Fish are sentient animals capable of feeling pain, stress and fear, as well as experiencing positive emotions, social bonds, and advanced intelligence. They are intelligent, sensitive creatures and like many other animals, they explore, socialise, hunt and play. Some species care for their young and use tools as we humans do.
Today, huge numbers of fish are intensively reared on farms where they are forced to live in conditions that fail to meet their basic welfare needs and many are dying prematurely every year.
Aquaculture is the controlled process of farming seafood (fish, crustaceans, molluscs, seaweed), especially for human consumption. As the demand for seafood has increased, technology has made it possible to rear common fish species in sea cages in coastal marine waters and in the open ocean.
It is the world’s fastest-growing food production sector which is increasingly dwarfing the traditional fishing industry. It now produces more than $263 billion worth of goods annually, and over half of the seafood we consume today is farmed, which may come as a surprise to many consumers.
Aquaculture in numbers
In 2019, 56% (FAOStat 2021) of all seafood consumed worldwide was produced in aquaculture facilities. This is expected to grow even further (up to 32%) as wild-caught fishing plateaus, due to overfishing and biological constraints; the fish cannot reproduce fast enough for their populations to recover, and climate change and human interventions are affecting their environments making it more difficult for them to reproduce.
In aquaculture, fish production is generally measured in tonnes rather than individual fish so estimating the number of fish produced in these facilities can be difficult to calculate due to the diversity of species and harvest weights. However, here are some estimates for three of the key farmed fish species (2018 figures):
Atlantic Salmon - up to 674 million fish produced
Sea Bass - up to 955 million fish
Sea Bream – up to 1,035 million fish
Approximately 109 billion fish are farmed each year, which is more than any other terrestrial farmed animal: chickens 66 billion, pigs 1.5 billion, lamb 588 million and beef is 290 million.
Expansion of aquaculture
The increase in demand for seafood products has not only caused rapid growth in the farming of common fish species (like salmon and seabass) but has also led to the development of farming systems for other aquatic species, such as octopus or tuna. However, different species have different biological and behavioural needs and may not be adapted to live in captivity.
Octopus, for example, is a carnivorous species with complex behavioural needs and farming them is not only detrimental to their welfare but will increase the pressure on wild fish stocks to provide for their feed.
In aquaculture, many carnivorous species such as salmon are fed on huge volumes of wild-caught fish in the form of fishmeal and fish oil. The fishmeal industry accounts for 0.5-1 trillion fish out of the 0.79-2.3 trillion fish caught every year.
Over 78% of fishmeal and 68% of fish oil production is used to feed farmed animals - predominantly fish. This is inherently unsustainable as it is causing a global crisis in overfishing and depleting the food source for many local communities and wildlife including sea birds and marine mammals.
There are several certifications schemes that certify aquaculture production to ensure sustainability and good practices.
However, the standards of the five key global fish certification bodies, including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), GlobalG.A.P., Friend of the Sea (FoS) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), mainly focus on the environment, human rights, and for MSC and FoS, on the sustainability of fish stocks. While this is extremely important, more needs to be done to introduce standards to protect the welfare of all fish during rearing, capture, transportation and slaughter.
Many of these schemes are new to the concept of animal welfare, even though welfare is intrinsically linked to sustainability.
Fish are often killed inhumanely, and many endure slow, painful deaths caused by asphyxiation; submersion in a mixture of ice and water; exposure to carbon dioxide and bleeding, among others.
These cause considerable pain, fear and suffering and can be extremely prolonged. For example, many fish remain conscious and aware of pain for several minutes after having their gills cut and being left to bleed out.
Humane methods of slaughter do exist – British and Norwegian farmed fish are generally stunned before killing. However, stunning prior to slaughter is not mandatory under the law – and sometimes poorly practised - so there may still be millions of fish that are killed without prior stunning.
Compassion recommends that all fish are effectively stunned, rendered instantly insensible, and remain unconscious until death supervenes to avoid any suffering.
Click on the buttons to find out more about farmed fish slaughter in the EU, and how to develop a corporate policy on humane slaughter.
