Defining Fish Welfare
Defining animal welfare is a complex process, and something we have been in the process of doing for farmed animals for decades now. It’s a process that seeks to create a definition that can have a positive influence on animals, but also may have ripple effects that result in social and environmental benefits. Needless to say, many aquaculture facilities don’t provide their fishes with the necessary environment to attain a good level of welfare. In this report, the Fish Welfare Initiative considered the working definition of welfare for fishes by reviewing different theories and further definitions.
Even though there are many different definitions of animal welfare, most of them fall into one of three categories: feeling-based definitions focus on the emotional well-being of the animal by reducing negative experiences and enhancing positive ones; function-based definitions concentrate on the animal’s health, based on their ability to adapt to their environment; and nature-based definitions take the biological nature of the animal into account, where good welfare means that the animal can express their natural behaviors. The report notes that, while useful in other contexts, these definitions are impractical for fish farming because it is a process where fish can’t be completely sheltered from negative experiences (e.g. diseases), live in entirely natural environments, or where we can track their emotional states sufficiently.
Historically, as public consciousness about animal welfare grew in the late 1970s, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, U.K. defined five ”freedoms” that farmers should guarantee their animals. The ”Five Freedoms” model is practical, since it outlines achievable goals. Those five freedoms include: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from environmental challenges (e.g. water quality or temperature), freedom from pain, injury, and disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.
However, the ”Five Freedoms” model is criticized in the report as it applies to fish welfare because it suggests that the optimum environment is without stressors. Instead, FWI notes, a large body of research shows that fish can not only adapt to their environment, but they need certain biological challenges to reach optimal well-being and to get a sense of stability through a dynamic nature. This process is called ”allostasis”, and it fulfills fishes’ freedom to express natural behavior by creating a proper degree of stimulation. As a result, fishes can achieve a balance between positive and negative experiences, which improves their quality of life.
Fish Welfare Initiative’s aim is to ensure that their definition of welfare can be applied by all the different stakeholders which are part of fish welfare. Therefore, their sentience-based definition makes use of the ”Five Freedoms” model with an emphasis on allostatic principles, which highlights the subjective experience of fishes — that they are not passive observers in their environment and are instead active participants — and allows them the freedom to adapt to and learn from controlled stressors.
As animal advocates, we have to understand the complexity of animal welfare and the need of the animals to express natural behavior, so we can help them experience a life worth living. Different species — and indeed different classes — of animals need definitions of welfare that suit their needs and interests, so that they can have the best chance at a natural life.