In the world of my story, merfolk have been captured by humans to serve the cruel purpose of providing their colorful scales to make jewelry, chandeliers, etc, with their colorful scales. I'm not looking in this post specifically for how this would work biologically - I've mostly worked out though that it is not an extremely gory process - ie, the merfolk are not skinned alive and then left for dead. The scales come off with a sharp knife, and will regrow some months later.

More of what I'm interested in is getting feedback on the system that would need this to work. I'm in an early 19th century setting circa 1800 - 1850. I've figured so far that this is what I would need.

-for a group of around 30 captive mers, a cove near the ocean has had it's exit blocked off to hold the mers in. The mers require the water to be changed periodically, so there are channels controlled by sluices that let water in and out. Food is provided by dumping a porridge-like mixture into the water.

When a mer is ready to be scaled, they are lured over by the release of food, and then caught around the neck with a staff with a noose around the end. They are then pulled into a cage in the corner of the pool, where they are winched up, then bound. Any mers that attempt to stop this, or misbehave in general, are struck with long staffs. This is not always needed however, as even with the water being changed out periodically, it's lack of natural movement has resulted in a numbing effect on the minds of the mers. They can function but it is much more difficult.

The mer to be scaled is then brought to a person sized bowl, where they are secured at the wrists and around the end of the tail just above the fins. The mer is provided with a wooden dowel to bite down on (not out of kindness - it helps them stay more steady) and then the scaling begins.

A well practiced scaler can remove the scales with minimal blood, though some is always to be expected. Extra care is taken around the tips of the fins and the "folds" in the front and back that are not very visible, but have smaller scales than the normal thumbnail sized ones.

Following the scaling, the mer's now bare tail-skin is cleaned off to prevent infection, and then is released back into the pool.

So far as I have figured, my scalefarm at the start is able to be manned by two - the master and and apprentice. As the number of mers increases to thirty, a second apprentice is taken on. The apprentices sleep in a bunkhouse adjoining the master's quarters and office.

The farm itself has a pontoon bridge going around the whole edge of the pool to aid in watching the mers. the front of the farm and the seawall are blocked off by netted fences higher than a person.

Lastly, the farm has a small forge for maintaining tools and fixing mechanisms in the sluice gates.

So that is my outline of how all this works. Let me know how you think this could be improved, or how it would be ramped up for a larger operation (or downgraded for a smaller one).

This practice is legal, though there are regulations on it. This is in the broader context of the human nation and fractured merfolk city states being at war with each other for the past 80 years or so. As the only exposure most humans have to merfolk is seeing them sedated in farms or attacking human shipping, they are viewed mostly with contempt.

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    $\begingroup$ It sounds (exactly) like shearing sheep. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 11 '21 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ A important factor might be the legality and general public opinion of this operation. Would effect the requirements greatly I feel. As in does it need to be hidden from prying eyes and can normal commercial practices be used. $\endgroup$
    – Kezat
    Sep 11 '21 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Kezat It is legal, though there are regulations on it. This is in the broader context of the human nation and fractured merfolk city states being at war with each other for the past 80 years or so. As the only exposure most humans have to merfolk is seeing them sedated in farms or attacking human shipping, they are viewed mostly with contempt. $\endgroup$ Sep 11 '21 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Current Makes senses. If you think my question and your answer are relevant to your original question its best to have that information added to the question. Comments will not be around forever. :) $\endgroup$
    – Kezat
    Sep 11 '21 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ The practice of adding comments on other's comments into the body of your question is somewhat odd as the comments you're replying to won't be around forever and the edits therefore become obsolete. By all means update your question in response to comments however, we like that. $\endgroup$ Sep 13 '21 at 17:09

you need more security

I think there are several security issues that need to be patched.

water exchange sluices

As described, the water exchange sluices are a major security risk. Mer-leaders will be under constant pressure to do something about these torture factories. If the leaders of New Mer City can destroy one of these “farms” and free the captives, it would significantly boost their standing with the neighboring city-states of Mer Town and Mer-opolis. That could gain them some major allies in their war against the Mer Commonwealth.

Given that incentive, the sluices are going to be under constant attack from the outside.

Similarly, there are sapient people held captive and routinely tortured. They are going to be looking for weak points and those sluices are the path to freedom.

Defenses need a major upgrade. But that’s not going to be easy. Make the channels deep enough for quick, efficient water exchange and the water-breathing mers will operate with relative impunity to undermine the system from the bottom. Make it shallow enough for the air-breathing workers to deal with the mers and there won’t be efficient water exchange which will keep the gate open for hours every day. The only solution is going to be extra people to work security.

sapient captives

The means of getting the mers into the shaving rig is also lacking. The current plan is to lure them over with a release of food. Will that really work with a sapient species that knows what going over there means?

Supposedly captivity has led to a “numbing effect” but they can still function. If they can function, they can (and at least some will) resist.


Finally, the way mers are secured for scaling is insufficient. The plan is to secure them with bindings at the wrist and tail. That’s not enough. Anyone who’s ever handled a live fish in a situation that it doesn’t like (e.g., out of the water) will have experienced just how flexible their spine is and how powerfully they can move their body. The same will apply to the mers only worse because they are big and they are sapient.

A full-grown mer that is angry and afraid will fight for its life. A single hard slap from that tail is likely to severely injure or even kill whatever sucker is tasked with tying it down.


You specifically ask about scaling up and scaling down. Both present problems.

Scaling down is hard because this needs to make economic sense. Even a small farm will need several people at least to make this work safely. Is the price of scales enough to support five or six people with only 10 mers?

Scaling up presents an incentive problem. Obviously, a large operation can afford better security. But a large operation also makes a tempting target. Returning to the leaders of New Mer City, if they have to choose between hitting a little mom & pop torture farm to free a dozen or so mers or taking down a massive factory and freeing hundreds or even thousands, they’re going to go big. The pressure on facility security will be immense, probably on the scale of a small war. Seriously, how valuable are these scales again?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean to use the word sentient or just mean to be human like? $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Sep 24 '21 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Sonvar We are probably nearing the point in the development of the English language when the two words can be treated as synonyms but I used sapient intentionally. Mer-people, as traditionally understood, have the capacity for self-awareness, reason, and insight -- i.e., they are sapient. $\endgroup$
    – legio1
    Sep 24 '21 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ Good suggestions. I think in regards to security, there are lawmen that patrol the waters around areas with high scale farming activity. The scales are also quite valuable. In the most developed part of Havla, on the peninsula, everyone who's somebody is using them. Ladies have necklaces of dozens. Gentleman where more muted ones as decorative buttons. One of the most elite has even made a set of three iridescent chandeliers with tens of thousands of them. So yes, there is a market. The bigger farms also are further up river, where there is much more human activity, and defense. $\endgroup$ Sep 24 '21 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Current "up river"! I went from an assumption that these mers needed seawater. If they can live in freshwater then up river helps a lot. You could also plant small farms around lakes created by damming rivers. Would be much more secure from external threat. Still wouldn't want to be the chump that has to tie them down. $\endgroup$
    – legio1
    Sep 24 '21 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ @legio1 well the mers can survive in fresh water, but it really is not pleasant for them. $\endgroup$ Sep 25 '21 at 0:55

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