Can We Protect Aquatic Animal Welfare Without Considering Their Sentience?
While most animal advocates need little convincing about the sentience of fishes, it’s still the unfortunate case that parts of the scientific community remain divided about the issue. The express goal of this paper, for example, is to inform readers about the current state of aquatic animal welfare science and regulation, and to urge a purely objective approach to welfare science. The paper starts by noting that the primary basis for existing animal protection regulations is a sense of moral obligation to treat those animals kept in humans’ care humanely. However, this motivation typically extends only to animals deemed capable of experiencing pain and suffering.
Therefore, in deciding whether a given species should be protected under animal welfare laws, it is first necessary to determine whether members of that species are capable of such internal experiences. This paper considers consciousness to be a prerequisite for this ability. When it comes to fish and other aquatic animal species, the question of whether fish have consciousness is still considered unsettled by the authors.
It’s worth noting that there is presently no universally agreed-upon way to measure consciousness or the capacity for suffering (sometimes referred to as “sentience”). Scientists often rely on knowledge of neuroanatomy, observable behaviors, and characteristics of evolution to make this determination for a given species. Yet, the paper argues, questions of animal consciousness will always lead to a dead end, since the science of consciousness is still poorly understood, even in humans. Therefore, according to the authors, to premise aquatic animal welfare regulations on aquatic animal “consciousness” is to set up a regulatory regime rife with controversy, and apt to topple with the next study that challenges the soundness of the currently accepted evidence.
The paper is particularly critical of studies that conclude fish are conscious based on observations of behavior “consistent with” that of an animal experiencing pain. They essentially argue that the decision to give moral meaning to such observations is a decision for politicians and philosophers, not scientists. Indeed, the paper is particularly concerned with eliminating ethical considerations from the scientific debate, urging a pragmatic (rather than a pain-centered) approach to regulating activities that impact aquatic animals.
The “pragmatic approach” to animal welfare considers all species held captive by humans to be in equal need of comfortable conditions, regardless of whether or not the members of a given species are sentient. This is because the pragmatic approach prioritizes objective outcomes over subjective interpretations of animals’ inner experiences. The paper promotes this approach to policymaking for aquatic animal welfare on the assumption that “everyone benefits from keeping aquatic animals in a high state of welfare during capture, holding, husbandry, and through slaughter” since “it is in the interest of the researcher, aquaculturist, and ornamental fish keeper that fish held in captivity live well, and in the interest of the commercial fisher that fish captured in a trawl maintain high flesh quality and, thereby, receive a high market price.” In other words, under the pragmatic approach, restrictions on aquatic animal enterprises should go no further than is beneficial for both the capturers and the captured.
The pragmatic approach can be contrasted with the “precautionary principle” approach, which argues that any uncertainty in animal consciousness should be resolved in favor of the animal, essentially giving animals the benefit of the doubt. The alternative is to ignore the evidence of sentience we do have for being inconclusive, and thus risk causing suffering at massive scales by allowing human activities to go unregulated.
The paper’s authors are critical of the precautionary approach since it shifts the burden of proof onto those whose enterprises are restricted on the basis of “inconclusive” evidence. In order to lift their regulatory burdens, these stakeholders—fishermen and women, aqua-farmers, zookeepers, etc.—would need to disprove the sentience of the protected species they wish to exploit, a feat the authors deem just nearly impossible as definitively proving their sentience. For this reason, the paper argues for a “pragmatic, pro-active problem-solving approach” instead, in which the well-being of fish and other aquatic animals is measured using objective indicators of stress, health, and behavior that are situation- and species-specific and which make no assumption about sentience, pain, or suffering.
After lamenting the growing popularity of the precautionary principle over their preferred pragmatic approach, the paper’s authors spend several pages explaining how growing concern over the possibility of fish sentience is already resulting in greater restrictions on various activities and enterprises—from aquaculture farms, to commercial and recreational fishing, to ornamental fish-keeping in homes, zoos, and aquaria.
The paper concludes by warning that if the regulatory trend continues along its current precautionary-principle trajectory, these industries and activities will continue to be restricted or even banned. The authors of the paper are particularly concerned with eliminating considerations of animal welfare ethics from the scientific debate. They point out that ethically motivated restrictions on the use of aquatic animals in research could hinder scientific breakthroughs that might lead to improved welfare conditions for these species. But the authors seem more motivated by concerns for the economic and cultural interests of the humans that partake in aquatic animal enterprises.
Aquatic animal welfare advocates might balk at the paper’s pragmatist lens. Indeed, the authors’ position clearly prioritizes human economic interests over the substantial (if not entirely certain) risk of causing intense pain and suffering to trillions of aquatic beings. This is unacceptable to many in the animal rights movement.
So, should activists completely disregard this paper? Or does it still offer some valuable insights? Even if we reject the paper’s fundamental position, one troublesome fact remains: As a practical matter, many different human stakeholders must be appeased in order to successfully enact and enforce legal protections for aquatic animals. Therefore, some of the paper’s points might be worth noting (even if you disagree with them) in order to cleverly develop political strategies and alliances that make aquatic animal welfare regulation more successful.