Good practices for animal welfare in aquaculture

Fish are the most numerous and varied vertebrates, with over 33,000 species spread across all aquatic ecosystems. Fish from fishing and aquaculture is an important nutrient-rich food source for billions of people. In Europe, aquaculture accounts for 20% of total fish output, and European fish farming rears more than 40 different species. In contrast to other farm animals, it is only relatively recently that the welfare of farmed fish aroused scientific concern and public interest.

Scientific knowledge on fish welfare still has some gaps for most species. Fish are sentient animals regardless of their degree of consciousness or sense of pain. Consequently, it is important to ensure all necessary steps are taken to minimise avoidable pain, distress or permanent damage that could occur under farming conditions.

For this reason, fish farmers are committed to providing fish with the best possible welfare conditions in each rearing system and environment. The sector has produced cutting-edge best practice guides on fish welfare. Some guides focus exclusively on welfare, like the ItalianGuidelines for managing the welfare of farmed fish during road transport‘ or the GreekMediterranean Fish Welfare Guide to good practices and assessment indicators‘.

Others are more general but with dedicated chapters on welfare, like the PolishCode of Good Practice in Fish Farming‘ that addresses pond and salmonid fish farming. And in some cases, guidelines have been developed by the sector in seamless collaboration with animal welfare NGOs, like the SpanishGuide for Fish Welfare in Spanish Aquaculture‘.

All these practices have something in common: fish welfare is now just as much a major priority for producers and professionals in the fish farming sector as it is for the scientific community, consumers, NGOs, regulatory bodies and authorities.

Producers care for the animals’ welfare because they understand their ethical responsibility and know that rearing conditions impact the quality of the food produced. For this reason, they have developed and adopted practices and technologies for assessing fish condition, performance monitoring and welfare improvement. On top of this, management and regulatory bodies and independent organisations have developed standards and certified welfare schemes for particular farmed fish species.

This means new challenges for the sector, including reviewing current scientific opinions and updating the legal framework. In assessing welfare, specific, measurable welfare indicators have been developed to assess the welfare of the fish itself, such as health, body growth, nutrition and appetite, external appearance, injuries and mortality, as well as their environmental farming conditions, such as oxygen saturation, water salinity, temperature, water pH or water turbidity, lighting, stocking density and operations technology. These parameters are regularly monitored by fish farm staff, as they are crucially important to fish wellbeing.

Also, samples are taken from fish on the farm and sent to specialist laboratories for analysis and detection of possible signs of discomfort or poor environmental conditions to correct them immediately, reducing fish stress, preventing aggression between individuals and improving their health and welfare. Maintaining hygiene conditions both in the rearing medium and during handling procedures is important for preventing the emergence of infections and diseases borne by pathogens that may cause illnesses in fish.

A series of preventive measures are implemented to prevent such phenomena, such as vaccination against specific pathogens, sampling to evaluate population health and maintaining hygiene conditions during operations. When fish are reared in tanks, it is extremely important to maintain water quality at optimal levels and to observe strict hygiene rules to prevent emerging diseases.

Some veterinary interventions, such as vaccinations at a particular stage in the production cycle, are routine for fish stock. In contrast, other interventions, including antibiotic or antiparasitic treatments, are implemented only when necessary and are in a downward trend. In any event, implementing veterinary practices is essential for improving fish living conditions.

Throughout Europe, strong measures and controls exist for the movement of live fish, where disease-free certification is needed before transport. European fish farmers and their veterinarians continue to work in concert to develop Veterinary Health Plans and optimised global surveillance and monitoring programmes.

The Federation of European Aquaculture Producers, FEAP, strongly supports good animal welfare practices and is part of the Animal Health Advisory Committee. Since aquaculture is recognised as one of the most efficient solutions to feed a growing global population sustainably, these best practices for animal welfare are of prime importance to protecting human and animal health and assuring food safety and quality.