At Fish Welfare Initiative our mission is to reduce as much suffering as possible for fish. But why focus on fish in the first place? How much do individual fish in aquaculture suffer, and is there anything we can even do about it?
Below we discuss our reasoning for choosing fish.
Causes of Suffering
Farmed fish face both acute and chronic issues of pain and distress.
On the chronic side, bad water quality is the most likely candidate for the cause of greatest suffering, as it is amongst the most important aspects of fish welfare  and likely suboptimal in many aquaculture systems . Levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature, pH, and other factors all influence water quality . To get some sense of what it would be like for a fish to not have enough dissolved oxygen, one can imagine what it would be like to constantly lack enough oxygen in the air.
Farmed fish also suffer from disease, an inability to express their natural behaviors, and parasitic infections. Salmon in particular face high rates of sea lice infections, with half of farms in salmon-heavy Scotland having recorded sea lice problems in the previous four years according to one study . Playing host to sea lice seems not unlike the experience of being eaten alive.
On the acute side of suffering, slaughter is particularly horrific. Our understanding is that most fish are not stunned before slaughter. Some have their gills cut and are left to bleed out. Others are hauled onto land and put onto ice to later die by asphyxiation. Fish are conscious during most of this process, which can take up to and over an hour .
Handling and transportation also cause fish severe distress. In order to grade, relocate, and vaccinate them, fish are handled multiple times throughout their lives . Transportation, while likely stressful whenever it occurs, is particularly concerning when fish are bought and sold live at market, where they may be left out of water for extended periods and killed at home .
It is important to note that, although inhumane slaughter and cruel handling methods are more obviously distressing, they do not necessarily account for most of the suffering in the lives of farmed fish. This is because they only last for a tiny fraction of a fish’s life, while factors such as poor environmental conditions cause fish a lifetime of suffering.
Why not wild-caught fish?
Wild-caught fish also face numerous issues. Some of these, including their brutal deaths and complications due to pollution, are caused by humans. Others, including disease, parasitism, and hunger, are not (although this does not seem sufficient reason to not work on these issues - see Wild Animal Initiative).
Because humans have overall much less influence over the lives of wild-caught fish, our focus for the foreseeable future will be on farmed fish. Additionally, the number of farmed fish stands to increase much more than the number of wild-caught fish .
Fish Feel Pain
There is still widespread skepticism of whether fish can feel pain. However scientifically, a clear consensus has emerged: fish are conscious creatures who feel pain . Furthermore, the more we learn about fish the more complex and morally relevant they appear. For instance, fish have preferences  and adaptive emotional states . One fish species recently passed the mirror test for self-awareness . We recommend the book What A Fish Knows to learn more about the complex mental lives of fish.
The number of fish farmed each year is massive. The FAO only reports fish in tonnage produced , which is indicative of the moral value our society affords to fish. However, thanks to rough calculations done by Fishcount we know that there are roughly 73 to 180 billion farmed fish alive at any given point . To put this into perspective, there is roughly the same number of farmed fish alive today as there have been humans that have ever lived on Earth.
Furthermore, the number of farmed fish only stands to increase. Fish aquaculture is growing rapidly, in part because it is seen as the solution to overfishing our oceans .
Fish are neglected in the animal movement. Only a few undercover investigations have focused on fish, and few campaigns have been conducted to advance their interests . This is changing, however, with many animal advocacy organizations now considering how they can reduce fish suffering .
Part of the reason that fish have been historically neglected is simply due to our species’ lack of empathy for them . However, there are also specific difficulties in working with fish that help perpetuate their neglect within the animal advocacy movement.
Unlike other farmed animals like pigs and chickens, which are comprised of only a handful of similar species, 362 species of fish are farmed by humans . These species have dramatically different welfare requirements. Some, like catfish, do well at levels of dissolved oxygen that would be catastrophic for other species . Others, like tilapia, can survive at stocking densities that would kill other species .
Regional difficulties also cause fish to be neglected: Most farmed fish are in places that the animal movement is still developing. Asia in particular accounts for roughly 88% of the global tonnage of farmed fish produced, with China itself accounting for 50% of global tonnage . There are currently significant logistical and cultural impediments to animal advocacy in Asia .
Lastly, because of our lack of empathy towards fish, corporate campaigns that try to achieve change via consumer opinion will struggle more with fish than with other farmed animals.
This paints a bleak picture, but we believe that the neglect fish have suffered is precisely why now is the time to fight for their well-being. We have the chance to positively affect billions of animals' lives, and help lead the way for others to do the same. Moreover, as the animal movement continues to turn its attention towards fish, it will become of greater importance still that we join together to make informed and impactful decisions for their well-being.
Do we have reliable ways to improve and influence fish welfare? This remains to be seen. At Fish Welfare Initiative, we intend to prove that it can. We plan to do this through systematic researching and experimenting with various types of campaigns for welfare, from lobbying governments and corporations to simply giving farmers equipment that promotes better welfare outcomes for fish. Our future blog posts will outline these plans further.
In this piece we have outlined a broad picture of why we believe farmed fish are worth working on. To summarize: fish are complex beings that can and regularly do suffer within aquaculture. This suffering has not yet been adequately addressed, especially when considering the enormous and growing scale of aquaculture. We believe that now poses a unique opportunity to coalesce as an animal advocacy movement around this important issue.
Many more questions remain. How much do individual fish suffer? Is there anything we can reliably do to reduce this suffering? Should we focus on chronic or acute suffering? Should we focus on working in Asia, with their high production, or other countries where the animal movement is more established? Our goal at Fish Welfare Initiative is to answer these questions in order to maximize our positive impact. If you’re interested in building an animal movement that works for all species, including fish, we encourage you to reach out.
2. We expect that water quality is often suboptimal from our conversation with a local fish farm, as well as our understanding of fish farming in India. Additionally, several studies (Hoque 2018 Pages 32-33, Marques 2018, Boyd 2010) have found suboptimal levels of different aspects of water quality, especially dissolved oxygen. It is difficult to tell how suboptimal water quality is, as it is comprised of so many factors and can vary dramatically even within the same facility.
3. Colt 2006, Page 148
4. OneKind 2018
9. See this compilation of studies written in response to one study that asserted that fish do not feel pain. Nearly all of the responding studies affirmed that fish do in fact feel pain.
10. Snekser 2006
11. Braithwaite 2011
12. PLOS 2019
13. FAO 2018, Pages 2-3
16. The only two investigations focusing on finned fish that we are aware of were conducted by Mercy for Animals, and can be found here and here. Also see Compassion in World Farming’s campaign for humane slaughter in the EU.
17. This is based off of our conservations with and knowledge of Mercy for Animals, Compassion in World Farming, ProVeg, Animal Equality, and Albert Schweizter.
18. Harrison 2010
19. FAO 2016, Page 22
20. Coche 1996, Page 30
21. This is based off of our unpublished conversation with a British fish farmer.
23. See Animal Charity Evaluators’ report Animal Advocacy in India for a sample of the difficulties involved with animal advocacy in Asia.