Table of Contents

The Case for Fish Welfare

August 5, 2021

Dangerous and unsustainable practices in fish farming are not only cruel to fish, but also threaten human health and the environment.

Most aquaculture operations do not meet the basic fish welfare standards as set by the AAA, and instead subject farmed fish to hostile conditions that cause significant harm to fish, human and environmental health.

Animal welfare is a familiar concept to many in the discourse surrounding animal agriculture and animal rights. However, the inclusion of fish species in such conversation is often left out or put on the backburner due to historical debate surrounding the ability of fish to have qualitative experiences such as pain and pleasure. Although recent studies have shown that fish do, in fact, feel pain and take action to avoid pain, fish welfare is also important to consider due to its massive scale and subsequent implications on human health and environmental health.

Firstly, when thinking about fish welfare, it is important to be cognizant of not simply applying the same ideas and solutions in land animal welfare directly onto fish, who behave and live in a completely different, marine environment. According to the Aquatic Animal Alliance (AAA), fish welfare is predicated on these five pillars:

  1. Enriched Environment: Create an environment that meets species-specific ethological needs analogous to their ideal habitat.
  2. Feed Composition & Feeding: Reduce the amount of wild-caught animals required for aquaculture feed by researching alternative feed sources, improving feed conversion ratios, and substituting carnivorous farmed species with herbivorous species. Strive for the most optimal feeding times and quantities and avoid starvation periods exceeding 72 hours.
  3. Space Requirements & Stocking Density: Maintain appropriate space by species and lifestage to avoid negative physical, psychological, and behavioral impacts.
  4. Water Quality: Monitor key water quality indicators continuously or at least once a day.
  5. Stunning & Slaughter: Effectively stun all animals before slaughter, minimize the time elapsed between stunning and slaughter to lower the risk of consciousness being recovered.

These pillars provide guidance in the design and maintenance of aquaculture operations in order to take fish welfare into account.

Aquaculture today is a significant global source of food, reaching a global record of 114.5 million tonnes in 2018 of live weight, accounting for 64% of global fish production. The aquaculture industry has expanded by more than 500% since 1990 in order to meet rising consumer demand. However, most aquaculture operations do not meet the basic fish welfare standards as set by the AAA, and instead subject farmed fish to hostile conditions that cause significant harm to fish, human and environmental health.

One of the most conventional forms of aquaculture is the raising of fish in “open-net cages.” These cages are located in off-shore coasts, in which fish are kept in large cylindrical cages that allow for free exchange of water. Another method is to raise fish, often shrimp, in enclosed or semi-enclosed ponds. The fish are densely packed in these spaces, causing stressful living environments that also promote the spread of disease and parasites. Although several reports have conjectured that farmed fish is ‘cleaner’ than wild fish, fish from aquaculture breeding sites have shown to be higher in pesticide levels and organic pollutants. Furthermore, sea lice, a common parasite found in aquacultured fish species like salmon, has shown increasingly antibiotic resistant trends, posing a larger threat to consumer health if the living conditions of fish are not improved upon.

Beyond threats to consumer health, working in the aquaculture industry has also been linked to higher rates of illness and injury. Prolonged exposure to hazardous chemicals involved in the production, such as formalin, fish anesthetic, ozone gas can cause life-threatening diseases. Additionally, daily repetitive handling of tools such as scalpels and forceps also cause musculoskeletal disorders or hand lacerations. As a result, the combined rates of illness and injury in the aquaculture industry was the highest out of any industry in 2015, far surpassing jobs seen as high-risk like policing. Emphasizing fish welfare in aquaculture operations not only minimizes worker exposure to toxic chemicals, it also offers potential alternatives to handling dangerous equipment.

Lastly, unsustainable practices in aquaculture creates environmental and ecosystem damage. Aquaculture has been linked to contributing to climate change, ozone depletion and excessive water resource use. Even aquaculture production that is certified organic has been found to negatively impact the environment. The excessive amount of waste produced  through fish excrement and through chemical runoff of antibiotics and feed creates nutrient imbalances in marine ecosystems, leading to eutrophication, a phenomenon of harmful algal blooms that flourish on excessive nutrient stores. Normally, in an open marine ecosystem, fish communities naturally regulate and enforce the nutrient balance through pressure placed on primary consumers like zooplankton that in turn eat algae. This regulatory mechanism is one of the many fundamental ecosystem services that fish provide. However, aquaculture greatly disrupts this process by increasing the amount of waste produced and nutrients present in marine ecosystems without allowing fish to carry out their natural regulatory behaviors.

Animal welfare discourse is important not only because of its ethical implications for nonhuman animals, but also because it acknowledges the multitude of ramifications the animal agriculture industry causes to workers, consumers and the ecosystem. Therefore, although it is pertinent to develop better understandings of the biological experience of fish, it is nonetheless important to prioritize fish welfare regardless. In order to meet increasing global demand, the aquaculture industry is turning a blind eye to increases in disease and injury risk whether through direct impacts on its workers or indirect impacts on consumers and the environment. By advocating for the adoption of fish welfare considerations, the aquaculture industry can choose to develop in a safer and more sustainable path.

Ryan Tseng is an FFAC intern and studies International Studies, Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.