Fish welfare means...
Because of the impact fish welfare can have on other areas of our world,
we believe that higher welfare is the right thing for industry, the environment, and the fish.
Happier fish improve efficiency, business resilience, and worker satisfaction.
The world is changing: People increasingly care about animal welfare, where their products originate from, and what kind of industry their purchase promotes (Conte, 2014; Lai et al., 2018; Buller et al., 2018). With more products than ever before consumers can now choose between animal protein and new alternatives. The only way seafood producers can remain viable in this increasingly competitive and dynamic market is by offering high quality, welfare-oriented products.
Global markets, such as the European Union, have already introduced minimum standards for welfare and humane treatment (German Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food, 2020; Buller et al., 2018). Exporting to these countries requires welfare to be a core part of the production.
Introducing higher welfare standards demonstrates that one is a leader, not a laggard, in this growing movement. The future profitability and resilience of the aquaculture sector lie in welfare-oriented products.
Productivity & Efficiency
Higher welfare and improved efficiency are closely correlated. Efficient production often reflects good animal health. This is partially because disease-infested fish populations are prone to higher mortality rates and reduced yields.
Farmers who improve welfare note less aggression, reduced fin damage, improved growth rates, and improved feed conversion ratios (Stewart et al., 2012; Schneider et al., 2012). One study found that the introduction of aerators to enhance water quality increases survival rates by roughly 43%, which also boosts farm profit (Qayyum et al., 2005).
Welfare-oriented products are also appreciated by customers, who are willing to pay extra for welfare-friendly options (Lai et al., 2018; Eurogroup for Animals, 2018; BENEFISH Final Activity Report, 2010). By improving welfare, farmers not only improve their efficiency, but they can also sell their products for a price premium and increase their revenue.
Farmworkers are generally aware that fish feel pain and that mortalities can be reduced by increasing welfare (Adams, 2019). Several farmworkers told us that they genuinely care about the fish they rear and would like to see welfare improvements on their farms. They acknowledge the importance of appropriate stocking densities and good water quality and worry about emerging diseases in aquaculture farms (Read, 2008). As they are concerned about fish well-being, workers expect that farm operations should minimize suffering.
Operational guidelines that include welfare allow workers to improve fish farming conditions. Workers can actively contribute to higher survival rates which increases their sense of job achievement. Higher welfare is thus the starting point for more fish-friendly operations and employees who fully believe in their work.
Aquaculture end-products can contain bacteria, viruses, biotoxins, and parasites (EFSA, 2008). The presence of these hazardous products is impacted by a lack of fish well-being. Poor welfare suppresses immune functions, enhances pathogen growth, and increases fish’ susceptibility to microbial infections (EFSA, 2008 & EFSA, 2009). Prolonged stress also increases bacterial growth post-slaughter (EFSA, 2009).
To combat this, fish are often treated with antimicrobials. Yet these involve their own health risks: Antimicrobials promote the development of ultra-resistant bacteria strains, which can then leave fish and enter humans (EFSA, 2008 & RUMA Alliance, 2007).
Improving the welfare of fish decreases negative stress and improves immune system functions. Consequently, higher welfare reduces antimicrobial need, slows bacterial growth, and limits bacterial spread. As a result, improved fish welfare supports animal health and food safety.
Pathogens and parasites spread between wild and farmed fish (Naylor, 2005). This occurs when farmed fish escape, when wild fish migrate close to farms, and when wild fish have direct contact with farmed fish through sea cages.
The combination of pathogen presence and stressed fish leads to disease outbreaks. Most outbreaks relate to poor welfare, malnutrition, insufficient health monitoring, stressful transportation, and bad rearing conditions (Aslesen et al., 2009; McClure et al., 2005).
On farms, disease spread can induce financial hardship, food shortages, and even industry failure (Arthur & Subasinghe, 2002). Outbreaks cost the global aquaculture industry an estimated $6 billion per year and are the major breaking point for the sector’s predicted growth (Stentiford, 2017).
