Strategy Update: Our Main Initiative

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Over the past year, Fish Welfare Initiative has conducted farm visits and secondary research to identify the most promising ways to help farmed fish. We conclude that partnering with local NGOs to improve water quality for carp in India is the most promising option for our work. This post will discuss why we chose this focus and what it means for Fish Welfare Initiative moving forward.

Early on in deciding Fish Welfare Initiative’s primary project, we defined four main questions needing to be addressed [1]. These were:

  1. In which country should we enable new work?

  2. On which species should we focus?

  3. For which welfare improvement should we advocate?

  4. What approach should we take?

In the following, we explain our conclusions for each of these.

Country: India

For more information on fish welfare in India, see Fish Welfare Scoping Report: India.

India is the second largest finfish producer globally [2]. It has a robust pre-established animal protection movement [3], but fish welfare still has much room for improvement.

At the time of writing, we have conducted roughly 60 farm visits across India. From the 15 farmers we were able to survey, 67% stated that they were open to collaboration with an NGO to improve the health of their fish [4]. Farmers identified numerous welfare issues on their farms, and water quality appeared to be a significant welfare constraint. Most checked water quality irregularly [5]. Consequently, we believe that there is an opportunity in India to work collaboratively with farmers to increase fish welfare.

A carp farm in West Bengal, India. Source: personal photo.

Ultimately, Fish Welfare Initiative aims to facilitate institutional change. Charity Entrepreneurship found a success rate of 48% for governmental campaigns in India [6]. We are concerned by the issues with enforcement within India (although enforcement of animal protection laws is an issue globally [7]). We are also concerned by the low corporate engagement for Indian major carp farmers, who often sell to local markets [8]. Because of these limitations, Fish Welfare Initiative will likely need to employ a multi-armed approach (using some combination of legislative campaigning, corporate outreach, farmer training, promotion of certification schemes, and so on). We discuss this more below.

With India having a pre-established animal protection movement, it was important for us to understand whether an additional organization would be useful, rather than repetitive. As such, we met with most of the major animal protection organizations in India to discuss this. Their sentiment was that another organization working specifically on fish welfare issues would be useful for their efforts.

We recently hired Karthik Pulugurtha as the Managing Director of our team in India. We are hiring for additional positions as well--if you are an Indian national, see our jobs page.

Note: If you represent an organization in India with which we have not already connected, please feel free to reach out.

Species: Indian Major Carp

For more information on how we came to this decision, see our report Prioritizing Fish Species for Effective Welfare Improvements.

Indian major carp are a group of species (catla, rohu, and mrigal) that are extremely common in Indian aquaculture [9]. According to our survey, they are often farmed without training or technological input [10].

Much of Indian major carp production is centralized in India [11]. This means that improvements to their welfare are less translatable to other countries. However, it also presents exciting opportunities, such as changing legislation for 94% of global catla production with one successful governmental campaign [12]. Indian major carp are some of the most produced finfish species globally by tonnage (catla is 6th, rohu is 9th, and mrigal is 15th) [13].

Aquaculture literature often refers to Indian major carp as "hardy" [14]. As such, we may wonder whether it would be better to work on other species, as these more resilient species could be less affected by adverse welfare conditions. However, in the context of aquaculture literature, we believe that "hardy" tends to refer to a resilience to mortality (and perhaps moribundity). This definition does not necessarily align with being insensitive to negative stimuli, and we should thus be cautious not to conflate them. From our review of the existing research, it appears that catla and rohu are typical in their sensitivity to negative stimuli, both scoring 1.5/3 in our weighted factor model [15]. It seems likely that Indian major carp are more sensitive to water quality issues than catfish, which is the next largest fish group produced in India [16,17]. It is also worth noting that many of the top-produced species in Asia are referred to as hardy [18].

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of working with Indian major carp is that there is a lack of scientifically established standards for safeguarding their welfare (for example, there are no established best practices for electrical stunning pre-slaughter). However, this lack of standards is an unfortunate reality for most of the globally top produced species.

Semi-Intensive Aquaculture Facilities

Another consideration with Indian major carp is their typical management intensity. Though there are no official statistics, it appears from our visits and discussions with experts that a large portion of Indian major carp farms are semi-intensive (i.e., fish gain nutrients from both the natural environment and supplementary feed [19]).

It could be argued that intensive systems should be targeted, as there are generally more fish per farm. This high density means that fewer resources are needed per fish helped (although, semi-intensive farms still hold tens of thousands of individual fish at any given point [20]). It can also seem intuitive that intensive systems have worse welfare conditions.

However, issues prevalent in intensive production tend to be less tractable than those in semi-intensive production (with some exceptions such as slaughter, which is likely more tractable on intensive farms). Intensive systems often have more technological inputs, higher levels of training, and access to better feed. The remaining welfare issues are either exceedingly difficult to solve (such as sea lice) or currently perceived as not beneficial for fish productivity (such as environmental enrichment). Since most research is aimed at fish productivity, there are very few non-productivity-based welfare interventions ready to be implemented, especially for the most produced species in Asia. Thus, welfare issues tend to be less tractable on intensive farms. It is also unclear as to whether welfare is worse for fish in intensive or semi-intensive systems overall. It is likely dependent on the specific species, farm system, management practices, stocking densities, and local water quality.

Fish Welfare Initiative intends to bypass some of the issues of working with lower intensive farming systems by working with coalitions of farmers and NGOs that have existing connections with large numbers of farmers (such as those focused on sustainability and livelihoods).

