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Prioritizing Fish Species for Our China Work

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Fish Welfare Initiative’s work in China has seen us research the welfare of farmed fishes in China, partner with the International Cooperation Committee of Animal Welfare (ICCAW), and co-host the first Aquatic Animal Welfare Forum at the World Conference on Farm Animal Welfare (WCFAW).

Progressing further, we recently assisted ICCAW to identify 2 fish species to prioritize for welfare interventions in China—grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), a freshwater species, and large yellow croaker (Larimichthys crocea), a marine species. While over 300 species are farmed in China, in varying living environments and with diverse welfare needs, these 2 priority species represent effective targets for developing welfare standards specific to Chinese aquaculture.

In this post, we detail the evaluation criteria we used and why priority species are helpful to design welfare standards.

Grass carp, the freshwater species identified as a priority species for developing welfare standards in China. Credit: Vladimir Wrangel/iStock.

Large yellow croaker, the marine species identified as a priority species for developing welfare standards in China. Credit: Lihua Jiang via FishTEDB.

Animal Welfare Work in China

China's aquaculture industry is responsible for almost 57% of world production and raises over 300 species of aquatic animals. We found that aquatic animal welfare is a relatively new sphere of research and offers many opportunities to identify roadmaps for future welfare work in China.

To assist ICCAW in developing welfare standards, we conducted research, complemented by field visits to Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Shanghai in collaboration with ICCAW, to understand bottlenecks in improving welfare for aquaculture stakeholders.

An expert from a feed company helps farmers understand the feeding status of grass carp at a farm in Jiangsu province, China.

Selecting Priority Species

Identifying criteria

Our previous research informed much of our criteria for deciding which fish species should be prioritized (see pages 7–10 of Prioritizing Fish Species for Effective Welfare Improvements). While there are 5 main criteria we used to identify priority species in the past, we chose to focus on only 3 of them: poor rearing conditions, number of fishes raised, and tractability.

See the image below for an explanation of these criteria. We further subdivided poor rearing conditions and tractability to account for the Chinese aquaculture context.

(Click the image to expand it.) The criteria used in selecting priority species for marine and freshwater aquaculture in China. While there are 5 main criteria we used to identify priority species in the past, we chose to focus on only 3 of them (marked with green check marks). This is because of the limited available data and information on the other criteria. We subdivided “poor rearing conditions” and “tractability” to account for the Chinese aquaculture context.

Our literature review and field visits provided important context for Chinese aquaculture and helped us refine our criteria. Primarily, the context-specific insights were:

  • Most freshwater species are farmed in a polyculture system, i.e. multiple species are farmed together. By targeting the species reared in highest numbers in such farms (called the majority species) for welfare improvements, we can positively impact other species in the system as well.

  • Species that are more industrialized in Chinese aquaculture, as opposed to those reared in small-scale family farms, make more realistic and practical targets for welfare improvements.

  • Aquaculture farmers are likely to be more incentivized to prioritize and invest in the welfare of species considered more expensive or valuable in the market.

Some criteria, although important, were not considered purely due lack of sufficient information and research available.

Evaluating fish species

A literature review of 280 peer-reviewed papers helped us evaluate all species of farmed fishes and then shortlist 8 freshwater species and 4 marine species for further analysis. All information required to evaluate these species against our selected criteria (explained in Identifying criteria) was also obtained through additional literature review and 12 visits to aquaculture farms.

We then ranked the 12 shortlisted species (see Tables 1 and 2 below) based on all available data. As most of the available information was descriptive and not quantitative, this ranking remains subjective. Without a predefined numerical scale to compare all species against, some species ranked the same on certain criteria.

Table 1: Our Ranking of Shortlisted Freshwater Species for Suitability as Priority Species in Chinese Aquaculture

Freshwater Species

Preliminary Ranking by FWI

Pond Loach


Silver Carp


Striped Bass


Crucian Carp




Bighead Carp


Grass Carp


Common Carp


Table 2: Our Ranking of Shortlisted Marine Species for Suitability as Priority Species in Chinese Aquaculture

Marine Species

Preliminary Ranking by FWI

Large Yellow Croaker




Groupers Nei




Note that grass carp, the freshwater species finally selected to be a priority species, ranked low in our preliminary rankings. This is explained by how each shortlisted species fared on our selection criteria. After the FWI team ranked the species, we consulted with three Chinese experts from Shanghai Ocean University and Zhejiang University to better understand the context of welfare interventions in China.

Input from these experts helped us appreciate that species ranking high on our selection criteria don't necessarily make better targets for welfare interventions in China, based on other aspects specific to Chinese aquaculture.

As an example, consider the pond loach. This species has high tractability, is frequently raised in poor conditions, and is farmed in significant numbers in China. However, pond loach farming is also limited to only some regions in China, and the species is not as widely known across all aquaculture regions as the grass carp. Improving welfare conditions for the pond loach, while being an important goal unto itself, would not be as impactful as focusing on a species that is better known among farmers, represented better in the aquaculture market, and more culturally ubiquitous.

Therefore, following the expert recommendations, we performed weighted scoring of all our ranked species and reassessed our shortlist. These detailed evaluations for freshwater species and marine species are publicly available. Note that we did not perform fieldwork to evaluate farmers’ willingness to improve the welfare of marine species. This criterion was therefore left out of our analysis.

Despite the inherent subjectivity of our approach, we believe that the ranking and selection process are valuable and shed light on a poorly-understood problem.

Identifying two priority species

Finally, we identified one freshwater species and one marine species as having the highest potential for building an impactful and effective welfare standard in China:

  • Grass carp, the freshwater priority species widely consumed in China, accounts for 21% of all farmed species in China and is reared in intensive pond farming systems. Disease rates in grass carp still remain high and medicines for these fishes are often overused.

  • Large yellow croaker is the most farmed marine species in China, reared in intensive cage farming systems. Their high disease rates have drawn the attention of the Chinese government, research, and society.

We believe that identifying these priority species will catalyze important conversations and actions toward bettering the lives of farmed fishes in China.

Our Upcoming Plans

We will continue working with ICCAW and fish welfare experts to develop welfare standards for the 2 priority species: grass carp and large yellow croaker. In time, we hope this will further advance fish welfare in China through impactful and practical solutions.

Want to help us reduce the suffering of fishes, or share your thoughts on our work? Check out our jobs page or contact us. Thanks for your interest in our organization!

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