Advocacy To Shape Asian Fish Farming
Asian countries produce the bulk of the world’s fish products. Many of these fishes are raised on farms where, similar to elsewhere in the world, a lack of training, resources, and regulations creates inhumane conditions for fishes. While each country has its own opportunities for intervention and its own challenges, all are poised to step up fish production in the near future, shifting production from small-scale farms to larger-scale industrial operations. It is urgent that advocates act now in their local contexts while the industry is still being shaped.
Fish Welfare Initiative (FWI) has published a report which, while not peer-reviewed, incorporates data and findings from the UN, government reports, dozens of peer-reviewed academic studies, conversations with experts in the field, and FWI site visits to farms in India and Vietnam. Because the five largest producers are in South, East, and Southeast Asia, the report focuses on these regions.
The report finds that most of Asia’s farmed fish are raised on small family farms in rice fields, ponds, or cages in open water. Many of these farmers are drawn to the industry by the promise of profits, but lack the knowledge and training to maintain healthy conditions for the fishes they raise. Instead of buying expensive commercial feed that has been precisely formulated, they may make their own. This can either undernourish their fishes, leading to stress, aggression, and disease, or oversaturate the water, causing poor water quality and crippling the fishes’ immune systems. Farmers often lack the technology to monitor water quality or detect disease or parasite outbreaks. In growing economies where fish farmers sometimes face economic instability and food insecurity, the fish’s welfare isn’t always their first priority.
To compound the problem of resource-strapped farmers, there is a broad lack of fish welfare legislation, and laws that do exist are usually vague and difficult to enforce. This means fishes are not only raised in unhealthy conditions, but also transported unsafely, suffering stress and injury, and slaughtered inhumanely by immersion in salt baths, having their gills slit, or being left to asphyxiate. Some fish are even killed at market, which causes needless and prolonged suffering prior to slaughter, or are eaten or boiled while still alive, due to culinary preferences. There are certification agencies operating in Asia that seek to ensure high farming standards, but their focus is on food safety, not animal welfare. In any case, small-scale farmers generally cannot afford to certify, and if they do, the certification is not legally binding, leading to widespread skepticism among Asian consumers of certification labeling. Many farms that can’t meet the certification standards for global export end up selling locally or exporting to other Asian countries with less stringent requirements.
The situation for fishes is dire, but right now is an prime window of opportunity for animal advocates to intervene. The fact that laws are vague and open to interpretation by judges, whose rulings will shape future legislation, means that educating judges can have a far-reaching impact. The projections of dramatic growth in Asian aquaculture in the coming decades mean that any positive change advocates make now will be magnified. In order to achieve the expected growth, Asian aquaculture will have to address fish welfare, if only to combat high fish mortality that will otherwise stunt the industry’s expansion, so there is an economic motive for farmers and producers to provide healthier conditions for their fishes. Farmers in the region are open to education and training if they can be made available. With many animal welfare organizations already working or planning work on fish welfare in the region, there is potential for collaboration between organizations. Growing interest in animal welfare among Asia’s youth invites public education efforts from local animal advocates. Fish-specific data is lacking, but studies on pig products suggest that consumers are often willing to pay a premium for humanely raised animal products, if only the certification bodies can achieve credibility.
Any welfare work for these farmed fish will have to be undertaken with great sensitivity and with consideration for each country’s unique culture, regulatory situation, aquaculture landscape, and social values, and it’s likely that local advocacy efforts will have the best impact. Advocacy leaders expect the work of improving the welfare of Asia’s farmed fish to be a long march. It will require advocates to build relationships and trust with industry leaders, which will take time. It’s critical to start now.