US fish farmers brace for negative campaign from animal activists

Read the original article by Jason Smith at here.

The US aquaculture industry should be prepared for an unwelcome spotlight from animal rights activists who are poised to step up a series of attacks against the practice of fish farming in 2018, industry groups said.

The campaigns are likely to rely on undercover videotaped “investigations” of aquaculture facilities and barrages of negative press against consumer-facing brands, techniques previously used against the beef, poultry and swine sectors, speakers warned fish farmers at Aquaculture America.

The National Aquaculture Association (NAA) first received “credible” evidence in November that several animal rights groups would begin an anti-fish farming campaign this year and has begun preparing its membership, Paul Zajicek, the group’s executive director, told Undercurrent News.

The NAA’s Aquatic Animal Health committee, after reviewing statements made by activist groups in the media, began drafting a series of guidance documents for the association’s farmer members.

“They decided we needed to prepare,” he said.

The guidance documents include draft animal welfare policies for farms — which often document the sound animal husbandry practices already in place, Zajicek said — and procedures on how to deal with demonstrations, should protestors come to a farm.

He added that “anyone who has been on a fish or shellfish farm realizes you’re not a successful farmer unless you have healthy animals. That’s fundamental”.

Animal rights’ groups allegations that fish farms treat fish in a substandard way are warrantless, he said.

“Farmers don’t get into this to be millionaires, they got into it because they were fascinated by fish. And they really love their fish. They take care of them,” he said. “It’s the proper nutrition, the proper environment, the containers they’re grown in, the production system. They do many, many things to help these animals thrive.”

Coming campaign

But anecdotal evidence is mounting that animal rights groups — which have long targeted industrial agricultural practices in the beef, poultry and swine industries — are starting to pay attention to fish, fish farming, in particular.

In June, for instance, an article on the website Civil Eats entitled “Fish are getting their animal rights moment” described Los Angeles, California-based animal rights group Mercy For Animals as poised to ramp up its anti-fish farming campaign.

“There is this hierarchy where we, obviously, care about humans most of all,” the website quoted Nick Cooney, the group’s former executive vice president as saying. “After that, primates. After that, larger farm animals like cows and pigs. After that, chicken. Fish are at the bottom of the list.”

The group’s website describes fish farming as taking place in “crowded” conditions and features a video that a Mercy for Animals activist shot surreptitiously at a catfish slaughter facility, which the group claims, shows inhumane practices.

A PETA billboard used in a campaign in Ohio

Other groups, such as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have already launched campaigns trying to turn the public against eating fish. In December, PETA placed billboards in Cincinnati, Ohio with a picture of a parrotfish and the tagline: “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the individual, go vegan.”

That location was chosen due to the area’s “large concentration” of units of quick service seafood chainsLong John Silver’s and Captain D’s.

PETA’s website claims “farmed fish spend their entire lives in cramped, filthy enclosures, and many suffer from parasitic infections, diseases, and debilitating injuries”.

Heather Thompson-Weeman, vice-president of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Ag Alliance, which works with the agriculture industry to counter activists’ messaging, said that while activism against aquaculture “is not a full-blown issue for the industry yet”, it’s growing.

“I want to make sure everyone realizes. It’s not just in this activist echo chamber. It’s easy for us to say, well those people are all crazy nobody cares about what these people are saying, this article was in NPR,” she told an audience at Aquaculture America, showing an article about the possibility of fish feeling pain that quoted an animal rights group.

Some animal rights groups, she said, talk moderately and approach retailers seeking reforms of certain animal husbandry practices, but have the ultimate goal of promoting veganism.

Animal rights groups bring in $500 million annually in fundraising and much of this is used to target the animal agriculture industry. In the 80s and 90s animal rights groups used more extreme tactics — such as PETA’s dressing female protestors in lettuce bikinis or as mermaids. This was often ignored by most media outlets and policymakers.

“You guys need to start having conversations yesterday with your consumer-facing brands… The Red Lobsters of the world, the Long John Silvers, they’re already, I guarantee you, getting letters from these activist groups…”

“They realized that and they’ve changed up their message. Rather than just relying on that ‘go vegan, you’ve got to stop eating it’ platform, now they’re targeting certain practices and capitalizing on the fact that people don’t know about them to get them banned and not allowed,” she said.

To do this, activists focus on consumer-facing brands. In aquaculture, activists haven’t coalesced around an industry practice to target but “that’s absolutely what’s coming next”, she added. Issues such as stocking density, growth rate, handling could draw fire, she said.

“You guys need to start having conversations yesterday with your consumer-facing brands that are in your industry. The Red Lobsters of the world, the Long John Silvers, they’re already, I guarantee you, getting letters from these activist groups saying how can you support this cruel industry?” she said. “Here are the policies we want you to implement for your fish supply chain.”

The groups have realized that if they can get a McDonalds, a Costco Wholesale or a Walmart to adopt certain practice in their supply chains it’s going “to have a faster impact than trying to get legislation passed in all 50 states”, Thompson-Weeman said.

To do this, activists start an “ non-stop onslaught” of negative press and activism against a particular brand, buying stock in public companies in order to have the right to be present at the companies’ annual meetings and compile reports about antibiotic use by brands where the majority of companies fail.

“They pit restaurants against each other and make this into a competitive issue,” she said.

Previous campaigns have targeted chains in an effort to promote the use of “cage-free eggs” and ban the use of gestation stalls for pigs.

Rate of adoption of cage-free eggs by US brands. Credit: Animal Ag Alliance

In September 2015, for example, once McDonalds agreed to use cage-free eggs, most other major brands agreed to adopt the practice within six to eight months (see chart).

In other cases, activists targeted campus dining programs at colleges arousing interest at the student level, she said.

Sometimes the activists who are hired at farms have caused the issue they’re filming or failed to prevent an issue from occurring by deviating from farm procedure, Thompson-Weeman said. In other cases, there are improper practices occurring by employees but the companies would like that to be reported and addressed internally.

“Knowing that Mercy for Animals is one of the biggest organizations targeting aquaculture I think this should be a huge concern for all of you that hire employees on your farm, that they will be paying someone and trying to get them hired and their sole intention will be to capturing things they can use against you,” she said.

In other cases activists capture footage of “standard, everyday, industry practices that are supported by science, that are not stressful for the animal” but made to “look very negative”, she said.

Mercy for Animals, for example, targeted a catfish slaughter facility in Texas, a video still on the group’s website. The group declined to make itself available for an interview to Undercurrent.

“Knowing that Mercy for Animals is one of the biggest organizations targeting aquaculture I think this should be a huge concern for all of you that hire employees on your farm”

More alarming than undercover videos, Thompson-Weeman said, is groups’ practice of “stealth visits” where activists break in to farms at night to film.

“They go into farms usually at midnight — they take their whole video crew into the barn, they film whatever they find,” she said.

Zajicek of the NAA told Undercurrent that his group has joined the Animal Ag Alliance and is working with NAA farmers to make sure they are “putting their best foot forward” if the negative campaigns strengthen. That includes developing written policies.

“They’re doing stuff every day to ensure animal welfare,” he said of farmers. “Do they have it down on paper? So when somebody comes and challenges a farm, they can say well we have an animal welfare policy. That shows that they are a responsible steward of the farm and of the animals that they are raising.”

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