The following post was written by a Fish Welfare Initiative volunteer, Karina Benitez Lin, who is the Corporate Outreach Officer at Igualidad Animal México. If you are interested in similar volunteering opportunities, please reach out.
Public concern about animal welfare is increasing. Consumers demand transparency from companies about the products they sell and often promote and require animal welfare commitments. Cage-free campaigns and the Better Chicken Commitment are some of the most recent examples of public pressure influencing animal welfare standards. Therefore, understanding the public sentiment towards animals is essential for designing effective strategies for improving welfare.
Few studies focus on the perception of animal welfare and meat consumption in an Asian context, and even fewer focus on fish specifically. The map below shows countries for which relevant data on public perceptions towards animals and fish specifically is available. While not being exhaustive, these studies can give an idea of the attitudes towards fish across Asian countries.
Asian countries for which we found data on the public perception of animal or fish welfare are marked in blue.
Asian consumers and animal welfare
Consumers from various countries seem to become more aware of animal welfare issues. Sometimes these sentiments do not lead to action but recently, consumers actively choose products that they associate with higher welfare practices.
In a 2014 survey, only about ⅓ of Chinese citizens reported that they had previously heard of animal welfare (You et al. 2014). Both vegetarianism and organic foods are slowly growing in popularity (Li & Davey 2013). The Chinese government appears to become more open to considering society’s opinions within politics (Li 2006). Whether this creates a favorable environment for welfare reforms in the future is unclear.
In Thailand, Malaysia, and China, consumers associate organic animal products with higher animal welfare (McCarthy et al. 2015; Wee et al. 2014). While organic products are often not equivalent to humanely raised products, this association shows that these consumers may make purchasing choices based upon perceived animal welfare.
For Thai consumers, the health, origin, and sustainability of meat products are most important (in descending order) (Ueasangkomsate & Santiteerakul 2016). Consumers that value these criteria buy organic products. They do so under the impression that animal welfare is an integral part of organic goods, similar to the study participants in China, and Malaysia.
These purchasing behaviors of animal products indicate that consumers are aware of welfare issues to some extent. They actively try to have their voices heard by purchasing organic products following the belief that this means higher welfare.
What about fish?
There seems to be some awareness of animal welfare issues in general. This awareness often does not extend to fish. Especially farmed fish are frequently left out of animal welfare conversations despite evidence demonstrating their ability to suffer and feel stress.
Carp in Amritsar, India. Photo by Prerna Sharma.
In 2010, Rajani (as cited in Conte et al. 2014) found that consumers along Vietnam’s South-Central coast have little knowledge about the ethical problems affiliated with wild-caught fish. Still, they were worried about “pain, fear, and stress during wild fishes harvesting.” These animal welfare concerns, however, did not prevent consumers from buying fish. Consumers also did not discriminate between products with and without ecolabels (Gardiner & Viswanathan 2004; Jacquet & Pauly 2007).
Interestingly, the surveyed Vietnamese population does not extend its concern for animal welfare to farmed fish. In contrast to their wild counterparts, farmed fish are disregarded as not being animals.
Another survey of several Asian countries found that Chinese governments’ and citizens’ awareness of animal welfare is minimal (Bracke 2009). This attitude appears to reflect on fish consumption. Chinese restaurants cook and serve fish alive, and these events are often publicly displayed. The act of cutting and boiling a fish alive is a painful experience for the fish, who suffers for long periods of time. Similar live cooking of fish can be observed in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Republic of Korea. It is unclear to what extent this practice relates to overall public awareness of fish welfare.
In Russia, animal welfare is not on the governments’ radar (Bracke 2009). Instead, “food safety and health” is the usual interpretation of “animal welfare.” Awareness for this definition of fish welfare also differs between regions, with coastal areas being more aware of food safety issues in fish production than central Russia, where fish is mainly imported (Bracke 2009).
Few studies have investigated how people from Asian countries perceive fish welfare. Those available suggest that there is rising concern about the well-being of fishes and other animals across several Asian countries. It is important to keep working to make visible the importance of fish welfare in Asian countries and lay the foundation for successful fish advocacy work in this region.