An animal welfare specialist from a major animal advocacy organization spoke with ACE Researcher Kieran Greig on March 14, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What is your organization currently doing on the topic of fish welfare, and what sort of interventions have you found to be the most promising?
Our organization has been researching farmed fish welfare for a little over a year. In this time, the animal welfare specialists have traveled to India, Germany, Scotland, Canada, Iceland, and Brazil to visit fish farms, and we have attended conferences such as the Fair Fish conference in Italy. We have been consistently reading the available literature, including production-centric literature. Based on this research, we have decided to initially focus on salmon, channel catfish, tilapia, and potentially pangasius, as these are the species that are most eaten in the United States, and their welfare can be more effectively impacted.
Our organization is developing specific standards and “asks” for fish farms. Once these are finalized, we hope to coordinate with other animal advocacy groups such as Compassion in World Farming, The Humane League and the Humane Society of the United States for a unified approach. We are also planning to work with certification programs to incorporate these asks into our programs, which will take care of auditing requirements.
Our organization has recently finished our asks for salmon and catfish, and completed white papers on the topic. We are currently working on the asks and white paper for tilapia. I’ve learned that the asks need to be species-specific. Because each of the species and their systems are so different from one another, a general fish welfare ask is infeasible and would not make sense. I expect therefore that a species-by-species program is the best way to make a big change.
The farmed fish industry—especially when it comes to salmon—is moving very quickly. The salmon industry has had a lot of problems with diseases. In Washington, the industry recently removed sea-cage farming, and British Columbia may be next. Because of all these changes, it might be a good time to jump in with salmon-specific asks.
There is a need to take into consideration the public’s perception of fish sentience, which is very different from its perception of terrestrial animals. When our organization starts campaigning, we may consider including basic education pertaining to fish sentience in order to get the public on board. However, that there is little quality welfare research on a broad range of fish species. Most of the research conducted is very basic and has focused on salmon, and partially on trout. Moreover, there is very little welfare research on tilapia and almost nothing on channel catfish. I am also concerned about how species—such as carp—suffer in India and China, as they are not stunned before slaughter. It is a monumental task for our organization to figure out how to have the best impact on this issue.
What key impressions or takeaways does your organization have on the topic of fish welfare? Are there any certification schemes that show promise, like RSPCA Assured?
RSPCA is the best scheme out there, however it is still insufficient. RSPCA recently released new salmon standards. In general, RSPCA is very supportive of the sea cage industry, which is inherently problematic; sea cages are arguably incompatible with good welfare, since they cause a lot of issues around disease and sea lice. To get rid of sea lice, other fish species are introduced (typically lumpfish and wrasse) and then further concern must be given to the second species’ welfare as well. There is currently no good certification out there for fish. Fair Fish has a lot of promise, and they are currently developing a certification scheme. However, a drawback to Fair Fish is that they seem to overemphasize natural conditions as a factor necessary for good welfare.
Most of the certification programs surrounding aquaculture have focused on sustainability, and it is my goal to get some of the organizations, like Aquaculture Stewardship Council, to adopt welfare certifications in addition to the sustainability ones. I would like to work with the organizations as they do that to make sure that the standards are good ones.
Regarding gaps in research, what would your organization like to see as the next research area?
For salmon, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS)—and eventually semi-closed containment systems (S-CCS)—are likely to be better systems than sea cages. We will be cautiously recommending these as a way to effectively tackle the excruciating disease problems inherent to sea-cage farming. However, there is not a lot of research on how to implement RAS and S-CCS, particularly with respect to stocking density. In sea cages, stocking densities for salmon are at about 15 kilograms per cubic meter; in RAS systems, on the other hand, the densities can be as high as 120 kilograms per cubic meter. Even though the water quality can be controlled—which reduces issues like diseases and sea lice that are common in sea cages, other health and welfare issues (such as chronic exposure to high levels of water dissolved CO2) might be problematic in RAS. Therefore caution must be taken until these systems are better understood. Because salmon naturally school, the higher stocking densities may not be an issue, but there is not much research to determine the level at which fish welfare begins to be impacted by stocking density. This is an area where more research is needed.
For catfish, there is very little research. Catfish are raised in pond systems and have very high mortality levels, and there is no research on effective stunning parameters, particularly for channel catfish. Channel catfish are different enough from catfish that the stunning parameters that work for other catfish cannot be assumed to work for channel catfish, and thus more research is needed in this area.
Unlike chickens or pigs, for which effective welfare policies can be attained, it is more difficult to design a good welfare program for catfish. At the very best, it is be possible to tackle several welfare problems experienced by farmed catfish, but obtaining a good level of welfare is potentially impossible. In a pond system, the fish cannot be monitored well, both in general and in terms of their mortality levels.
What are the low-hanging fruits in terms of species-specific interventions that would lead to the largest improvements in salmon welfare?
