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Protecting farmed fish

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IN a report published in February, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), the expert committee which advises Defra and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales on farm animal welfare matters, called for tighter regulation of fish farming. It noted that fish are not currently afforded the same regulatory protection as other farmed species, despite having welfare requirements and despite fish farming representing one of the biggest livestock sectors in the UK. While fundamental differences between fish and terrestrial mammals made protection of farmed fish challenging, there was evidence that fish felt pain and, like other farmed species, they deserved, in line with FAWC principles, ‘a life worth living’ or, better, ‘a good life’. For these and other reasons, the committee recommended that ‘UK governments should extend the requirements for terrestrial species in the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations to farmed fish (as appropriate and with suitable modifications) so that there is a clear legal basis for enforcement of basic requirements in all farmed fish species’ (VR, February 22, 2014, vol 174, p 181).

Efforts to safeguard animal welfare must extend throughout the whole of the animal's life and, in a separate report, which was published last week, the FAWC focuses specifically on the welfare of farmed fish at the time of killing.1 This, it points out, is relevant not just when fish are harvested for food, but is also relevant when fish have to be killed for emergency disease control or routine production purposes, or for health or quality assessment sampling. In considering the issues, the FAWC applies much the same approach as it did in its report on the welfare of farmed fish in February, arguing that similar principles should apply to farmed fish as are applied to terrestrially farmed animals. It also highlights gaps in current legislation. As in its previous report, it suggests that, although fish farming often involves dealing with large populations, more consideration should be given to the welfare of individual fish, despite the large numbers involved.

Among the recommendations made by the FAWC are that all personnel involved with the slaughter or killing of fish must be trained, competent and aware of their duty of care, and that, for killing procedures that require it, the time from removal from water to unconsciousness and killing should be kept to a minimum. Transfer to the killing facility should be by a method, and at an appropriate rate, to avoid stress and injury to the fish while also preventing delay before killing, it says, especially if the fish are (partially) out of water. All farmed fish must be stunned before killing, says the FAWC, irrespective of whether death accompanies the stun (as in stun/kill methods) or follows a short time after the stun but before the fish has time to regain consciousness. It also makes the point that emergency killing should not be by methods that would be considered inhumane at other times.

Regarding the current legislative situation, the committee notes that European Council Regulation 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing came into force at the beginning of last year. Although fish are covered by the key principle in the regulation that ‘Animals should be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations’, it specifically excludes detailed provisions for fish, on the grounds that ‘there is a need for further scientific opinion and economic evaluation in this field’. A European Commission report on the possibility of introducing certain requirements is expected towards the end of this year and the FAWC recommends that provisions on the stunning, slaughter and killing of fish should be included in the legislation.

In its report, the FAWC notes that the public's expectations of the minimal ethical standards that should be applied to the killing of farmed fish might be lower than for other farmed species and, indeed, lower than within the industry itself. This, it suggests, may be because ‘fish are less likely than other animals to elicit emotionally based ethical responses such as empathy or compassion’ and because ‘the image of fish caught in the wild or at sea (killed by asphyxiation) is the norm’. It suggests that greater public understanding of the ethical implications around fish farming, rationally informed by scientific evidence, is needed to motivate ethical consumer choice. Like the report in February, this latest report leaves the impression that, although the industry has grown and continues to grow rapidly, animal welfare legislation has still to catch up. Taken together, the two reports do a good job in arguing that the principles applied to terrestrially farmed animals should also apply to fish, and in drawing attention to legislative gaps that need to be filled.

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