The welfare of fish has been traditionally much less well understood than that of land-based farm animals – but at ASC we’ve been working hard to develop new requirements to safeguard the welfare of farmed fish, and we’ve been heartened to see a growing interest in this topic.

By Janneke Aelen, ASC Fish Welfare Coordinator

When I first published a blog on this website, I had just started at ASC and was about to embark on a project to start to identify how we should define these issues and develop requirements. Since then we’ve been very busy – a technical working group has been formed, and terms of reference for the project have been produced, along with a white paper and ASC Position Paper on fish welfare, all of which were subject to a public consultation. Now is an excellent time to update you all on our fish welfare project, following a productive meeting of the technical working group last week.

The technical working group is made up of representatives from a diverse range of organisations and backgrounds – animal welfare groups, academics, industry representatives are among the group members (see below).

Forming this group was a key early step in the animal welfare project, and its importance can’t be overstated – we use multi-stakeholder collaboration like this to develop and review all our standards at ASC, and it’s what ensures our programme takes into account all perspectives and draws on all the knowledge in the industry and beyond.

I’m personally delighted with the group of passionate experts we have assembled for this project. Their commitment, knowledge and contribution is invaluable.

ASC standards do already include a number of requirements which contribute towards good fish welfare including water quality, fish health management plans, and dissolved oxygen levels. But we never stand still at ASC, and the purpose of this project is to reflect the latest evidence and tackle welfare with more specific and targeted requirements.

Diversity and Complexity

Reflecting the latest scientific thinking is something we always do, but in the case of fish welfare is easier said than done. The simple fact is that this is an area where research is patchy and still thin on the ground for many species.

Very often (including in this blog), the word ‘fish’ is used to describe an incredible range of animals with hugely different characteristics and needs. But you can’t treat a salmon like a pangasius any more than you can treat a cow like a chicken – in fact a cow and a chicken are more closely related than a salmon and a pangasius!

ASC has standards for a diverse range of species ranging from tropical barramundi (above) to salmon and shrimp – and they all have unique welfare needs

This diversity and complexity is why it’s unhelpful to approach the issue of fish welfare with a one size fits all approach. There has been focus in some quarters on stocking density, for example, because it is easy to picture and emotive – for us humans there is nothing worse than being crammed on a rush hour train, so we can picture why this is an important issue for fish welfare when it is raised by campaigners.

But the truth is more complicated than that – of course, above certain densities fish can come to real harm, but for some fish species densities that are too low can be just as harmful. So we need to understand more and adopt a more holistic approach that takes into account what individual species really need.

So research is where we’ve started with our ambitious project. Specifically, we will make use of a detailed collection of documents setting out the biological facts about every ASC species, and detailing the current welfare issues with farming those species. Produced for us by the Fish Ethology and Welfare Group, these documents are meticulously researched and referenced, and will inform the decisions that the group makes going forward.

What sort of decisions will those be? Well, we already know what some of the issues that we’ll be looking at will be:

  • transportation
  • handling
  • confinement
  • keeping fish at the right density, e.g. not too many or too few
  • water quality
  • slaughtering methods

Five Questions

And at last week’s meeting we also posed ourselves five questions, below. These questions will inform how we approach this expansive and at times confusing subject and ensure we keep to our objective, which is to produce comprehensive indicators for all ASC species to ensure higher standards of fish welfare. The five questions are:

  • What is an appropriate methodology for fish welfare assessment?
  • Which welfare priorities can we identify for aquaculture systems within ASC’s scope?
  • How do these welfare issues apply to the different ASC certified species?
  • How can the methodology and priority welfare issues be translated into valid and auditable indicators?
  • How can we move forward on issues that are currently outside of the scope of the ASC programme?

Developing new standards is not done in a rush at ASC – this is because we aim to be comprehensive and collaborative. We have already completed one round of public consultation to help guide what this project would look at. There will be another round of public consultation later in the process, most likely next year, once we have drafted some indicators. This will allow other stakeholder groups or individuals to give their feedback on the proposed recommendations. As you would expect, we will invite other animal welfare groups to have their say, but just as important is finding out what you, the public, thinks about them.

We’re pleased to see that fish welfare is starting to get the attention it deserves, and we’re proud to be contributing research that is now helping stakeholders globally to understand more about what contributes to the welfare of different species of fish. As ever, we’ll keep you updated with the progress of this important project – and I’m already looking forward to hearing what you think about the indicators the working group develops!

Interested in more about this topic? Listen to our recent podcast on fish welfare.

Technical Working Group members

  • Pablo Almazan Rueda, Senior Researcher at CIAD Mazatlán Unit
  • Culum Brown, Professor of Fish Biology at Macquarie University Sydney
  • Victoria Camilieri-Asch, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at QUT Centre for Transformative Biomimetics in Bioengineering and Adjunct Research Fellow at UWA Oceans Institute
  • Paul Hardy-Smith, Principal Veterinarian/Managing Director, Panaquatic Health Solutions Pty Ltd
  • Sunil Kadri, CEO at Aquaculture Innovation; Honorary Senior Lecture at Institute of Aquaculture Stirling; Honorary Adjunct Professor at Universidad Austral de Chile; Chairman of STIM Scotland; Director of International Business Development at Bluegrove/CageEye
  • Dennis Lohmann, Head of Product Management Fish, Baader
  • Catarina Martins, Chief Technology and Sustainability Officer, Mowi
  • Priya Motupalli, Sustainable Agriculture Lead, IKEA
  • Arve Nilsen, Researcher, Aquacultue, Wild Fish and Fish Welfare at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute
  • Michail Pavlidis, Professor, University of Crete
  • Ramesh Perrera, Independent consultant
  • Tommaso Petochi, Researcher, ISPRA – Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research
  • Rohana Subasingue, Independent Consultant
  • Hans Van de Vis, Senior Scientist Fish Welfare at Wageningen UR
  • Douglas Waley, Fish Welfare Programme Leader at Eurogroup for Animals –  Lobby group for EU made up of numerous international animal welfare NGOs
Published on
Wednesday, 30 September 2020
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