This of course forces us to ask the question:
"When it does become necessary, what is the most humane way to kill a fish?"
I have heard many opinions and methods discussed. For some reason "clove oil" keeps coming up. I have only found ancedotal evidence to support clove oil as being "humane". What is the exact method by which clove oil acts?
Rotenone is certainly effective, but I don't believe it to be the "most humane" way to cull.
Rotenone works by inhibiting a biochemical process in the fish cells, resulting in an inability of fish to use oxygen in the release of energy during normal body processes. In effect, the fish suffocate due to lack of oxygen. But, contrary to popular belief, rotenone does not remove oxygen from the water. Fish treated with rotenone move to the shallow water or to the surface of deeper water, gasping for oxygen within a few minutes of exposure to the chemical.
Sounds like suffering to me.
I have found several references to MS-222 "Tricaine" and it sounds like a good option as Tricaine is an anesthetic not just a toxin. From the Merck Veterinary Manual
Tricaine methanesulfonate (MS-222) is FDA approved for use as a sedative and anesthetic in food fish and is often used to sedate broodstock for handling and injection of hormones for spawning. It is also useful for pet fish and is effective for sedation, surgical anesthesia, and euthanasia. Sedation can generally be achieved with concentrations between 50-100 mg/L, although species-specific sensitivities should be expected. Induction for most species may be near 125 mg/L; however, when working with unfamiliar species it is best to start at a lower concentration (ie, 50 mg/L) and increase the concentration until the desired effect is achieved. Because MS-222 is an acid, the chemical should be buffered (2 parts sodium bicarbonate by weight to 1 part MS-222). Following induction, the concentration may be decreased to 50-100 mg/L to maintain the desired depth of anesthesia. Respiration should be monitored; if opercular movement ceases, fish should be immediately moved to clean water. MS-222 can also be used to euthanize fish at concentrations of 1,000-10,000 mg/L. For small animals, a squirt bottle with a stock solution of 10,000 mg/L can be used to quickly apply a lethal dose of chemical to the gills.
I think Tricaine is a good idea when you need to do a necropsy and don't want to destroy any tissue...but severing the spinal cord and or destroying the brain seems to be the method of choice for scientists/vets...
Now, for those who aren't squeemish, or who don't like using chemicals there is always what I was taught in school: Either decapitation (quick slice/snip behind the eye in front of the dorsal fin straight down severing spinal cord) or by "pithing" AKA direct destruction of the brain may be the "most humane" method.