Issues Relating to Live Seafood

Issues Relating to Live Seafood

We have been advocating the regulation of the slaughter of animals such as fish, crustaceans, frogs and turtles. At present, no laws govern this. This has led to animals being left in unsatisfactory conditions. We have investigated several cases of cruelty that have been reported by members of the public, including overcrowding of tanks and dead animals left in tanks with live ones.

Seafood is widely eaten and in Singapore, it is not uncommon to see tightly confined crabs in all kinds of eateries, markets and supermarkets (as pictured above). Boiling of live crabs goes on as well, even though this is against international guidelines.

People often wonder if fish and crustaceans are sentient or if they can feel pain (as they are not as expressive as other animals) and whether their responses to being hurt are just a physical reflex. There is now, however, a growing body of evidence that fish and some crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters) can indeed feel pain.

It might not be realistic to ask consumers to stop eating seafood in order to spare fish and crustaceans from pain and distress. However, this does not mean that crustaceans and fish should be inhumanely treated, whether in a commercial or home environment.

We are seeking to create awareness on this issue, and invite you to reflect on current practices. If you see animals in overcrowded or cruel conditions, please let the establishment know that you do not agree with this mistreatment. If more consumers speak up, these establishments will be more likely to adhere to humane guidelines. Please also let us know and consider sharing your views with your Member of Parliament.

What Can You Do

Ask your seafood supplier, supermarket or restaurant how the seafood is killed. Do they have designated, experienced people who are in charge of killing the seafood humanely? What methods do they use? If they use methods that are inhumane, please let them know there is a better alternative or consider changing to another supplier or taking your business to another supermarket or restaurant.

Eat less animal products or not consume them altogether. This will ensure that fewer animals suffer because of inhumane practices.

If you choose to eat seafood, go for pre-killed frozen seafood.

Most Humane Slaughter Methods

For Crabs

At home, the most humane method at present of killing a crab is first to lower its body temperature, before spiking it.

The crabs should be placed in a refrigerator or freezer at below 4 degrees celsius. Putting crabs in the freezer for two hours will generally kill most of them. It is best to lower the temperature slowly so that the shock does not cause them to suffer unnecessarily. The chill should be slow, and not inflicted on the crabs suddenly.

Crabs will generally be insensible by this time, and this can be ascertained by

  • tapping their shells to see if there are any eye reactions;
  • whether there is control over limb movements;
  • whether there is resistance to handling, especially in the tail or abdomen;
  • whether there is reaction around the mouth when it is touched.

At this point, the crab should be spiked through the brain with a sharp pointed tip. The insertion of a knife into the head of the animal will generally kill it, if it is not already dead.

Restaurants may consider machines like the Crustastun ( which stun the animals with an electric shock which then kills them. The crab will be rendered insensible by an electric shock and then killed in less than 10 seconds.

Killing crabs humanely also increases the quality of the meat as killing by other methods increases the amount of adrenaline in the crabs. This causes the meat to be less tasty.

For Lobsters/Crayfish

  • Similarly, the best way of killing a lobster is to first render it insensible, using the refrigerator/freezer method described above.
  • The lobster can then be further prepared. Spiking lobsters through the head may not be the most humane method to kill them. Rocklobsters, for example, have several nerve endings.
  • The lobster should be put on its back, with its claws tied. Lobsters have a chain of nerves running down the middle of their bodies. Determine where the midline (the middle point) is on the bottom of the lobster is. Using the midline as a starting point, trace the path to the head of the lobster, beneath the mouth parts. Cut through the head to destroy the brain, but do not sever the head.
  • Put your knife back on the midline, and draw it sharply towards the head. When you are done, then do the same towards the tail. After cutting in half lengthways through the longitudinal midline, quickly remove the chain of nerve centres at the front end (chest and head) of the lobster. You should not take more than 10 seconds to finish this entire procedure.

Restaurants and larger enterprises should consider machines that administer electric shocks, like the Crustastun. Lobsters are said to die within 5 seconds using this method. The lobster is placed in a saltwater tank and a stun button is pressed, which renders the lobster insensible, before killing it.

For Prawns

Put the prawn into a refrigerator or freezer at below 4 degrees celsius. This should be done until the prawn is insensible. The prawn is insensible when the tail can be extended without resistance and can be easily moved about. Its outer mouthparts will by this time, also be easily moved. Death will usually occur at -15 degrees celsius. However it is best to reduce the temperature slowly, so that the prawn does not go into shock.

The prawn should then be humanely killed by rapidly cutting through the centerline of the head and tail.

Restaurants should consider designating people who are experienced to humanely kill the prawns. This will not only allow for it to be done more humanely, but more efficiently as well.

For Fish

Fish should be kept in water until just before they are to be killed. To humanely kill a fish, they should be stunned or spiked.

Stunning is the killing of the fish by an accurate and strong blow to the head. The blow should be aimed just above the eyes so that the brain is targeted. If the fish does not look dead, then another blow should be attempted.

Spiking involves using a sharp spike through the brain of the fish. The spike should again be placed in a position to penetrate the brain of the fish. It should then be driven sharply into the brain. The blow should produce immediate unconsciousness and the spike should then be moved around from side to side to destroy the brain.

