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


Fish are sentient animals (meaning they are conscious), with sophisticated social structures and a range of complex social behaviours. Fish communicate with other fish, show curiosity and can learn from experience and observation. Contrary to popular belief, fish have a long-term memory and are capable of tool use, altruism and multitasking.

Like all animals, fish deserve to have the freedom to display their normal behaviour in a natural environment. They do not deserve to be the target of sporting competitions, used as bait or to be raised in an area the size of a bathtub in intensive farming operations.

It is time to let them off the hook.

Eat kind

Give fish a break and leave them off your plate

Check out these fish-friendly options and get ready to make a positive change for our underwater friends and for our oceans.

Fish in New Zealand

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

Many Kiwis have grown up going fishing and have been conditioned to not consider the welfare of fish in the same way as that of land animals. Fish 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.

Fish are also affected by pollution. Oil spills, farm runoff and plastic waste in the ocean are all huge threats to fish.

“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

Fish feel pain

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

The researchers found that fish 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

Fish farming, particularly salmon farming, is big business in New Zealand and is set to expand considerably. Most salmon farmed in New Zealand is produced by salt-water operations in the Marlborough Sounds and around Stewart Island.

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

Invasive farming methods

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

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


In salmon farms, large numbers of fish 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 its entire life in a space the size of a bathtub. Physical injuries, abnormalities and blindness are common in farmed fish. Keeping large numbers of fish in crowded conditions also encourages the spread of infectious diseases and pests, especially 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 which 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.

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, penguins and even sea lions, die needlessly as victims of bycatch or as a result of being caught in discarded fishing equipment. Some of the victims 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.