Our organization currently has five asks for salmon. The first is to get rid of sea cages and raise salmon in RAS and S-CCS. We’ve developed a list of benchmark parameters to conceptualize a well-run system. These include: mortality (keeping it under 10% for the grow-out production cycle), water temperature, stocking density, water quality, dissolved oxygen, pH, ammonia, carbon dioxide, nitrate. Another component would be a welfare-monitoring program that looks at fin condition, skin condition, and emaciation state. If these parameters could be met in a sea-cage system—though this is not likely possible—the organization would be supportive of that. What the parameters will likely entail, however, is the transition to RAS or S-CCS in order to keep out sea lice.
Given the current struggles in the sea cage industry, moving to these benchmark parameters is the lowest-hanging fruit. The industry is already considering moving in a similar direction. Our organization feels the need to influence the industry properly, because the RAS could be implemented poorly. An analogous situation would be that of battery cages for hens: they were utilized to prevent disease, yet they are horrible for the hens. Caution is therefore needed to make sure moving salmon to high-density RAS to control disease doesn’t compromise salmon welfare in other ways.
The second ask is to get the industry to move towards the highest percentage plant-based feed possible while still ensuring salmon health. This would prevent the death of other fish being fed to the salmon. The third ask pertains to stunning. Mechanical percussive stunning, electrical stunning, or a combination of the two, seem to be the most effective method to stun the fish prior to slaughter. The next ask is to make sure that the fish are not kept out of the water for more than 15 seconds, are not overcrowded, and are not graded too much. Another component may be to ask the industry to use flexi-panels for grading. The fifth and final ask is to prohibit fish who are genetically selected or modified for growth. There is research on salmon which shows that fish who grow quickly have more problems, including increased aggression.
Once we have finalized the asks, we intend to share the list. Ideally, in the next few months the list will be ready to be shared.
What does your organization have in mind for catfish welfare?
For catfish, we have a number of asks. The first of these pertains to keeping weekly mortality below 0.2%: the first component of this is to use strains that have higher disease resistance and lower mortality, whilst the second component is to keep oxygen levels above 4 milligrams per liter, with regular monitoring. The 4 milligrams per liter figure is based on papers and research that discuss oxygen levels and mortality, but not necessarily welfare. The second ask is related to fish handling, similar to the salmon ask. The priorities here are preventing fish from being out of water for more than 15 minutes, avoiding crowding, and avoiding excess grading. The third ask is prohibiting the use of live fish and feed with animal protein beyond the fry developmental stage. The fourth ask is the requirement for electrical stunning; but, again, there is little research available describing the exact parameters that would be suitable for good welfare.
These asks were chosen based on the biggest causes of mortality in the catfish industry and on feasibility. For catfish, one of the major causes of significant die-offs is low oxygen, while oxygen levels are something that can be feasibly controlled. However, this is not the case for other potential asks, where certain parameters cannot be feasibly controlled within the current system. As for other species, such as carp, tilapia, and pangasius, the aks still need to be developed.
What approximate timeline and plan does your organization have in mind for implementing these asks on a species-by-species basis? Are there plans to do a farmed fish corporate campaign in the near term?
For corporate outreach work, we may try to address multiple species at once. With regards to researching strategies, we are focusing on only one species at a time. A farmed fish campaign is not expected during 2018, but some degree of fish welfare will happen this year. It may be either corporate campaigns, education or investigations. We have recently provided the Newfoundland and Labrador government (Canada) with comments against the Placentia Bay Atlantic Salmon Aquaculture Project. We are hopeful that a corporate campaign for fish welfare will see some movement in 2019.
Does your organization have any plans for addressing fish welfare in China?
One of the potential ways that we expect to address farmed fish welfare in China and India is through corporate campaigns aimed at companies that import fish from those counties. That may include influencing companies to stop buying fish from China, or actually having certification schemes that do certify the farms in China. These measures would mostly apply to salmon, tilapia, and pangasius, but not carp, because the demand for carp in the United States is low. I am hopeful that our organization will work on carp welfare at some point. However, how carp is sold does not have the same degree of corporate structure as other fish. In India, a farmer may harvest fish each morning and bring the catch to a live market and sell to individual buyers, so impacting these types of farmers will be difficult.
Has your organization considered addressing sedation during transport of fish, or environmental enrichment?
We have considered this, but it is not included as an ask right now. Because transport is such a short part of a fish’s life, we are focusing on other areas that have a higher impact on welfare. Furthermore, we regard on-farm slaughter as a more effective strategy to solve the welfare problems related to transportation.
Environmental enrichment may be beneficial to welfare, but we have not seen enough research on this topic to recommend it. I would like to see environmental enrichment implemented, but research is needed to show how to do it properly and feasibly so that the industry will actually implement it.
Does your organization envision that the asks will be implemented through a welfare certification scheme?
We would like to see these asks become part of a welfare certification scheme, which would help take care of the monitoring aspect. However, we will continue doing this work even if the asks are not included in a certification program. There are no certification groups that have focused on welfare before, so a certification group would need to be willing to work with us on these asks and to ensure that the standards will actually improve welfare.