Why lobsters should have legal protection

There is a risk the animal will experience unimaginable and terrible levels of suffering.
- Dr Jonathan Birch
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Lobster, Shediac, Canada Pixabay, CC0

In January 2018 Switzerland banned cooking lobsters by boiling them alive, amid growing scientific evidence that crustaceans are able to feel pain. A new paper argues the humane and ethical choice is to include lobsters, crabs and some other invertebrates in animal welfare legislation, and spare them unnecessary pain and suffering.

When killing a crustacean during food preparation or scientific testing, in the U.K. an individual is free to choose any number of methods, such as removing the claws from a live crab, cutting the eyestalks off shrimps, or boiling lobsters alive.

But whether these creatures experience pain, defined by animal welfare experts as an aversive sensation or feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage, is difficult to prove conclusively.

Crustaceans do not react to pain in the way that most humans would understand it, but their responses to injury can include thrashing, shedding injured body parts or attempts to escape.

Dr Jonathan Birch of the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, says that the risk of crustaceans experiencing pain means that we should give them the benefit of any doubt when legislating in this area. “Unless you err on the side of caution, there is a risk the animal will experience unimaginable and terrible levels of suffering,” he says.

Animal welfare advocates argue that crustaceans should be stunned into a state of continuous unconsciousness before they are killed. ‘Humane’ methods include chilling them in cold water for twenty minutes or using a device to administer an electric shock.

Such methods can be more time consuming and costly than slaughtering mammals however; crustaceans have decentralised nervous systems and, unlike other animals, a single blow to the head does not cause death.

Critics of protecting crustaceans suggest that challenges make legislative protection impractical. These include an increased bureaucratic burden, and incentivising seafood producers to move their operations overseas.

Dr Birch rejects these arguments: “Resisting complexity is an argument against having any kind of legislation at all. Most people would accept that you need some kind of standards in all areas in which animals are used, including food production, and that they should be consistent.”

Similarly, Dr Birch finds the argument that improving standards in the U.K. will simply drive production to China or America, where welfare standards are less strict, is unconvincing.

“We shouldn’t get involved in a race to the bottom, and instead aspire to the highest animal welfare standards in the world. I think it’s something that consumers in this country actually want, and will pay more for if necessary.

“We are a nation of animal lovers, with a long history of protecting their welfare, so it’s sad we have fallen behind Germany, Australia, Switzerland,” Dr Birch adds.

As the U.K. government reviews animal welfare laws, Dr Birch is hopeful that the public will be convinced this issue deserves their support: “One of the problems with progress on animal welfare is that it often gets overshadowed by other things. But there is evidence of sentience in crustaceans, and that should be enough to offer them the same basic protections we grant other sentient animals.”

Behind the article

Animal sentience and the precautionary principle by Dr Jonathan Birch was published by Animal Sentience in July 2017.