weight to more than 50 thousand double-decker buses.

This dangerous discarded fishing equipment is known as ‘ghost gear’ and is a significant contributor to the plastic rubbish in our oceans.

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As a charity, SAFE is reliant on the support of caring people like you to carry out our valuable work. Every gift goes towards providing education, undertaking research and campaigning for the benefit of all animals. SAFE is a registered charity in New Zealand (CC 40428). Contributions of $5 or more are tax-deductible.