European Attitudes Toward Fish Welfare
While the animal movement has had a great deal of success in campaigning for chicken welfare, there’s concern among many advocates that campaigning on behalf of fishes will require a different strategy. Fishes are more distant from us on the evolutionary tree, and we tend to empathize with them less than with other animals we eat. In light of this, winning public support for fish welfare may be difficult. However, an analysis posted on the Effective Altruism Forum indicates that public sympathy for fish runs deeper than our intuitions might suggest.
In the post, the author reviewed six European surveys in-depth, and briefly discussed five others that may be less representative. Of the six main surveys, three took place between 2005 and 2010, and the other three took place between 2015 and 2019. The largest survey (Eurobarometer 2005) involved almost 25,000 consumers across 25 E.U. countries, and the smallest (Frewer et al. 2005) involved 1,000 Dutch consumers. The most recent study was conducted in the U.K. in 2019.
The author notes that a 2018 study of over 9,000 E.U. adults found that 80% of respondents felt that salmon should “probably” or “definitely” be better protected. This drops to about 70% for chickens and pigs. Interestingly, in this study, the number who felt salmon merit greater protection was higher even than for dogs, although people in favor of greater protection for dogs felt more strongly than those in favor of protection for salmon. The author observed that it’s unclear whether these numbers would hold true if respondents were asked about farmed salmon specifically, as the public may care more about environmental factors than animal welfare. Even so, more than half of respondents stated that fishes are sentient and feel both negative and positive emotions.
In contrast to the 2018 study, the Eurobarometer 2005 survey found much less concern for farmed fishes. Less than 10% of respondents selected farmed fishes as one of three animals for whom welfare standards needed most improvement, compared to over 40% for chickens.
The other 2005 study, from the Netherlands, compared attitudes toward fishes to those toward pigs specifically. Respondents believed fishes to be less likely to feel negative emotions (pain, boredom, fear, stress), but slightly more likely to feel pleasure. Around a third of respondents stated that they didn’t know. Broadly, this survey suggested that people care more and are more knowledgeable about welfare for pigs than for fishes.
The 2010 survey from Finland found that almost half of respondents believed welfare for farmed fishes was “fairly” or “very” good. When asked about the cognitive abilities of different animals – including various farmed, companion, and wild animals – respondents estimated salmon and shrimp to be significantly lower than other animals. For example, over 90% believed that chickens feel pain, compared to just over 60% for salmon, and only 43% for shrimp. As with the 2005 study, it seemed that respondents were more uncertain about fishes than other animals, suggesting a knowledge gap to be filled.
Like the other two more recent studies, the 2015 survey from Norway suggested a reasonably high level of concern for fish welfare. This survey asked respondents to indicate how much they agreed that certain animals’ “right not to suffer is equally important as humans’ right to not suffer.” On a six-point scale where 6 meant complete agreement, the mean for dogs was 5, compared to 4.8 for chickens and 4.6 for farmed fishes.
While the studies show positive signs for fish welfare advocates, the author notes that the surveys don’t show how deeply people care. This may hamper progress toward welfare reform. However, some small steps have already been made. For example, campaigns against the sale of live fishes have met with success in the E.U., and the European Commission has recognized fishes as sentient. Additionally, that some companies (e.g. the U.K. supermarket chain Waitrose) make welfare claims about fishes is itself a strangely positive sign: if consumers expressed no interest in fish welfare, there’d be no reason to humane wash their treatment.
Public concern for fishes reveals an opportunity for animal advocates. We kill fishes in astronomical numbers, tearing them from the ocean or raising them for slaughter in farms. Welfare standards for fishes are shockingly poor, even compared to other animals we eat. As this analysis suggests, campaigns for their protection may gather momentum more readily than we expect. Given the scale of their suffering, the lack of attention their welfare has received, and the chances that public opinion would support us, it’s time for animal advocates to fight harder for fishes.