Overcrowding, water quality and rearing environment
Industrial aquaculture relies on rearing vast numbers of fish inland or sea-based enclosures, at high stocking densities to make production commercially viable. However, the overcrowded conditions on these farms limit the space available to the fish which curbs their behaviour and can cause aggression, leading to injuries and stress. It can also limit the ability of subordinate fish to escape more dominant ones, and even the fishes’ ability to swim.
Fish stocked at high densities require more oxygen from the water and produce more waste which can affect water quality.
In nature, fish would be able to swim away from areas of poor water quality and harmful algal blooms, but in aquaculture, they are trapped and left to suffer the effects, which include damage to and clogging of their gills and reduced oxygen levels, both of which can lead to suffocation.
Barren tanks, raceways and cages are not acceptable habitats for farmed fish to have a good quality of life. Lacking any stimuli, the fish can do nothing more than swim around aimlessly in circles. However, their environment can be enriched to give the fish more environmental complexity which can, in turn, reduce stress and aggression.
Sea Bass and Sea Bream, for example, habitually sift through substrates to forage and bury themselves in the sand to hide and rest, and salmonids hide in rocks as protection against predators and bad weather.
It is important that each species of fish receives the right type of enrichment for each stage of its life, and it should be provided in the appropriate quantity and position to help decrease stress and avoid aggression. ASC, GlobalG.A.P. and BAP do not require the provision of enrichment in their standards, although FoS recently updated their standards to recommend that structural enrichment be provided.
Producers must ensure fish are stocked at a lower density with environmental enrichment which promotes their physical and mental wellbeing, providing more space to swim, reducing stress and aggression, and allowing for better water quality.
Click on the buttons to read more about environmental enrichment for farmed fish and how MOWI's fish welfare policy includes a commitment to lower stocking densities, humane slaughter and providing enrichment for fish.
The lack of space on fish farms can lead to aggression and increase the number of wounds - for example, it is very common to see bitten fins in aquaculture. Fish frequently collide with each other and scratch themselves on the nets when they are crowded together for harvesting, grading or simply when they react to an external stressor, being that a diver, a predator, or any procedure carried out on the farm, including feeding.
Fish possess a well-developed non-specific immune system. These are the barriers that form their first line of defence: the skin (including its mucus coating), lateral line, and gills in the case of fish. Any wounds will break or remove these barriers, making way for pathogens to infect the weakened fish. Furthermore, the overcrowded conditions in aquaculture enclosures provide the perfect conditions for diseases to spread and it aids the transmission of diseases and parasites among the fish.
Sea lice infestations, for example, have become common in aquaculture, accelerated by high stocking densities, and enabling a rapid spread through the stock from one farm to the next, and even out to wild salmonids. Sea lice are parasites that feed on the skin, blood and mucous of salmonids, resulting in large open wounds which can become infected and result in death.
Diseased fish should be treated to ensure their welfare, but rampant infections like these should be prevented by better management practices. Unfortunately, many of the current practices to treat diseases fail to implement effective welfare and are often bad for the environment too:
Many disease treatments are used in open water in the form of chemical baths or dispersion of the medicine into the water, which means chemicals can spread out to the surrounding water and impact other fish and wildlife, and the environment.
Some medical treatments are added to the fish feed, yet uneaten food will often end up at the bottom of the sea where it causes algal blooms, affecting the local fauna and flora.
Antibiotics are often routinely used to combat disease, contributing to the increasing huge threat of antibiotic resistance.
In the case of sea lice, current methods used in the salmon industry include chemical baths, thermolicer (thermal shock) and hydrolicer (mechanical removal) treatments which can cause injury, stress and high mortality.
The use of ‘cleaner fish’ which eat the lice off the salmon is another popular treatment, but their welfare is rarely considered, and they also suffer from poor health and high mortality.
Limiting time without feed
A common practice in aquaculture is the periodical starving of fish, particularly before transport and slaughter. This ensures that their digestive systems are empty to help maintain water quality during transport and to avoid contamination with faecal matter during slaughter.
The time required for the digestive system to empty varies between species and depends on the water temperature. Usually, 48-72 hours is sufficient time to empty the gut of most farmed species. However, certification schemes permit the unnecessary prolonged starving of fish which can last for several weeks. This causes great distress, weakened fish, and can lead to aggression and serious injuries.
Farmed fish species
Also known as the “King of Fish", Salmon (Salmo salar) is one of the most reputed fish species due to the enticing images you see of them migrating upstream to spawn in rivers. Their life cycle is complex as they are anadromous fish, which can live in both fresh and seawater. In the wild, they are born in upstream rivers where they spend their early stages of life, before swimming out to sea where they mature and migrate incredible distances before returning to the rivers where they were born to spawn.
Atlantic salmon are both a sturdy and a delicate species. They can travel long distances, but they are also vulnerable to stress. They thrive in relatively cold, clean, and well oxygenated waters, in rivers that allow them to move around easily. They are found along most North Atlantic coastlines in Europe but warming waters and human pressure is taking their toll and populations are dwindling. Find out more about ‘Who is the Salmon?’.
Salmon in aquaculture
Atlantic salmon is consumed all over the world and is one of the main farmed fish species. It is produced mainly in Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada, the majority in sea cages. Salmon aquaculture production has increased by around 70% since 2010 and is expected to grow even further due to its popularity among consumers.
In aquaculture, salmon experience high mortality caused by disease, sea lice and delousing treatments. For example, Scotland and Norway reported losses due to mortality of 13.5% and 15% of the whole yearly production (tonnes) in 2019.
Best Practice Guidance Document: Pinniped Predator Control - discusses the issues around pinniped predation for fish farms and gives guidance on management methods to ensure high welfare for the fish and for marine life.
Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) and Sea Bream (Sparus aurata) form a huge part of the Mediterranean diet, yet they may be found in waters stretching from the Mediterranean right up to the North Atlantic and the North Sea. They live in coastal areas, although they tend to spend the colder months further away from the coast searching for waters with more stable temperatures.
Sea Bass and Sea Bream have similar diets, feeding on small crustaceans, molluscs and worms. Sea Bream, with their specialised mouths and teeth, are easily equipped to crush shells, so they tend to eat more crustaceans and molluscs, as well as algae and other marine plants. By comparison, Sea Bass are known to be voracious carnivores and include other fish in their diet.
Sea Bream is a fish that changes sex during their lives. They are protandric, meaning that they are first males until they are approximately 2 years old, when they become females. This is one of the reasons why the industry is interested in harvesting Sea Bream before this happens, as females will invest more resources in developing eggs instead of growing.
Sea Bass and Sea Bream are the main fish species in Mediterranean aquaculture. Production of both species has been spearheaded by Turkey, followed by Greece, and global production has risen each year, with an increase of 75% for Sea Bass and 60% for Sea Bream between 2010 and 2018.
Both species experience a 20% mortality in aquaculture, but the cause of illness is different for each: Sea Bass tend to suffer from bacterial diseases while for Sea Bream it’s mainly parasitic diseases. Sea Bream also suffer from what is known as “Winter Syndrome” – a multifactorial pathology caused by the inability to migrate to deeper waters to avoid cold temperatures.
Find out more about the farming of Sea Bass and Sea Bream:
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is a freshwater salmonid but, like salmon, they spend the first years of their lives in a river and then migrate out to sea, where they will mature before returning to the same river to breed.
Originally, they were found in coastal waters and rivers along the Pacific North American coast down to Mexico, and in some areas of Asia along coastlines in the Bearing Sea. Like other trout, they live in clean and cold water, but they adapt easily to environmental changes. Rainbow Trout is known as the chameleon of fish for their ability to dramatically change colour to mimic their environment, or when they feel stress or perceive danger. They are predators and their main diet is composed of insects and small aquatic invertebrates, and if the opportunity arises, they will prey on other fish or their eggs. Their taste and smell senses are 500 times more sensitive than humans, and wild Rainbow Trout have been observed playing fetch with a coin, illustrating the point that they are sentient beings with complex behaviours.
While they originated along the Pacific Ocean coasts, Rainbow Trout have been introduced into aquaculture across the globe and they are the most cultured trout species. Generally, they are reared in ponds, but raceways, recirculation systems and floating cages are also used.
The main producers of trout globally are Chile, Norway, Italy, France and Denmark, but the continent that consumes the most is Asia, which has increased its consumption by 62% since 2010.
(two species: Pangasianodon hypophthalmus and Pangasius bocourti)
Also known as shark catfish, Pangasius originated in the Chao Phraya and Mekong rivers in Cambodia and Thailand but they have also been introduced into rivers in Colombia for aquaculture purposes.
Pangasius are migratory freshwater fish that prefer deep, wide rivers where they can swim freely, moving from rearing areas upstream to spawn. They are omnivorous and feed on fish and crustaceans but also on vegetable matter. Pangasius feel comfortable in dark waters, thanks to their barbels that help them navigate and hunt.
Pangasius is the main fish farmed in South-East Asia, Vietnam being the main producer. In 2017, between 0.86 and 2.57 billion fish were farmed which is the equivalent to approximately 1.2 million tonnes.
USA, China and the EU are the main importers of Pangasius, and although consumption has declined in the EU, Pangasius is still one of the Top 10 most consumed finfish in the EU.
Carp are a group of fish that are native to Europe and Asia, but they have been introduced in many places as ornamental fish or for recreational fishing. They are freshwater fish that show a preference for large bodies of slow-flowing, or still water. They are omnivorous, feeding on plants and invertebrates on the riverbed.
They have a good sense of hearing and with training can learn to recognise music and demonstrate individuality as they can have different food and taste preferences.
Global production of common Carp reached nearly 4.5 million Tn in 2019, which has increased by 32% since 2010. The main producer is China which accounts for 65% of global production.
In Europe, 168,000 Tn of Carp are produced each year, mainly in Eastern European countries like Poland where they have a tradition of eating carp at Christmas. Unfortunately, this has led to the selling of live carp on the lead up to Christmas which causes unnecessary suffering to the fish: live carp are often transported to stores in overcrowded tanks and then crammed into huge commercial pools which affects the oxygen in the water and leads to aggression. After purchase, they then suffocate in water-free plastic bags, to be later killed at home by unqualified people.
Octopus are cephalopod molluscs, easily identified by their eight tentacles. They can be found in marine habitats far and wide, from tropical reefs to the polar latitudes. They are a mostly benthic species, meaning that they trawl the bottom of the sea where they hunt at dusk for crabs, crayfish, and bivalve molluscs, in an area centred around their den where they can shelter from predators.
Octopus are well reputed by their skin changing abilities, changing colours to mimic their environment and to communicate. They can not only change colour but also the texture of their skin.
Octopuses display extraordinary intelligence and are very inquisitive, continually exploring their surroundings. They present a variety of complex behaviours and have, for example, been known to cover themselves in shells or coconuts to hide from predators.
Asia is the main region that fishes for wild octopus, and Korea and Spain are the biggest importers. As wild octopus are being overfished and their numbers have been decreasing, the price of octopus has risen which has increased the interest in farming them.
Octopus in aquaculture.
Although there is no aquaculture production of octopus to date, the industry is currently exploring ways to farm them, and it has been announced that Spain will start commercialising their production by 2023.
Octopus are, however, carnivorous species with complex behavioural needs so farming them on land would not only be detrimental to their welfare but will also increase the pressure on wild fish stocks needed to feed them.
Shrimp are a variety of decapod crustaceans which inhabit most coasts and estuaries, as well as rivers and lakes, scavenging for algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms, including decaying organic matter. Generally, they are solitary except during the spawning season when they can form large schools.
The Whiteleg shrimp, native to Sonora in Mexico, is the species that is mostly used in shrimp farming, with a production of 5,446 million tonnes in 2019, which has doubled since 2010. Whiteleg shrimp were introduced in Asia at the beginning of the millennium and Asia is now the biggest producer.
Tesco and Hilton SeaFood - Improving the Welfare of Whiteleg Shrimp (Pennaus Vannamei) at Harvest
Tesco and Hilton SeaFood have worked together to improve the Welfare of Whiteleg Shrimp (Pennaus Vannamei).
It is the first, large scale electrical stunning system of its kind designed for the humane slaughter of hundreds of millions of prawns in the Tesco supply chain.
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