Why fish welfare matters

On 15/06/2017, in All posts, by Animal Welfare Intergroup

Fish is the most important single source of high-quality protein, providing 16% of the animal protein consumed by the world’s population. The demands of the steadily growing world population outstrip the sustainable yield of the seas. Fishing has become more and more industrialised, causing widespread depletion of wild fish stocks, and frequently serious damage to whole marine ecosystems. To outweigh the shortfalls in wild fish capture, fish and shellfish farming have grown rapidly during the last two decades. All in all over 1 trillion fish are caught or farmed every year.

Today, the Animal Welfare Intergroup has dedicated its monthly session to fish and in particular to their welfare as it is an issue that has been widely ignored so far.

In his presentation Douglas Waley, the Fish Welfare Programme Leader at Eurogroup for Animals, demonstrated that fish welfare is important and that there are possible actions to improve their well-being. Traditionally, fish are seen as simple creatures but we increasingly understand them as complex and social creatures. Their physiology and behaviour gives clear evidence that they experience pain, fear and stress in ways we are already familiar with. Their hormonal response to stress is virtually identical to that of mammals.

Humans impact on the welfare of fish in a variety of ways, including degradation of the environment, through using them in research, but nowhere more directly or on such a scale as in the production of food products. In aquaculture systems fish are bred and kept through their life cycles until slaughter. The animal welfare problems include excessive stocking densities, low water quality, food deprivation, a variety of genetic modifications and handling during transport and slaughter.

Wild fish are fortunate to have a natural life, but major welfare issues begin when they are captured. Trawl nets pursue fish, sometimes for several hours, to the point of exhaustion. Fish suffer decompression effects as they are raised from the deep. Death is variously from circulatory failure, asphyxiation on board, or during processing as they are gutted, filleted or frozen alive.

Doug Waley stressed the need to improve the welfare of fish through better regulation and said “We need the support of the European Parliament and we hope to taking this issue forward with all of you. Our longer term vision is that higher welfare fishing and aquaculture go hand in hand with reduced consumption of fish.”

Anja Hazekamp MEP (GUE/NGL, NL), an active member of the EP Fisheries Committee, gave a presentation about the current legal and policy context of fish welfare in the EU.  She stressed that there is EU legislation that covers fish welfare, notably the General Farming Directive, the Transport Regulation and the Slaughter Regulation. However their application to fish is particularly weak, partly because they lack provisions specific to fish such as exist for example in the Animal Testing Directive. During the last term, several references to fish welfare were also included in a Parliament own initiative report by Guido Milana (S&D, IT) on the sustainable development of European aquaculture. The Intergroup on Animal Welfare is pressing for the newly established Animal Welfare Platform to take up this issue. Concluding Ms Hazekamp said: “We are looking forward particularly to the publication this autumn of two Commission reports on the welfare of fish during transport and slaughter in European aquaculture”.

Dos Winkel, Director of the Fish first Foundation, spoke about why fish welfare matters. He has been a diver and underwater photographer for three decades and has seen the underwater world deteriorate at an incredibly fast speed. Ten years ago, he decided to quit his work as a physical therapist and teacher in Orthopaedic medicine and devote the rest of his life to ocean conservation and marine animal welfare. He is the founder of the Sea First Foundation, an educational organisation that teaches at schools and universities, about the importance of the oceans, the threats and – especially – the solutions.  Dos did not know much about life in the ocean, but by discussing many topics with some of the world’s most renowned scientists, he learned a lot about all of the different aspects that cause life in the ocean to die: overfishing, by-catch, pollution climate change and ocean acidification as the most important causes. These have a great impact on marine animal welfare. Because of ocean pollution, we nowadays see many more wild fish with cancer; we see fish physiology change because of ocean acidification and we see fish migration because of climate change. Dos had – like most people – no idea about how intelligent fish can be and had no idea about the fact that fish are unique animals with a well-developed nervous system, central and peripheral, that leaves us without any (scientific) doubt, can feel pail, fear and stress.

Concluding he said –“ We should stop the causes of climate change that are responsible of ocean acidification. We should stop deforestation for meat production, and we should invest much more money in alternative and healthier sources of food. There have been great advances in the production of food with the taste of the sea, but that can be farmed without damaging animal marine life, such as sea weed farming, that provides us with extremely high quality proteins and fatty acids”.

 The Intergroup Members attending the meeting decided to work out concrete follow actions on this issue which will be published soon.


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