As Director of Crustacean Compassion, the UK's only animal welfare organisation dedicated to crabs, lobsters and other decapod crustaceans, I am perhaps unusually attuned to conversations about crabs.
Sitting at a beachside restaurant last summer, I saw two children loitering around a lobster tank. Two glossy brown creatures were scraping listlessly at the sides with bound claws. "I'm not lying" I heard the older boy say. "The waiter said. They're from outer space, they fell from the sky into the sea and they're being looked after until they can be sent back up into the sky". The little girl gaped, wide-eyed. (She didn't seem to notice the connection between the live aliens here and the boiled aliens on the plate there).
Decapod crustaceans are somewhat alien; weird scuttling screw-faces of the shore and graceful lumbering moonwalkers of the sea bed. The question is - how do we treat them before we eat them? They look tough enough to be comfortably numb - but should we really be hacking them apart or boiling them alive?
At Crustacean Compassion, we believe it's unfair, unscientific, and legally inconsistent that current animal welfare legislation only covers animals who wear their bones on the inside; and we're petitioning DEFRA to include them in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales). Here's why. Research coming out of the University of Belfast in 2012 and 2016 confirmed what many restaurant diners and chefs have guiltily suspected; decapod crustaceans were likely to be able to feel pain. This makes boiling them alive, a process that can take them up to 3 minutes to die, incredibly inhumane. Chilling them beforehand may just render them paralysed, rather than unconscious; indeed they may wake up rather quickly and have several minutes left. All the way back in 2005 the EU Animal Health and Welfare Panel stated that many of the ways in which decapods were currently slaughtered were inhumane. Many countries, including Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand, include them in their animal welfare legislation, meaning anyone farming them, storing them or slaughtering them has to take account of basic animal welfare protections; enough food, a suitable environment, and a humane slaughter method. This week in Sydney, Australia, a fishmonger was convicted of cruelty for removing live lobsters' tails with a hacksaw.
Yet in the UK nothing has changed. Our Freedom of Information request has just revealed that the DEFRA has conducted no assessment of the welfare needs of decapod crustaceans since the new research was released; in fact no assessment since 2005, when their decision not to include them in the Animal Welfare Bill proved controversial. Recognising that the evidence was mounting, however, they included an important caveat; invertebrates could be included under the Act's protections if the scientific evidence of their ability to feel pain became satisfactory.
With the compelling research now available, we believe that the time has come. No animal can ever be conclusively proved to feel pain - and that includes you or me. But it's entirely reasonable, when the evidence mounts and the stakes are high, to give creatures the benefit of the doubt and protect them from unnecessary suffering. Sign our petition, and let's treat these strange and captivating creatures with a little more respect.