Aaron Ross is the vice President of policy and strategy at The Humane League (THL) and Vicky Bond is the Managing Director of THL U.K. They spoke with ACE Researcher Kieran Greig on March 23, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What have you been doing to date to address farmed fish suffering?
THL has put together a scoping report to get a sense of what needs to be considered when it comes to fishes. Recently, we have been prioritizing chickens, so we haven’t done as much with fishes yet. The needs for each species of fish varies; for salmon, the research has reached the point where it is now looking at things like enrichment, yet this is not the case at all for most species. Things like enrichment are relatively low priority behind issues such as handling, slaughter methods, and stocking densities.
What standards already exist in the industry for farmed fish welfare?
Some of the existing standards are the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the GlobalG.A.P. and the Global Aquaculture Alliance. However, none of these are sufficient to quote their standards. GlobalG.A.P. does provide some useful benchmarks but doesn’t really suggest a standard of welfare that is at an acceptable level. The RSPCA is the leading label in terms of welfare; its standards are very detailed and are updated on an annual basis, and they base their findings on research. Their standards, both for trout or salmon, are at the level where we can accept that they provide at least some welfare for these fishes.
What research has been done relating to farmed fish welfare?
Most of the research has gone towards the more expensive fish species like salmon and trout, so when it comes to species like carp, which are mainly produced in China, we don’t know what stocking densities would be acceptable. There is so much to be done that we don’t even really know where to start. The most conclusive research is on slaughter and around different forms of slaughter, which has shown that both asphyxiation and icing are bad. There are also new systems of handling by which the fishes never leave the water, but they’re not being used anywhere other than Norway and Scotland. In terms of research, there’s still a lot to do. For example, with carp, determining the effects of having different age ranges together would be beneficial. There still needs to be basic science on the levels of disease, the mortality rates, and the impact of water quality, although there is actually already quite a bit of work on water quality available because it has an economic impact. Research on starvation is required too; it’s obviously bad, but it is unclear to what level the fishes are actually distressed by it.
What do you think the future for fish welfare campaigns looks like?
One concern is that the movement will start fish advocacy prematurely, without seeing the current campaigns through to the end. Gestation crates in the U.S. provide a cautionary tale here—groups quickly moved on to cage-free eggs and then to broilers, and a lot of the gestation crate policies have not been enforced. A lot of the producers that were supposed to go 100% crate-free have not done so. It would therefore be very wise of the movement to see the current campaigns through and make sure they’re enforced. If they’re not enforced, then the fishes won’t stand a chance—the corporate policies will be completely nullified because companies won’t be concerned about enforcement if we don’t enforce these initial welfare policies.
What is the timeline for running fish-specific campaigns?
When it comes to broilers, it will probably depend on the outcomes of some of the campaigns this year. If THL wins the McDonald’s campaign, then it is suggested that other groups may fall like dominoes after that. If THL loses the McDonald’s campaign, we could be stuck doing broiler campaign for years. Aside from that, the movement has a lot of work to do in terms of enforcing the cage-free policies and making sure producers are switching to the best types of cage-free systems, and not ones that are very similar to caged systems. We currently have our hands full with enforcing the cage-free commitments, finishing the corporate broiler commitments, and then enforcing those. At a bare minimum, this will take at least three to five years.
What promising ways are you aware of for improving salmon welfare?
Salmon are one of the more researched species. A lot of the research deals with stocking density, but another big issue is the sea lice, wrasse, and lumpsucker fishes who live alongside the salmon, since the welfare concerns of those are never taken into consideration. There are also issues in terms of predation, diseases, and genetic modification, along with the fact that they grow very fast which can have an impact on the fishes themselves (such as the development of deformities). There is also the issue of slaughter. In Scotland and Norway they now have advanced methods like stunning to kill the fishes, but in other places such methods are not always used.
There are some key things that can be said with salmon, and the RSPCA standards really help here. They still haven’t overcome problems like sea lice, but they have just developed welfare standards for wrasse. There are environmental enrichments like the placement of plastic barriers so that fishes can escape predators and reduce fin damage.
How much is known about carp welfare?
There’s very little we can definitively say about carp. Fishes are going to be impacted in a similar way to salmon in terms of stress and handling. Of course, stunning before slaughter is important; indeed, with all these fishes, we can at least stun them before slaughter as a bare minimum. We know that these fishes can stay alive for at least two hours—although we don’t actually know precisely how long they stay alive—when asphyxiated. Some other key issues are stocking density and water quality. We don’t know a precise stocking density, but we are nevertheless interested in reducing it. Another important issue is light, since it can be a serious problem if fishes are not getting enough natural light. Oxygen level is also important, since although they can survive with less oxygen if they have to, it still puts a lot of stress on them.
