Swimming Towards Compassion In Aquaculture
Those in favor of aquaculture often frame it as a sustainable and reliable alternative to catching wild aquatic animals. Since 2000, the aquaculture industry has grown dramatically, even surpassing the scale of farming land animals. While aquaculture has been criticized for its human welfare and environmental threats, the authors of this article worry that the industry is growing so quickly that animal welfare research can’t keep up. In other words, it’s possible that many animals are suffering within an industry that knows nothing about their welfare needs.
To add to this, many aquatic animals possess impressive abilities, including the capacity to solve puzzles, use tools, feel pain, and have a personality. Because the aquaculture industry has only recently exploded in scale, the authors say that farmed aquatic animals haven’t adapted to living in captivity the way many land animals have. There are also high rates of disease and deformities found among these animals. The welfare studies that do exist suggest that farmed aquatic animals are experiencing extreme suffering throughout their lives.
To better examine the potential welfare risks of global aquaculture, this article combined data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with biometric information from FishBase to estimate the diversity and total number of farmed aquatic animals produced in 2018. The authors also conducted a literature search to understand how much animal welfare literature is available about the species being farmed.
The authors found that over 82 million metric tons of aquatic animals comprising at least 408 different species were farmed in 2018. This translates to as many as 408 billion individual animals, including 59-129 billion vertebrates and 91-279 billion invertebrates.
Regarding animal welfare research, they determined that only 25 of the 408 species had at least five publications addressing their welfare, leaving over 383 species with little or no knowledge about their welfare needs. Traditionally farmed terrestrial animals only use about 20 different species, and each has substantial publications on their welfare (even if, in practice, they continue to suffer in the agriculture industry). The authors argue that a lack of aquatic animal welfare research can be seen as a red flag, suggesting severe welfare threats.
The authors conclude by suggesting that more research is needed to form evidence-based animal welfare policies protecting the billions of animals used in aquaculture. In the meantime, ongoing attempts at aquaculture should focus on low-risk species who are least likely to suffer in confinement (for example, seaweed).
They also caution consumers and researchers not to confuse biological health or production quality with welfare, pointing out that an animal’s ability to grow in an environment does not necessarily indicate the conditions are good. Instead, proper welfare should account for psychological health as equally important as biological health when designing a holistic approach to welfare.
While many animal advocates oppose aquaculture, banning the industry won’t happen overnight. As such, the authors’ analysis is useful in outlining ways that we can improve the treatment of farmed aquatic animals until we can transition to a more humane system. As the results suggest, there is a steep lack of research in this area with billions of animals likely suffering as a result. Advocates can use this information to highlight how much we don’t know, and to call for restrictions on aquaculture until we learn more.