Higher fish welfare reduces stress and disease susceptibility. This helps prevent infections and minimizes disease outbreaks. Furthermore, keeping farmed fish healthy ultimately protects local ecosystems (see Ecosystem Health).
Untreated aquaculture wastewater is toxic, degrades the environment, and can disrupt ecosystems (Adams, 2019). Wastewater significantly contributes to eutrophication, causing algal blooms and ocean dead zones (Global Aquaculture Alliance, 2019). Aquaculture waste also contains antimicrobials, leading to health problems if ingested by humans.
Improved fish welfare reduces harmful wastewater generation:
Appropriate stocking densities and less crowding further enhance feeding efficiency and lead to better FCRs (Santos et al., 2010).
Aquaculture that is not welfare-oriented adversely impacts ecosystems in three ways:
Diffused feed from aquaculture operations attracts wild fish. This, in turn, attracts larger predatory fish and mammals (Miller & Semmens, 2002) which are harmful to farm operations and can injure themselves by becoming entangled in aquaculture gear (Barrett et al., 2018).
Wild fish collected near farms are 16 times more likely to have diseases and parasites, which are easily spread between farmed and wild populations (Barrett et al., 2018).
Fish frequently escape from farms and threaten local species by interbreeding, competing for resources, and transmitting diseases and parasites (Flatt & Ryan, 2017).
Optimal farmed fish welfare decreases many of these risks. Under good welfare, fish eat more efficiently, and less feed is diffused to attract wild fish (Miller & Semmens, 2002). Fish are less susceptible to infections and parasites, thereby reducing the likelihood of spreading these to wild populations (Naylor & Burke, 2005). And fish who are less stressed appear to attempt fewer escapes (Cerqueira et al., 2020 & 2017).
Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food sector worldwide and already today over 50% of seafood comes from farms (Ritchie & Roser, 2020). On these farms, between 73 and 180 billion fish are reared at any given time (Fishcount, 2019). In the future, aquaculture will likely expand much further and produce the majority of seafood consumed.
Nevertheless, many fish reared in aquaculture continue to suffer greatly. Welfare issues include diseases, crowding, improper handling, poor water quality, and the inability to display their natural behavior (e.g. Animal Charity Evaluators, 2019, Fish Welfare Initiative, 2019). Consequently, in most aquaculture farms, fish are exposed to constant stress and mortality rates are high (Ashley, 2007).
This suffering is unacceptable because fish are sentient beings capable of feeling pain as much as terrestrially farmed animals (e.g. Brown, 2014; Braithwaite, 2010; Riberolles, 2020; Babb, 2020). Even when there is no legal requirement, we have a moral obligation to provide them with a life worth living. To this end, more humane rearing, transport, and slaughter methods are essential.
Marine Fish Conservation
One of the key arguments in favor of aquaculture is that it reduces the strain on wild fisheries. However, the reality is that aquaculture often increases overfishing due to the wild-caught fish used in fishmeal and fish oil.
Farmed carnivorous fish consume vast amounts of fishmeal and fish oil (Naylor & Burke, 2005), the production of which accounts for almost 70% of wild-caught fish (Changing Markets Foundation, 2019). Producing fishmeal and fish oil impacts ecosystems through habitat modification, food-web collapse, and the introduction of non-native species (Changing Markets Foundation, 2019; Deutsch et al., 2007). Furthermore, food-web collapses and eutrophication decimate wild fish populations. Many coastal communities are reliant on fisheries and population declines threaten their livelihoods. (Changing Markets Foundation, 2019; Wijkström, 2009)
Improving fish welfare through feed management decreases stress and causes fish to eat more efficiently (Martins et al., 2012). As a result, fish need less feed to sustain marketable weight. Less feed means fewer wild-caught fish are required, and thus alleviates overfishing impacts.