Scientists and academics have called for CCTV to be installed in fish slaughterhouses following the emergence of footage showing alleged animal welfare breaches at a Scots-based company supplying Waitrose with salmon.
In an open letter to the UK’s Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) — which advises the Scottish Government on welfare issues — the 25 signatories have also called for “regular, frequent, and unannounced inspections” at fish slaughterhouses in Scotland and across the rest of the UK.
The letter was coordinated by campaign group, Animal Equality, which earlier this year released footage secretly filmed in 2019, at a premises run by The Scottish Salmon Company (TSSC) as part of an investigation. It showed fish having their gills cut while still conscious and being clubbed by workers and left to asphyxiate on the ground.
The letter to the AWC cites the covert footage, filmed at Arnish, on the Isle of Lewis, and points out that fish suffer pain and should be treated in the same way as cattle and sheep, regarding welfare issues. It also argues that “lapses in implementation” of welfare standards can cause “animal suffering on a catastrophic scale”.
In reply TSSC said the “historic edited film shows an isolated activity” that does not represent how the firm operates in relation to animal welfare. Waitrose said it immediately launched an investigation after seeing the video and suspended supplies from TSSC’s site.
The supermarket added it later agreed to the company’s improvement plan before reinstating the Arnish site for supply in March 2021.
The open letter has been signed by academics, scientists and researchers. They include David Bilchitz, professor of law at Reading University, Dr Lynne Sneddon, an aquatic animal expert at the University of Gothenburg, and Dr Jonathan Balcombe, author of New York Times bestseller, ‘What a Fish Knows’.
The letter claims Animal Equality’s footage at TSSC demonstrates there is “critical need both for increased legislation for aquatic animals and ongoing, third-party oversight”.
It says: “There is growing recognition within the global scientific community that fish, cephalopods (eg squid) and decapods (eg crabs) are able to experience pleasure and pain, like cows, pigs, chickens and other farmed land animals who receive detailed welfare protections at the time of killing.
“In February 2021, animal protection organisation, Animal Equality, released footage captured during a covert investigation into a salmon slaughterhouse operated by major producer, The Scottish Salmon Company.
“Despite a stun-kill device being in place in the facility, the investigation revealed significant numbers of salmon showing signs of consciousness at the time of killing, as verified by world-leading aquatic animal scientists and veterinarians.
The letter calls for aquatic animal slaughter facilities to be held to the same legal standard as farmed land animal abattoirs, and for CCTV to be made mandatory.
“With a heavy reliance on opt-in certification schemes, and a lack of governmental oversight, aquatic animals are being seriously let down. Please, use your power to change this,” the letter says, calling on urgent action by governments.
Dr Lynne Sneddon said: “Had Animal Equality not carried out an investigation into the industry, I very much doubt the suffering of these particular aquatic animals would have ever come to light. We should not be relying on non-profits to carry out what is essentially a public service .
“It’s the UK Government’s duty to protect the animals killed for human consumption and, currently, it is failing to carry out this basic duty of care. Specific, meaningful legislation is a critical part of the puzzle, and equally so is heightened enforcement and oversight.”
A spokesperson for The Scottish Salmon Company said: “Fish health and welfare is fundamental to responsible salmon farming and intrinsic to our operations. The historic edited film shows an isolated activity at our Northern harvest station that does not align with our stringent welfare code of practice, and is in no way representative of the operations of the company.
The company added: “We comply with all relevant regulation and are subject to strict, regular audits from third party accreditation providers to meet globally-leading animal welfare standards.”
Waitrose said that animal welfare is “vital to us” and that it would “fully support any move to implement increased announced and unannounced inspections of harvest units” by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).
A company spokesperson said: “We were made aware of this film in February this year and launched an immediate investigation. Since then the site featured in this film has undergone rigorous animal welfare assessments – not only by ourselves but also from independent auditors including the RSPCA and APHA themselves.
The spokesperson added: “We suspended the site from supply while these investigations were undertaken, ensured that any issues were put right and agreed the company’s own detailed improvement plan before reinstating the site for supply in March 2021.
“Although our investigation showed this is historic footage from 2019, we continue to monitor this site closely to ensure the high standards we demand are being upheld.”
A spokesperson for Salmon Scotland said: “It is our aim to be world leading, not just in the welfare of fish while they are being raised on our farms, but through the slaughter process too.
“That is why, not only are all salmon farmed in Scotland stunned before slaughter, but our members are constantly looking to refine and improve the process.”
The AWC was asked to comment.