If I’m honest, as a catch and release fisherman, killing fish is something I always try to avoid. But, since I do occasionally eat fish, when I’m offshore and hook a wahoo or a dorado, chances are that fish is coming home for dinner and it shouldn’t needlessly suffer – it deserves a humanely end to its life.
When I first started fishing, I fly fished for trout and was given a “priest” to kill fish that were for the pot.
I never knew whether hitting a healthy fish on the head was a humane way of killing them, it was just what I was taught.
There are, however, quite a few ways on how to humanely kill a fish or euthanize them for the pot so join me as we run through them so you can find your preferred method.
Can fish feel pain?
Yes, fish feel some pain and as a fisherman, you would probably know this. When you hook a fish, it doesn’t sit still and do nothing, it runs around trying to become free which is a sure sign it feels something.
DID YOU KNOW
Scientific research shows that thanks to their central nervous systems and a fish’s reactions to painful circumstances they do feel some pain and thus should be treated with respect.
If you want to read more about it, here is a good article.
How To Humanely Kill A Fish?
Whether you’re killing a wild fish to eat or have to kill a sick fish like an aquarium fish, the last thing you want is for the fish to have a slow death.
You want to kill fish quickly so they don’t feel any pain and do it with the most humane method possible. Even fish farms and commercial fisheries must also kill fish humanely.
Below you’ll find the different methods of humanely killing a fish and each different method will be better than others depending on the fish species, size; larger fish, smaller fish, and different situations.
Percussive stunning is one of the most humane ways to kill a fish and for the vast majority of fishermen, this is the preferred method and I use it on all the fish I catch. It works with most fish species and is a commonly used method.
It involves using a blunt object or a blunt instrument such as a club or a small bat to hit the fish over the head with.
- You will first need to hold the fish still
- Then deliver a hard blow to the brain by hitting the fish on the head above the eyes
- If you hit the fish hard enough in the right place, one blow should knock it out
- But depending on the specific fish, a second or third blow may be required
- Once the fish is knocked out, use a sharp knife to remove the head below the kills and the tail
- This severs the spinal cord, so the fish won’t suffer later on
- For keeping fish fresh for dinner put the fish into an ice bath, ice bucket, or ice water
This is a pain-free method with almost zero suffering and works for most fish, except small fish as they are harder to make a solid connection with.
This is also a great method to use when out fishing on a boat or by a river as it’s quick, easy, and you can always use a rock if you haven’t got a club with you.
Breaking The Neck
If you’re out fishing for fall fish like trout and you catch one that is the perfect size for the dinner table, breaking its neck quickly is a way to end its life humanely.
Make sure to be confident and don’t wimp out as this will only cause the fish more pain.
- Hold the fish under its belly
- Insert you index finger in one gill
- Put your middle finger in the other gill
- Hold the fish at the back with your other hand
- Quickly push the fish’s head back against its body
- You will feel the neck break
This is not as humane as using the percussing stunning method as the fish will panic while you get set up. But, it’s useful to know for those moments when you have no other choice.
Using A Knife
If you have a knife on hand, you can quickly end a fish’s life in two ways, either by inserting the knife into its brain or by cutting the spinal cord. This is a little gory but it’s very fast and much easier than other methods when you want to take small panfish like crappies home for dinner.
For the brain:
- Hold the fish
- Insert the knife down into its head between the eyes
- It will die instantly
For the spinal cord:
- Hold the fish
- Cut down through the spinal cord behind the eyes
- It will die instantly
Again, the fish will suffer slightly as you get ready but if you are quick about it, it should be dead within seconds. If you need a reliable knife for your fishing trips, this Best Fishing Knife review can help you find one.
You should always carry a knife with you while you’re fishing anyway – in my opinion this is a preferred option to breaking a fish’s neck.
Clove Oil Method
If you have a dying fish at home that is on death’s door then using clove oil is the most humane way to end its suffering to the highest ethical standards.
Clove oil is actually used to anesthetize fish in order to do operations on them as it makes them fall asleep but prolonged exposure to clove oil will euthanize a fish.
If you have to euthanize your fish, then I’m sorry, it’s a sad thing to do, but here is how to do it so at least it will make the fish unconscious and feel no pain.
- Find a container to transfer your fish into and note its volume as you’ll need this later
- Fill the container with enough tank water so the fish is comfortable when it goes in
- Add the air pump to the container – this will help the clove oil spread
- Find a small jar and fill it with warm water
- Add a few drops of clove oil to the jar – you’ll need 10 drops per liter of water in the large container
- Make sure you have enough clove oil in the mixture or the fish may not die and might wake up later
- Shake the jar until the mixture turns white and milky
- Net the fish and add it to the container
- Slowly pour the clove oil mixture into the container
- The fish will go to sleep and eventually turn belly up
- Leave the fish in for an hour to make sure it has died
- You can check via gill movement if you need to
This is one of the best ways to euthanize a fish at home as there is no fish pain but it does take a while and you have to make sure to use enough clove oil.
The Alka Seltzer Method
This is another humane way to euthanize a fish at home as it is very quick and simple to do. There is some thrashing involved before the fish dies which might imply some suffering, but it is very quick. It’s similar to using clove oil but a much faster way to euthanize fish.
- Take a container, note its volume, and add enough tank water for the fish to be comfortable
- Add the fish to the container
- Add the alka seltzer – you need 2 tablets per liter of water
- Tablets will fizz and the fish will thrash very briefly
- Leave the fish for 10 minutes to ensure death
This method works by creating a chemical reaction between the water and the baking soda releasing carbon dioxide into the water.
This depletes the oxygen in the water rapidly, thus killing the fish, so it pretty much suffocates fish very quickly. I would say there is some suffering in this method but very little.
How Do I Dispose Of Dead Fish?
If you have had to kill a pet fish then you’ll need to dispose of it, if you have caught a fish, you’ll need to dispose of the guts after cleaning it.
There isn’t a super clever way of disposing of dead fish or guts, it’s very simple.
Either place the fish/guts in a plastic bag or aluminum foil and put it in the trash bins outside. If you’re disposing of guts and near the sea, throw the guts in and give other fish a free meal.
Do not flush fish down the toilet, or bury it/the guts in the garden as animals will come and dig it up and eat it.
Thanks very much for reading my article. I hope you found it useful and now know how to humanely kill a fish without it having to suffer in pretty much every situation from trout to tilapia fishing.
I love fish, and to be honest it pains me when I have to kill one.
Their existence fills my life with amazing opportunities for exploring mountains to being way out to sea, so let’s look after them as best we can, even when we take them home for dinner.