It is also possible to chill the fish slowly in a refrigerator or freezer (as stated above) and then to decapitate the fish.

Restaurants should consider designating people who are experienced to humanely kill fish. This will not only allow for it to be done more humanely, but more efficiently as well.

What Not to Do

The following methods are not advised because they are not humane methods.

For Crabs

Avoid the following methods of killing crabs as they cause unnecessary suffering:

  • Throwing the crabs in boiling water;
  • Removing the shell of the crabs while it are still alive;
  • Pulling the pinchers off crabs while they are still alive;
  • Introducing carbon dioxide into the water;
  • Leaving crabs to drown in freshwater;
  • Steaming crabs while they are alive;
  • Microwaving crabs alive.
  • Boiling or steaming crabs while they are alive causes the crabs to produce more adrenaline which causes the meat to be less tasty.

For Lobsters/Crayfish

Avoid the following methods of killing lobsters/crayfish:

  • Throwing lobsters/crayfish into boiling water;
  • Removing parts of the lobsters/crayfish while still alive;
  • Leaving them to drown in freshwater;
  • Introducing carbon dioxide into the water;
  • Microwaving lobsters/crayfish alive.

For Prawns

Avoid the following:

  • Throwing prawns in boiling water;
  • Cooking/soaking them alive in wine;
  • Eating prawns alive;
  • Microwaving prawns while they are alive.

For Fish

These methods do not result in a quick and humane death for the fish and should be avoided:

  • Chilling the fish with ice in the water used to hold the fish;
  • Carbon dioxide added into the water used to hold the fish;
  • Chilling with ice and carbon dioxide in the water used to hold the fish;
  • Salt or ammonia baths;
  • Asphyxiation of the fish by removing them from water;
  • Bleeding the fish without first stunning them.

Cutting up a live fish without first stunning or spiking it also releases adrenaline which will compromise the quality of the meat.

Most Humane Transportation Methods

It is not just the process of killing crustaceans and other marine animals that causes them stress. Often, transporting and housing these creatures can cause much suffering and discomfort to them too.

Here are some tips in respect to humane transportation.

For Crabs

If the journey is a long one, then the crabs should be placed in a cooler box that is covered with ice or cold gel packs at the bottom. The crabs should not be allowed to come into contact with the melted ice.

For Lobsters/Crayfish

Live lobsters and crayfish can be brought home in seawater/freshwater, depending on what type of lobster or crayfish they are. Do not store seawater lobsters in freshwater.

For Prawns

Prawns should be placed in thick plastic bags partly filled with water and containing air, or preferably oxygen. Do not place too many prawns in a bag.

For Fish

Fish should also be transported in thick plastic bags filled partly with water, and containing air, or preferably oxygen.

Most Humane Housing Methods

As there are numerous welfare problems associated with housing live seafood at restaurants or supermarkets, it is best if the more humane option of pre killed frozen seafood is chosen.

It is best not to house any of these animals for too long either at home or at a restaurant. Particularly with home cooks, it is best to purchase live seafood just prior to preparing them for consumption.

The animals should be handled as gently as possible so as not to cause too much stress. Different species should also not be stocked together, nor should too many animals be stored in one tank as this will cause overcrowding. Waste products should also be removed promptly. All animals should be fed if they are kept in the tanks beyond a day or two.

For Crabs

You can leave the crabs in a container and drape the crabs with wet towels. Ensure that the crabs have enough air or they will suffocate. Ensure that they are kept in a cool and airy area. You may also place them in a refrigerator, however they will not last for very long out of their environment.

Restaurants should ensure that the crabs are not kept in overcrowded conditions. If the crabs are kept for a while, they should not be starved and must be fed.

For Lobsters/Crayfish

Lobsters need cool temperatures and hence they should be placed (along with their carton) into the refrigerator with a piece of wet newspaper placed over them immediately upon returning home. Lobsters do not do well in warm weather so do not leave them exposed to warm temperatures.

Do not pick a lobster up by the claws. Always handle it gently. You should also not stress the lobsters by putting too many in a carton.

Restaurants should also ensure that lobsters are kept in a stress free environment prior to cooking. They should not be removed from tanks or the refrigeration until just before preparing them to be killed.

If they are kept in tanks, the water should be clean and the lobsters should not be overcrowded. Water quality should be monitored. The tanks should not have cloudy or dirty looking water.

The levels of ammonia should also be monitored to ensure that the lobsters are not stressed. Do not allow customers to tap on the tanks as this stresses the lobsters out.

For Prawns

Do not put the prawns in tap water as they are likely to react badly to the chlorine. Ensure that they have enough oxygen.

Restaurants should be careful not to overstock their tanks and to monitor their water quality. If these are saltwater prawns, then they should be placed in saltwater. An oxygen stone to provide oxygen should be added, and the prawns should be fed daily.

For Fish

Home cooks should ensure that the fish have enough water and are not gasping for air. There should be sufficient oxygen so that they are not suffering. If for some reason the fish is not cooked immediately, it is best to transfer it to a basin or large container with enough water.

Restaurant tanks should be monitored to ensure that the fish are kept in conditions that are as stress-free as possible.