When it comes to fishes, what in particular is The Humane League interested in advocating for?
The lowest hanging fruit is slaughter. People can understand it and there is public support for slaughter reforms. A lot of it will be based on the science that comes out in the next few years. We definitely want to optimize our ask with companies, but we also have to balance that with what is realistic for the companies to achieve. We ran into this issue with the broiler issue, too; every phase of the broiler chicken’s life is of terrible quality, so there were countless things we wanted to include on the ask, but we had to narrow that down to what would be most impactful and most convenient for the chicken industry. We’ll have to do the same with fishes, and we’re going to have to wait until the science comes out in order to get a bird’s eye view, and then narrow that down to a comprehensive list of asks.
How will you present the asks?
With the broiler welfare campaign, we put all the environmental enrichments under one bullet point. Part of the ask will be to include environmental enrichments, but in that case we will list particular standards that define those environmental enrichments. It’s just a matter of consolidating the point we want to address into whatever category would make the most sense.
Will you focus on one type of fish at a time, or multiple species at the same time?
The fish industry seems incredibly complex, so it is likely going to involve mapping it out and really analyzing where THL can have the biggest impact.
A lot of fish products are produced in Vietnam and China—will that affect how you approach your advocacy?
When THL gets companies to make commitments, the sourcing is irrelevant to THL and is for the company to deal with. If it’s an American company and they source from Vietnam, it’s up to them to go to Vietnam and sort it out. That’s THL’s approach across all of our corporate companies. If they tackle a company in the U.S. and it impacts China, that’s very good because it can generate exponential benefits across lots of different companies.
What plans does The Humane League have for addressing fish suffering in China?
Our strategy with China so far has been getting multinational companies to make policies that affect China, so we’re kind of using foreign companies to create change on the inside. This happened with Nestlé; THL got a global cage-free policy from Nestlé and now they have started investing in cage-free systems in China. Nestlé’s supplier in China was exclusively using battery cages, but after the introduction of their global cage-free policy they started investing in the first cage-free farm there, which they’re now using as a pilot scheme. The Open Wing Alliance is a coalition that THL operates and we have some members in Asia. THL is planning on having a summit with them in order to better understanding what tactics would be promising in China. Unfortunately, a lot of the Chinese companies are exclusively Chinese and aren’t at all foreign, so it’s a very difficult problem to tackle.
What process will The Humane League use to determine what to ask of corporations?
THL did the cage-free egg campaign and worked on that independently, but when we worked on broiler chicken welfare, we did it together with other groups. We’re now having conversations about turkeys and doing the same thing, and hopefully this continues to be the method. Specialists from the different organizations will come together to determine the ask, which is a really strong way of getting a good standard and not getting confused. We would quite confidently say that THL would collaborate with Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States—along with everyone else who might be relevant—in order to have a consistent ask when we go to companies.
Is it important to have a welfare certification scheme when making an ask?
It can be helpful. The European Broiler Ask doesn’t define a welfare certification because there are different ones in different countries, but that has not impacted how it has worked. The asks can still be useful because they tend to include five or six different points. A certification system, on the other hand, has more extensive points so we can be more confident that standards are being met. If there is a certification system, and THL thinks it meets our bare minimum ask, then that’s wonderful. The chances are that there will be one for salmon and trout, but probably not for other species.
Can you tell me more about the RSPCA welfare standards for fishes?
The RSPCA standards are the best standards. They are evidence based and updated annually. A lot of other standards don’t make such changes so frequently. To date, the RSPCA has considered welfare in the same way that THL would, whereas some other groups allow mutilations and other harmful things. The RSPCA now has wrasse standards, which is certainly something that was missing. They are also improving transportation times by reducing them, but they still need to reduce them even more. Handling and issues with starvation also need to be improved. There are always things the RSPCA standards can improve on, but they are as good as it gets right now in terms of certification schemes for fishes.
What kind of research do you think would be particularly impactful at this time?
We’d like to see research that could contribute to helping people see that fish welfare matters. This could include research about sentience, cognitive bias, choice, and stress. There are a number of important questions that need answering. For instance, how frustrated are fishes when they don’t have enough space? When do they want to be in schools, and when don’t they? Since each species is different, this has to be done for each species. Ideally, the research would be very detailed and would ask what a fish would actually choose if given a choice, and why. Understanding fish ethology to a greater extent would help a lot.
Furthermore, with different sized fishes being put together, it would also be very helpful to understand how that affects them. There is a lot that is unknown about the fear and stress that is caused when fishes are put into these mixed groups. Another issue is that of disease and how to reduce disease: for example, perhaps there’s a cutoff point in stocking density at which a large drop in disease occurs.