Making fish happy


What: Lecture and discussion co-organised with Study Association Aquarius
When: 15th May, 19.00 -21.30
Where: Forum, C314

Aquaculture provides food and jobs for millions of people. It is also associated with pollution, issues with diseases within farmed and wild fish populations, even social issues associated with slave labor and suppression. Animal welfare has gone a long way already. However, human attitude to animals depends on among other the cuteness and familiarity; and it is therefore easier to relate to a cow that a fish that you cannot really touch. Fish welfare remains a difficult topic, advancing mostly in the richer countries and unheard of in the developing world.

Pascal van der Nieuwegiessen did his PhD on the welfare of African catfish. In his studies he came across the difficulty of defining and measuring welfare for fish. There are different views on fish welfare, based on having pain receptors to fish not feeling pain at all. Assuming that the fish do feel pain, welfare can be further divided into function-based welfare where the basic homeostatic function is maintained, feeling-based welfare where fish do not feel discomfort and natural-based welfare where it can develop its natural behavior. Measuring welfare in fish is challenging: how do you measure stress response or the fish’s feelings? There are over 200 fish species farmed, each with its own behavior.

Michiel Fransen works at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). The council certifies fish farmers that farm fish responsively. It explicitly excludes welfare in its standards, however targets the environmental and social aspects of aquaculture. In their work they target the governmental bodies and work together with industries to bring the label to as many farms as possible. The work is difficult as implementing the standard is the responsibility of the farmer and can be expensive, especially for farmers in the developing countries. Furthermore, the environmental concerns are usually not a priority and are preceded by food security problems. ASC is now targeting 9 species of fish that form over 60% of the world’s aquaculture. The standards will be revised every ~5 years which makes it possible to include new developments. It will be difficult, however, to include fish welfare as the definition and measurement of welfare for different fish species remains an issue.

Paul Denekamp from the Foundation for the Protection of Fish thinks that ASC is not enough and fish welfare has to be addressed explicitly. While scientists argue about whether fish do or don’t have pain receptors why not adopt a precautionary principle? Furthermore Paul raises the issue of the killing methods, which currently boil down to the long-lasting suffocation of fish on ice. Techniques exist to stun fish before killing, however as long as these are not required they are not implemented by the farmers.

Overall this has been an interesting evening. Discussions raised a lot of ethical questions, including the question of how far do can we go: is domesticating fish at present different from domesticating cows by our ancestors? Should we ignore the finding on fish pain perception in favour of feeding the growing human population? Should the farmed salmon be allowed to develop its full potential just as the wild salmon does? The main question – should we make the fish happy and how? – remains unanswered.

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