Inspiring Action For Farmed Fishes

An Interview with Maddy Dawe from the Humane League UK

Feature image credit: Christel SAGNIEZ


Fish are the most consumed yet overlooked victims of factory farming. Even as I write this introduction, I am unable to accurately represent the number of fish that are killed each year for food. Why? Because the aquaculture industry does not count fish by individual lives, but by tonnage. But, if we do the math, the tonnage equates to roughly 3 trillion individual fish slaughtered each year for human consumption.

These trillions of animals live in an ethical grey area: they are often considered inferior in their ability to think and suffer. As a result, they are afforded very few animal welfare protections. Approximately, fifty percent of fish used for human consumption come from industrialised farming operations, where fish live in cramped and overpopulated spaces, rife with disease and parasites, and are killed in shocking and inhumane ways.

But, the tide may be turning. Recently, organisations like Compassion in World Farming and Animals Australia have begun exposing the fish farming industry for what it is. And, in a recent report published by The Humane League UK, researchers have been asking how we can motivate the public to feel compassion towards and take action for the plight of fish. Eager to know the answer, Jared and I spoke with Maddy Dawe, a campaigner at The Humane League UK. Here is what she had to say.


Maddy, could you briefly introduce yourself for our readers?

I’m Maddy, and I’m a campaigner at the charity The Humane League UK. THL UK exists to end the abuse of animals raised for food – we do this by running impactful corporate and legislative campaigns. Our work is focused on chicken and fish welfare, given that these two species are farmed in the highest numbers and suffer from some of the worst welfare issues associated with factory farming. I’ve been working at THL UK for almost two years now and it’s been eye-opening, challenging and rewarding – no two days are the same here!

You and your colleagues over at The Humane League UK have recently published a new report entitled “Inspiring Action For Farmed Fishes: Finding Messaging that Motivates”. What was the inspiration for this research?

At THL UK, we seek to help the animals that are rendered most vulnerable by the intensive farming system. There are currently around 77 million fishes farmed in the UK, predominantly salmon and trout, and this number is only growing. However, despite the large size of the aquaculture industry and the sheer amount of individual fishes involved, the majority of the public has a limited understanding of fish farming, with many people not even knowing it exists at all. We wanted to set about helping fishes because, sadly, intensive fish farming is rife with welfare issues. Therefore, we needed to find out how to speak to our audience, and other potential audiences, about farmed fish welfare — how to do this in a way that not only inspires them to care about fishes, but motivates them to take action too.

While much work has been done to advance the position of farmed land animals, fish have often been neglected. Why do you think this is?

I think that unfortunately, at the moment, fishes are quite low in priority for most people – even those who are concerned with animal welfare. People struggle to relate to fishes – they don’t express emotion in the same way that we do and they look quite alien to us. It’s been said that humans relate more to animals with eyelashes, which goes some way to explain why animals like cows and pigs have been the priority for welfare campaigns in the past. Then you add in the factor that fishes are generally “out of sight, out of mind”. They live in this underwater world that most people rarely see, and can even find a bit scary. This is not to mention the prevalent myths around fishes not feeling pain, or the goldfish three-second memory – both of which have been debunked!

If you then consider the fact that the concept of farming fish is unfamiliar to large parts of the public, you can start to understand why fish welfare has long gone under the radar.

Can you give a brief overview of the research you did on Farmed Fishes and what you found?

“People struggle to relate to fishes…they live in an underwater world that most people rarely see.” Photo credit: Sebastian Pena Lambarri

Once we had identified the need to understand how the public views issues relating to fish farming and, most notably, what will motivate them to take action, we embarked on our study. We commissioned two research projects, working with the UK research agency KSBR Brand Futures and Rethink Priorities, a California-based think tank. The first piece of research took place in Autumn 2020 and involved testing various fish welfare messages (visual and written) on a series of focus groups. The second piece of research, conducted in spring 2021, was a survey completed by 8,000 UK participants, which tested different written messages.

Our findings revealed that in order to have the greatest effect, messaging on fish welfare should be tailored to different audiences. We identified three potential messaging routes that each resonated with a specific section of UK society. These were: emphasising the disgusting elements of fish farming; challenging unconscious biases by demonstrating that fishes suffer much like land animals but are treated even worse, and stating that a named corporation is contributing to the suffering of farmed fishes and is deceiving its customers about the fact.

The report recommends emphasising the “disgusting” elements of fish farming to change attitudes. Do you see this “disgust” strategy as more likely to be effective than, for example, educating the public about the clever things fish can do?

The findings of the research showed that, for all audiences, emphasising the ‘disgusting’ elements of fish farming resonated and motivated them to take action. This refers to anything that provokes a revolted, stomach-churning response, such as images of sea lice on the bodies of salmon at the fish counter (something that has been documented). I think that ultimately, no one wants to be repulsed by the food that ends up on their plate, and therefore arguments that focus on human-centric issues are always likely to be more successful. If animal groups want to engage people outside of their usual audiences, particularly those who wouldn’t usually be motivated by farmed animal welfare concerns, linking fish welfare to food quality could be effective. 

It is true that people in our research were not highly motivated by messages around fish sentience or fishes’ amazing abilities. However, I don’t feel too disheartened by this. The topic of fish welfare, in the grand scheme of things, is so new to people – it’s too soon to expect the masses to care about fish sentience. If we can bring people in with the right messaging, such as the disgusting aspects of fish farming or comparing the treatment of fishes to other farmed animals, then perhaps they can start on the journey to learning more about fishes and why they need our help. This might be optimistic, but we’ve seen the public’s thinking shift for other farmed animals, so I’m hopeful that it can eventually be done for fishes too. 

