Aquatic Animal Welfare: Exploring The Scientific Basis
The well-being of aquatic animals is a relevant issue for many: researchers, fishers, resource and fishery managers, aquaculturists, fish farmers, zookeepers, aquarists, and — naturally — animal advocates. This essay is the collective work of a large, multidisciplinary group of researchers from multiple countries, including Australia, Norway, and Singapore. With a focus on current research in aquatic animal welfare, the group attempted to separate ethical arguments from the scientific debate while applying organized skepticism to the latter. The main aim of the essay is to assess our present knowledge of aquatic animal sentience and welfare, determine where further research is needed, and identify tough questions that are difficult to resolve without any doubts.
The authors point out that if the regulatory environment continues adding more aquatic animals to those already regulated, activities in several sectors could be severely restricted or even banned. The European directive currently only protects vertebrates and cephalopods used in scientific procedures. In the European Union, regulations don’t safeguard the well-being of aquatic animals in areas such as commercial and recreational fishing, aquaculture, and ornamental fish keeping, nor do they protect free-living animals in the wild. In fact, they only apply to animals that are classified as sentient, even though the term is not clearly defined in the EU regulations.
Nonetheless, some researchers propose that all animals may be sentient. Consequently, they argue that we should apply the precautionary principle and extend the benefit of the doubt to all aquatic animals. This would mean ensuring the same level of protection we currently give to other sentient animals. However, the researchers have one issue with this approach: Since it can’t be falsified, it is an untestable hypothesis that, by definition, is not scientific. Some researchers have also questioned whether we can, in fact, compare animals’ experiences of noxious stimuli to our own. Due to differences in the reception mechanisms involved, they claim that the search for equivalence is a form of anthropomorphism. The authors acknowledge that some element of personal value will always be involved in research work, but scientists are well-advised to remain impartial and separate scientific questions about sentience and pain from their ethical implications.
We are moving toward a future where human use of all aquatic animals will be far more restrictive in the world’s most affluent countries, at the very least. The authors’ assessment of how much we actually know about aquatic animals doesn’t imply that the treatment of aquatic animals should be unregulated. Instead, it’s meant to call attention to weaknesses in the scientific basis that presumes all aquatic animals are sentient, and thus experience pain and suffering. More restrictive aquatic animal regulations have several key implications:
Animals In Scientific Research
Regulations and restrictions in this field are bound to make animal research more difficult to approve. In turn, this could slow down research that may contribute to a better understanding of aquatic animal sentience, pain, and suffering, the researchers argue.
Aquaculture And Commercial Fishing
Statistically, modern aquaculture is one of the most productive sources of protein for human consumption. Greater difficulties in conducting research in this field could retard technological improvement, leaving society less able to produce high-quality protein and resulting in huge environmental and economic constraints and food insecurity in poorer societies.
Because catch-and-release fishing is commonly deemed to cause unnecessary suffering to fish, the only legally accepted reason for recreational fishing would be to harvest and consume the catch, which would lead to a far greater number of fish deaths. Since life can be identified as the major component of well-being, the researchers propose that catch-and-release should be the preferred mode of fishing.
Ornamental Fish Keeping
In Europe, current regulatory standards don’t apply to ornamental fish keepers, aquaria, and zoos. One reason for this could be its impracticality. Losing ornamental fish keepers, for example, would undermine a large support base for aquatic animal welfare and their conservation, not to mention jeopardize millions of jobs worldwide.
To progress beyond the pain-centered approach, the researchers suggest establishing species-specific and measurable welfare indicators such as behavior, physiology, growth, fecundity, health, and stress. They also call for greater emphasis on achieving a win-win reality where more stakeholders would benefit from ensuring a high state of aquatic animal welfare. It should be in the best interest of researchers, ornamental fish keepers, and commercial fishers that fish remain healthy, for example. And there is also growing insistence among consumers for animals to be well-treated antemortem. The research group argues that such a win-win approach could more effectively gain the support of all stakeholders involved.
The researchers’ apparent position — that preventing negative socioeconomic implications for humans is more important than preventing the immense suffering of aquatic animals — may leave animal advocates with a bitter taste. It’s important to note, however, that their position has limitations. Although the group refrained from anthropomorphism (deeming it nonscientific), their preferential evaluation of human suffering is arguably not scientifically supported either. After all, some argue that life is more critical to an organism’s well-being than its socioeconomic status. Furthermore, some scientific methods in animal research, including AI-assisted modelling and various synthetic systems, don’t involve real animals. It’s also worth mentioning that the researchers declared no conflicts of interest, even though eight of the 12 authors conduct research on aquatic animals or work directly in the aquaculture and fishing sectors.
Despite the limitations of the authors’ essay, it does provide some useful takeaways for animal advocates. Higher animal welfare demands should always be followed by offering strategies for alleviating negative impacts on human stakeholders. This can help us deliver our message effectively while offering benefits across the board. Additionally, well-defined and scientifically backed animal behavior terms — as called for by the authors —would undoubtedly add merit to our cause.