A Wakeup Call for Fish Welfare
Fish aren’t generally the first animals you think about when you hear the word “welfare,” and that needs to change. Hundreds of fish species are farmed by the billions, a number so staggering that they cannot simply be forgotten about. While there have been many studies looking at land animals, like chicken and sheep, aquatic farm animals have been sorely neglected.
Unfortunately, this issue has been exacerbated by the fact that there are many elaborate arguments stating fish do not have proper cognitive capabilities to be sentient. However, as more research is being done, behavioral and neurophysiological evidence increasingly shows that most, if not all, fish species are conscious and are capable of suffering from mental stress along with physical stress. Now, more than ever, we have to pay attention to how these animals are feeling and do all we can to improve their welfare rather than being ignorant of their plight.
This paper looks at the importance of fish welfare, and notes that in 1986, Donald Broom defined it as “The welfare of an animal is its state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment.” For an animal to have good welfare, the animal must live a good life. That means we can’t just make sure we remove all the stuff that would decrease their quality of life, but we also have to add things to increase quality of life. Imagine if you were stuck in a room where you had food and water delivered whenever you wanted, and enough space to wander around. While you may be healthy, without being able to go outdoors, or socialize, or engage in a range of other activities, you probably wouldn’t feel like you were living a great life, right?
The first and most popular way to understand fish welfare solely looks at the physical health of a fish: mortality rate, appetite, fin condition, etc. While the fish may be healthy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have good welfare since it completely ignores all of the mental and psychological aspects of their lives. Are they able to engage in their natural behaviors? Do they have the right resources they need? Are they able to make choices in their daily lives? These are some of the few questions that need to start being asked. There have been a few studies that have begun to look at species specific indicators of welfare, like the empirical work on positive experiences of gilthead sea bream and behavioral indicators of positive emotions in zebrafish. However, there are still many species which we know next to nothing about and much more research is left to be done.
Fish are difficult to observe as they spend their lives mostly underwater. Atlantic salmon are one of the best studied and most important fish raised for food, yet we still don’t know much about their behaviors or activities after they migrate back to the ocean, which constitutes a major part of their life. In a farming situation, to account for the natural migration, salmon are raised in freshwater tanks and then moved to sea cages. This raises the concern of whether there are issues removing the entire migration process for these fishes. Do they have a strong urge to migrate? Are there detrimental effects to not allowing them to naturally migrate? What do these fishes need when they reach their ocean living environment? These are just a few of the many questions that are unanswered about the hundreds of million salmon raised every year.
Another issue is that there are many, many different fish species with significant variability between them. Besides all fish needing food and dissolved oxygen, each species has very different needs that all have to be met in order for them to have good welfare. Just as you could assume that two mammals, like a mouse and an elephant, wouldn’t have the same needs, you can’t assume that two species of fish would be exactly the same. We also need to account for how a fish’s needs change throughout their life cycles. A steelhead trout would typically migrate between freshwater and saltwater environments multiple times throughout their lifetime. We don’t know why the trout does this so we don’t know how to account for this when farming them. If they are not allowed to perform the behavior of migrating, will it decrease their welfare? Or do they migrate in order to just have access to different resources? Without answers to these questions we don’t know how to supply what these fishes need.
Fish are not and likely will never be domesticated like our typical land farmed animals. All our knowledge of how to take care of these species come from observations of them in the wild. Unfortunately, farmed fishes are living very different lives than they would naturally, making these observations significantly less useful. Producers are selecting for traits that would improve production for fish but aren’t paying attention to the welfare issues that may arise because of this breeding.
The fish industry has grown tremendously, and is hard to match in terms of the sheer number of animal lives it affects — meanwhile, the industry doesn’t have the welfare knowledge necessary, nor the will, to keep up with what needs to be done. We made many mistakes as a society in the development of the factory farming of land animals. We have an opportunity to learn from those mistakes and change the course of fish farming. The lives of billions of animals are on the line.