The findings of the research showed that, for all audiences, emphasising the ‘disgusting’ elements of fish farming resonated and motivated them to take action.

You recommend the use of tailored messaging to target different groups of consumers: ‘conscious eaters’, ‘anti-corporate vegans’, and ‘uncritical eaters’. Do you have thoughts on how advocates can effectively identify and target these three groups?

This is a great question, as we really hope that advocates can take the findings of our research and apply them in real-world situations. Here’s a description of the ‘stereotype’ for each of these three audiences:

1. The conscious eater

This group includes people who have reduced their meat intake or removed it from their diets (vegetarians, flexitarians, pescetarians). A defining characteristic of this audience is that they aim to consume more ethically. They are in the process of educating themselves on ethical and sustainable living and are receptive to being educated further. They are generally optimistic that they can make a difference. When it comes to fishes, the conscious eater may have a blind spot – they might have assumed that fishes are acceptable to eat, or that they are less of a concern than other farmed animals. When this bias is challenged, they are open to reevaluating their thinking and can get behind fish welfare causes.

2. The anti-corporate vegan

As the name may suggest, the anti-corporate vegan is more ideologically motivated and interested in proselytising on behalf of veganism. They believe that eating fish is wrong for many reasons but most importantly from an animal welfare standpoint. Many anti-corporate vegans do not know how cruel fish farming is – the state of intensive aquaculture is generally news to them. However, when they discover these facts, they are not overly surprised; they assume aquafarming would be awful because they believe all factory farming is awful. The facts serve to reinforce their decision to be vegan. They want to act on things that matter the most and, at present, this may be the welfare of other species such as cows, pigs, or maybe even chickens. We must persuade them that fish farming is urgent and needs our attention.

3. The uncritical eater

‘Uncritical eaters’ present the most challenges when it comes to communicating on farmed fish welfare issues – or any animal welfare issue at all, for that fact. The uncritical eater consumes meat and fish and, perhaps most importantly, is actively trying to avoid information that would make them change their diet. It is worth noting that this group includes self-professed animal lovers but their attention is focused on the welfare of companion or ‘cute and cuddly’ animals. They have made peace with the cruelty involved with meat production – as long as it’s not shoved in their face. They know that it happens but suggest it is an inevitable fact of life and they prefer to keep it out of sight and out of mind. It is unsurprising then that with regard to fish welfare, the uncritical eater sees it as a non-issue. However, human-centric reasons can be used to encourage them to take action for fishes. For this group, higher welfare will be a fortunate byproduct of the main issue: higher food standards.

In terms of reaching these three groups, we have had some success in creating targeted social media posts, by taking the characteristics outlined above and aiming campaign content at people who have corresponding interests. For example, to recreate a ‘conscious eater’ audience on social media, we have aimed our posts at people who have demonstrated interest in ethical consumerism, organic food, cruelty-free, healthy lifestyle and climate change. NGOs can also consider what audience is most representative of their current following, and tailor their messaging accordingly.

Your report is littered with advice for animal advocates working to further advance the position of fish. If you could make one suggestion to our practising advocates, what would it be?

At present, approximately 77 million fishes are farmed in the UK. Photo credit: Jakub Kapusnak 

I think it would be to not wait. As much as awakening the general public to fish sentience is important, the scale of fish farming and fish welfare issues is likely to take some time. We simply can’t wait that long to help fishes in their plight. With such huge numbers of individual fishes existing in factory farms, it’s imperative that we find ways to stop the worst abuses that they suffer as soon as possible. Whether this is through reducing individual fish consumption, campaigning for corporations to only source higher-welfare fish, or lobbying Governments to protect fishes in the law (which is our focus at THL UK), we must try to push for reform. We hope that the messaging avenues identified in our research can help advocates to motivate people to take action for fishes without having to wait for big mindset shifts.

Is there a statistic, fact or figure that comes to your mind which you feel sums up the severity of the situation facing our oceans and aquatic life?

I’ve heard the statistic that our oceans will be empty by 2050 if humans continue to destroy the marine environment through overfishing, pollution and climate change. l’m not sure if this figure is entirely accurate – however, it does emphasise the dire state things are in, which is sadly very much accurate. And fish farming is not the answer to the depletion of the ocean – it’s actually contributing to the problem. A third of all wild-caught fish is estimated to be used as food for carnivorous farmed fishes. This huge disruption to marine ecosystems means that plundering the sea in the way we have been doing for so long is no longer an option. 

What is next for research on fish advocacy? For example, what questions would you like to see the field address next or better?

Firstly, the research that we conducted was only based on a UK audience and therefore, I’d love to see similar studies taking place in different regions across the world to help us to understand if reactions to certain messages differ (which I suspect they would). 

Secondly, it would be great to see more research into how we can make the public connect to fishes. Our research was very much centred on messaging that would get people to take action, and some of the successful routes to this did not involve people really connecting with or caring that much about fishes, nor wanting them to have positive experiences. I think there’s scope for more research into how we can get people interested enough in fishes to want to actually learn more about them and overturn prevailing myths about their lack of sentience.

How can our readers best get in touch with you?

To stay up to date with the work of The Humane League UK, you can follow us on social media. Our handle is @humaneleagueuk.

If you’d like to reach out to me directly, or receive a copy of the full report, I’d love to hear from you via email at mdawe@thehumaneleague.org.uk


Authors: Rebecca Gregson and Jared Piazza

One Comment on “Inspiring Action For Farmed Fishes

  1. Pingback: Yuck! Does disgust keep us avoiding meat? | PHAIR Society

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