Another serious concern with focusing on semi-intensive farms is that these tend to be owned by lower-income households. As a result, effects on farm profitability can have serious human-welfare effects. Therefore, Fish Welfare Initiative will ensure that the farmers' well-being is secured throughout our work.

Welfare Improvement: Water Quality

For more information on how we came to this decision, see our report Fish Welfare Improvements in Aquaculture.

Aquaculture literature frequently cites water quality as one of the main components of fish welfare [21]. It affects fish for the entirety of their lives, across all production systems. It dramatically affects tertiary stress responses such as growth rates and is frequently the cause of mortalities [22]. It is also relatively controllable in pond systems, compared to other welfare issues such as disease.

Water quality appears to be a prevalent welfare issue for Indian major carp. From the survey we conducted of farmers in India, 25% said that they thought water quality was a major concern on their farm. 25% of farmers also said disease was a major concern, of which water quality is a necessary part of prevention.

Aeration equipment (currently unused) at a farm in Haryana, India. Technology such as this can lead to improved welfare for fish. Source: personal photo.

However, we are concerned that increasing water quality could enable producers to increase stocking densities, thus resetting welfare by increasing the number of fish. As such, we will need to adopt broader strategies, such as incorporating a stocking density cap or establishing welfare as economically valuable (e.g., through labeling). It is still uncertain as to whether such strategies will be effective at retaining low stocking densities long-term, so this will be a focus of our field testing over the next year.

There are numerous ways to improve the various aspects of water quality. Our current plan is threefold: producing training materials on best pond management practices which can be adopted by partnering NGOs; source funds which partnering NGOs can use to purchase aeration and water quality monitoring equipment (this could be from the state government, financiers, corporate social responsibility funds, and so on); and establish a stocking density caps through pressure from partnering NGOs, as well as farmer producer organizations, corporations, and eventually state governments and certification groups. However, this remains flexible, and will likely be updated over the course of the next year whilst we gain more knowledge on-the-ground.

Approach: Collaborating With Producer-Supporting NGOs and Exploring Further Options

During our approach research, it quickly became apparent that secondary research could not provide sufficient evidence upon which to base a large-scale decision. There is little precedent for welfare work for fish in India, and information accessible online is scarce. As such, we have hired a Managing Director to lead our work in India, Karthik Pulugurtha, who has experience working with producers to introduce organic production. Through a process of targeted research and decision making, we decided to take a flexible approach, focusing primarily on helping producer-supporting NGOs commit to enabling better welfare standards across the farms with which they work.

In India, there exists many NGOs which assist farmers in building an income for themselves and making farming more sustainable [23]. These organizations have built relationships with farmer coalitions, as well as state governments, and use this leverage to improve farming practices through training, resource sharing, market interventions, and technological inputs. Some of the aims of these organizations intersect with FWI’s, as improving water quality decreases costs for farmers and increases environmental sustainability. Some of these NGOs have already shown interest in collaborating with us to improve water quality, and we are currently discussing conducting a pilot study with them.

We believe that collaborating with established producer-supporting NGOS early on is an important step towards increasing visibility for fish welfare issues, and we expect these collaborations to positively impact hundreds of thousands of fish and be a strong launching point for other approaches such as influencing policy. However, we are uncertain of partnering with NGOs as a long-term strategy, and so over 2021 we will also be exploring other options, such as corporate and governmental outreach, in order to gain more information as to how to best scale up fish welfare work.

Although much more research will be needed, this concludes the research phase of Fish Welfare Initiative. Our focus is now implementation.


  1. King-Nobles, H. (2020). New Strategy Updates.

  2. FAO (2020). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.

  3. For a list of existing animal advocacy organizations in India, see Cerqueira, M., et al. (2020). Fish Welfare Scoping Report: India.

  4. Cerqueira, M., et al. (2020). Fish Welfare Scoping Report: India.

  5. Ibid.

  6. See Charity Entrepreneurship’s model here.

  7. See the lack of enforcement within the European Union: Dullaghan, N. (2020). Do countries comply with EU animal welfare laws?.

  8. Cerqueira, M., et al. (2020). Fish Welfare Scoping Report: India.

  9. FAO (n.d.). Genetic Resources Of Indian Major Carps, Their Distribution And Characterization.

  10. Cerqueira, M., et al. (2020). Fish Welfare Scoping Report: India.

  11. FAO (2016). FishStatJ - Software for Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Time Series - numbers from 2020.

  12. Ibid.

  13. FAO (2016). FishStatJ - Software for Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Time Series - numbers from 2018.

  14. See here for examples of Catla, Rohu, and Mrigal being referred to as ‘hardy’.

  15. Billington, T., and Cerqueira, M. (2020). Prioritizing Fish Species for Effective Welfare Improvements.

  16. See our review of two common carp species and two common catfish species in India here: Billington, T., and Cerqueira, M. (2020). Prioritizing Fish Species for Effective Welfare Improvements.

  17. FAO (2016). FishStatJ - Software for Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Time Series - numbers from 2020.

  18. This is based on our experience researching common species in Asia.

  19. FAO (n.d.). Definitions.

  20. This number is speculative based on discussion with Indian farmers, alongside consideration of stocking density and pond area.

  21. For an example of a group calling water quality the most important factor for fish welfare, see: Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (2014). Opinion on the Welfare of Farmed Fish.

  22. Boyd, C. E. (2017). General Relationship Between Water Quality and Aquaculture Performance in Ponds.

  23. Examples include WASSAN, Tata Trusts, and Jaljeevika.