Farmed Fish Welfare

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (1), aquaculture (fish farming) is the fastest-growing, animal-based food production sector. In 1990 aquaculture accounted for just 13% of total global fish supply, this grew to 40% in 2010, and estimated figures for 2014 show that this figure has risen again to 50% (2). It is difficult to estimate the number of individual fish involved, but it is thought to be in the region of 37 and 120 billion (3).

Alongside the expansion of aquaculture there has also been a steady growth in our understanding of the behaviour and welfare of fish. However, although it is now widely accepted that fish can suffer, there are still large gaps in our knowledge on how best to keep fish. Additionally, there is currently limited legislation to protect fish welfare in most countries. Within the UK, the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, afford fish a basic level of protection (due to a duty of care requirement and prevention of unnecessary suffering), but fish are excluded from the more detailed Welfare of Farm Animals (England) Regulations 2007 (and similar legislation in Scotland and Wales).

The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) (3) wrote a report on farmed fish welfare in 2014 and at this time, water quality was considered to be the most important factor affecting fish welfare. Other issues highlighted include: fin damage, disease transmission and social behaviour (e.g. feed competition, displacement of subordinate fish, territoriality); bacterial and viral diseases; parasites; skin damage; crowding before and during transport; handling of fish out of water; genetics (many eggs are imported and there may be a mismatch of genotype to environment); and nutrition.

There are also a number of features inherent to fish farming systems that make assessing and managing fish welfare challenging, such as: very large group numbers (tanks or pens may hold in excess of 100,000 fish); limited viewing opportunities (often only the surface of a pen is visible which raises difficulties when monitoring, inspecting and for individual identification); and operational variation (farms may consist of on-shore tanks, fresh water systems or sea pens). Additionally, there are added complications to understanding and managing fish and their needs due to species variation – the biological and behavioural needs of different fish species varies widely. A further obstacle to achieving good fish welfare at present is that people do not empathise with fish as they do with mammals.

Ensuring good farmed fish welfare is complex and challenging and there is still much to learn. Other livestock industries are much further along in their understanding of the animals within their care and fish farming is still very much in the early stages.

Examples of UFAW supported projects in this area:

In 2005 student Jessica Mettam was awarded an Animal Welfare Research Training Scholarship to enable her to carry out her doctoral research into ‘Detection and alleviation of pain in fish’, under the supervision of Dr Lynne Sneddon at the University of Liverpool. Jessica submitted her PhD thesis in 2010. 

Through its small project and grant awards, UFAW has supported conference sessions and workshops on fish welfare, including a workshop on the welfare of fish in experimental research, within the 6th World Fisheries Congress, Edinburgh, 2012, and a fish welfare session at Aquaculture Canada 2009.

In 2013 Dr Jenny Landin, University of Exeter, was supported in her research to investigate whether brain monoamines are an optimum physiological indicator of fish welfare. 

Selected papers on fish welfare published in the UFAW Journal, Animal Welfare:

Folkedal, O; Pettersen, JM; Bracke, MBM; Stien, LH; Nilsson, J; Martins, C; Breck, O; Midtlyng, PJ; Kristiansen, T. 2016. On-farm evaluation of the Salmon Welfare Index Model (SWIM 1.0): Theoretical and practical considerations. Animal Welfare V25(1), pp 135-149.

Braithwaite, VA; Salvanes, AGV. 2010. Aquaculture and restocking: implications for conservation and welfare. Animal Welfare V19(2), pp 139-149. UFAW.

Braithwaite, VA; Huntingford, FA. 2004. Fish and welfare: Do fish have the capacity for pain perception and suffering? Animal Welfare V13(suppl1) pp87-92. UFAW.

Robb, DHF; Kestin, SC. 2002. Methods used to kill fish: Field observations and literature review. Animal Welfare V11(3), pp 269-282. UFAW.

References:

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013: World food and agriculture. FAO. Rome. ISBN 978-92-5-107396-4. ISSN 2225-7373.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016: Contributing to food security and nutrition for all. FAO. Rome. 200pp. ISBN 978-92-5-109185-2. ISSN 1020-5489.
  3. Mood, A., and Brooke, P. Estimating the Number of Farmed Fish Killed in Global Aquaculture Each Year. 2012. http://fishcount.org.uk/published/std/fishcountstudy2.pdf
  4. FAWC Opinion on the Welfare of Farmed Fish. Farm Animal Welfare Committee. February 2014. 40pp A4. Available for download from the FAWC website: http://www.defra.gov.uk/fawc/advice-2/opinions/ or by contacting the FAWC at the following address: Area 5E, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR.