When you picture animals on a farm, you might think of pigs, chickens, cows or sheep. But what about fish? Over 50% of seafood comes from farms, with between 73 and 180 billion fish being farmed at any given time, making them the most farmed group of vertebrates in the world. Fish Welfare Initiative are working to improve the conditions these fish are raised in, by collaborating with producers, corporations and governments. We spoke with Haven King-Nobles, Director of Operations at Fish Welfare Initiative, to learn more about their important work.

At Fish Welfare Initiative you’ve been working on fish farming in Asia. What does fish farming look like there?

“This question speaks to the level of complexity in aquaculture. Think of all the work the animal movement has done previously: we’ve worked to improve the lives of cows, pigs, chickens and so on. But fish aren’t just another species: they’re a whole group of different species, farmed in conditions that are just as different as chicken farms are from cow farms.

Fish farming systems also vary a lot in different parts of the world. Within Asia, where we primarily work, traditional methods of fish farming, such as farming them in ponds or cages/nets in the open water, are still widely practised. However there is a growing trend of intensification, for instance the use of land-based tanks. These allow more fish to be packed into the same amount of space and are probably worse on average for the fish inside. Generally, as regions become wealthier, they adopt more intensive, industrial practices, as is the case in Europe.

For more information, see our report Aquaculture in Asian Countries.”

Which major fish welfare issues do you find in industrial farming? How do you tackle them as an activist?

“The major welfare issues for farmed fish include poor water quality, overcrowding, diseases and parasites, stressful handling, and a lack of stunning before slaughter. It’s important to remember that these problems interact with each other to create still worse outcomes – for example, fish that have been roughly handled are more vulnerable to disease.

It’s worth noting that these welfare issues do vary significantly by system and species. In sea cages – how salmon are usually farmed – my impression is that water quality isn’t usually much of an issue. However, sea lice, which can freely enter the floating nets, will cause significant harm to the fish.

Our work focuses primarily on improving the water quality and reducing the stocking densities of farmed carp in India. We do this by collaborating with local NGOs and farmers to promote the benefits of more sustainable farming, and to help farmers properly manage the ponds’ water quality.

For more information, see our report Fish Welfare Improvements in Aquaculture.”

How can we tell that a fish is suffering? What are the most common signs of low welfare in farmed fish?

“This is tricky – even trickier than it is with other farmed animals. Fish don’t exhibit facial expressions; they don’t make sounds audible to humans; and they live in an environment we have difficulty observing.

The most obvious sign that a fish was suffering is that the fish is now dead. If many fish are dying, it’s a good bet that the welfare of the remaining fish is not very good.

However, just because the fish are still alive does not mean that they’re happy. On the farm we can look for certain ‘operational welfare indicators’ to assess wellbeing. These indicators include swimming speed and behavior, feed intake and aggression levels. More invasive measurements, such as measuring cortisol levels in the blood, can also be used. But we have to balance the benefit of knowing more about the state of the fish’s welfare with the cost of causing the sampled fish significant distress.”

There are a bunch of common myths about fish: it’s often believed that they’re ‘too simple’ to feel pain and stress, or that they are not very intelligent. How do we know that these opinions are false? What scientific evidence is there that fish feel pain and distress?

“Ah yes, the old ‘fish don’t feel pain’ myth. Sometimes I think that it doesn’t matter how far the science progresses, we’ll always be talking about this.

Scientifically, I think the debate around whether fish feel pain is in largely the same place as the debate over whether humans cause climate change; the vast majority of relevant papers argue that fish do feel pain. This is backed up by experimental data, such as this trial from 2003 which showed that rainbow trout sought out morphine after having been injected with a noxious chemical.

As with climate change denial, a few researchers deny that fish feel pain, but they have produced no experimental evidence, only theoretical arguments. Many of their arguments are based around fish not having a neocortex, which they contend means that fish cannot feel pain. However, birds also lack a neocortex, and no one argues that they can’t feel pain (in my opinion probably because there’s no widespread bird equivalent to recreational angling).

The science is informative here, but I don’t think it’s absolutely critical to get the point across. Just think: why would fish evolve not to feel pain? Evolutionarily, they faced some of the same selection pressures as terrestrial animals, such as the pressure to avoid injury, predation, and starvation. I would personally find it astonishing if these species did not experience pain.

On a broader note, I think we humans would do well to avoid thinking that just because an individual is different from us they are less important. One of the most important lessons from history is of the moral peril of undervaluing the ‘other’, and how this leads to racism, sexism, and all manner of oppression. Perhaps it’s time our species learns from our mistakes.

For more information on fish pain, see our blog post ‘Do fish feel pain?’ and the book of the same name.”

Fish farming not only causes animal suffering but also poses environmental hazards. Why are fish farms dangerous to ocean wildlife?

“I almost wish it were that simple. The reality is that different fish farming systems and different farmed species affect the environment in different ways, some better and some worse than others.

The main concern to ocean wildlife occurs when we farm carnivorous fish, such as salmon. These fish eat other fish, so vast amounts of fish are caught from the ocean to be turned into fish meal and fish oil. This site estimates that 147 wild fish must be caught to feed just one salmon. Fortunately there is already significant pressure in the aquaculture industry to reduce the fish meal and oil required to feed farmed fish.

There are of course other environmental concerns with fish farms, including the parasites and diseases they can transmit; the potential for less genetically fit fish to escape and interbreed with their wild counterparts; and the waste products the fish farms produce.”

People often find it easier to empathize with mammals, like cats and dogs, than with fish. What can we do to help people feel empathy towards fish too?

“I think this is pretty important, but also difficult. Fish are pretty different from us primates! However, just because they’re different doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about them.

I confess that before I got involved with Fish Welfare Initiative, I didn’t care that much about fish. So this process for me has partly been a process of learning to love individuals that I initially didn’t really understand. Here are the main two things that helped me:

  1. Learning about what fish can do. For instance, you might think that fish are more primitive than humans, but they actually have many capabilities that humans do not! Some species can see colors that humans can’t, and all have a lateral line sense that allows them to sense movement in the world around them in a way we probably can’t imagine. I really recommend the book ‘What a Fish Knows’ to learn more about the beautiful lives that fish can live: we ask all of our team to read it.
  2. Spending time with fish. Recently, I had the immense privilege to spend a few weeks in Hawaii, where I spent much of the time snorkeling in the coral reefs. Coming face to face with countless beautiful fish, watching them go about their days as they look for food and interact with others. It was amazing. It makes you appreciate the complexity of these individuals and how they live these lives that we’re only just beginning to understand.”

What can our readers and followers do to help farmed fish? 

“They can include fish in their advocacy! Animal activists often focus just on land animals. However, we shouldn’t forget that the largest group of animals humans consume is actually fish.

They can also support organizations that work to help fish, such as Otwarte Klatki, Eurogroup for Animals, Compassion in World Farming, and of course Fish Welfare Initiative. These groups have all done (or are doing) important work to improve the way these amazing individuals are treated. If you’re looking to volunteer with Fish Welfare Initiative, you can sign up here.

We’re so grateful to have your support as we fight to make this a better world for all.”