Animal Welfare For Farmed Fish - Is Asia-Pacific Ready?

EM Leano and CV Mohan from the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific look at the welfare of farmed fish, the current legislation and the challenges faced as public perception changes.

Is the handling/killing of farmed aquatic animals inhumane?

This will be the question that every farmer, processor and vendor needs to ask whenever they harvest or process their produce, or during eradication of stocks when there is a disease outbreak.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), animal welfare in general is a complex subject with scientific, ethical, economic, cultural and political dimensions. It is currently considered as one of the standards of quality of animal products. And with the growing consumer interest on animal welfare worldwide, it is just appropriate to spend some insights on this aspect with regard to farmed aquatic animals, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the past, animal welfare legislation tended to focus on the protection of animals used for research or teaching, for exhibition and for commercial transport. Additionally, controlled use of chemicals during aquaculture operations and disease prevention and treatment are also dealt with in fish welfare.

The use of animals in basic and applied research is governed by both scientific objectives and ethical considerations (Olson et al., 1991). Heightened concern over the humane treatment of experimental animals by the scientific community and the public has led to the development of guidelines and regulations concerning animal care and use.

In aquaculture research for example, overwhelming emphasis is given on keeping fish in the best possible low stress conditions to promote rapid growth and natural reproduction (Allan and Heasman, 2001). In all cases, the ultimate goal is to protect and manage fisheries resources for the benefit of current and future generations. Of equal importance is the need to reassure the community that ethics are given prime consideration before any animal experimentation commences.

With regard to the controlled use of chemicals in aquaculture in response to public concerns about human food safety, human health, and environmental effects, fish farmers must have access to a range of properly authorised medicines to safeguard animal health and welfare (Costello et al., 2001).

The lack or limited availability of approved drugs and chemicals has dramatically reduced the effectiveness and increased the cost of fish production for natural resource management agencies (Schnick et al., 1996). Moreover, there is still a need to standardise and to harmonise guidelines on responsible use of chemicals in aquaculture, especially in the less-developed countries in the region.

Current fish welfare legislation Animal health is an essential component of animal welfare (OIE, 2010a). At present, the Aquatic Animal Health Code (Aquatic Code; OIE, 2010b) includes one section that deals with welfare of farmed fi sh (Section 7) containing an introductory chapter (Chapter 7.1) and two chapters dealing with fish welfare during transport (Chapter 7.2) and killing of fish for human consumption (Chapter 7.3). Chapter 7.3 is the most recent addition, which was unanimously adopted by the 176 OIE Members during the OIE 78th General Assembly Meeting in 2010. In preparation is the chapter on emergency killing for disease control purposes not intended for human consumption (Chapter 7.4).

Chapter 7.2 (Welfare of farmed fi sh during transport) provides information to minimise the effect of transport on the welfare of farmed fish by air, sea or land, within a country and between countries. It lists the responsibilities of the personnel handling fish throughout the transportation process to ensure that consideration is given to the potential impact on the welfare of the fish.

Competence (of the transport personnel) is also given importance which requires all parties supervising transport activities should have appropriate knowledge and understanding to ensure that the welfare of the fish is maintained throughout the process. Competence may be gained through formal training and/or practical experience. The chapter also enumerates some guidelines on transport planning which include vehicle design and maintenance, water quality, conditioning of fish for transport, species-specific recommendations and contingency plans.

Chapter 7.3 (welfare aspects of stunning and killing of farmed fish for human consumption) address the need to ensure welfare of farmed fish, intended for human consumption, during stunning and killing including transport and holding immediately prior to stunning.

This chapter describes general principles that should be applied and is guided by the principle that fish should be stunned before killing, and the stunning method should ensure immediate and irreversible loss of consciousness. If the stunning is not irreversible, fish should be killed before consciousness is recovered. Stunning and killing methods by mechanical and electrical means are described in details, while other methods such as chilling, asphyxiation, exsanguinations without stunning are considered to result in poor fish welfare.

Overall, the section lists recommendations (on a general level) for the welfare of farmed fish (excluding ornamental species) during transport, slaughter, and destruction for disease control purposes. The following principles will apply:

  • The use of fish carries with it an ethical responsibility to ensure the welfare of such animals to the greatest extent practicable.
  • The scientific assessment of fish welfare involves both scientifically derived data and value-based assumptions that need to be considered together, and the process of making assessments should be made explicit as possible.

Asia-Pacific aquaculture and fish welfare legislation

Asia has the longest history of aquaculture in the world. It is believed that the first record of fish culture was in China, as reported in a Chinese ancient booklet in carp culture by Fan Li dating back more than 2,500 years ago (Liao, 2009). It was not until the 1940’s, however, when the landmark of systematic fish culture was established thru the breakthrough works of Hudinaga (1942) on artificial propagation of kuruma prawn (Penaeus japonicus).

Since then, mass propagation and culture technologies have been developed among many fish and crustacean species that has contributed to the success of the aquaculture industry in the region and the world. In 2008, Asia-Pacific countries produced almost 90 per cent of the total world aquaculture production and remain to be the top aquaculture-producing countries in the world, with eight countries (China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Philippines and Japan) included in the top 10 list (FAO, 2010).

Looking at the existing animal welfare regulations involving (farmed) fish (Table 1), however, none came from Asia-Pacific countries. This scenario can be due to the fact that majority of aquafarmers in the region are small scale, especially in rural/coastal communities. This means that most of the farms are farmer-owned/leased, managed and operated (De Silva, 2010).

With the long history of aquaculture in Asia, and considering the aquaculture traditions handed down from one generation to the next and modifi ed by modern technologies, it will surely be a great challenge to implement any fish welfare act that might directly or indirectly affect the overall perceptions of small scale aquafarmers. China as example – the top aquaculture producer in the world, with the longest history of aquaculture practices, and one of the largest consumers of seafoods (fi sh and crustaceans) – does not have any existing fi sh welfare regulation.

The same goes with most of the Asian countries where transport, handling and killing of fish usually does not conform to the fish welfare guidelines drafted by OIE. The thought that fish are raised (cultured) solely for human consumption, humane or inhumane handling and killing of fish stocks will be the least of the concerns by most aquafarmers in the region, especially so with the many small producers that culture fish mostly for domestic consumption or for local markets.

The challenge

In the Asia-Pacific region, the challenge will remain in the implementation of fish welfare regulations as the perception of what does or does not constitute an act of cruelty to animals differs from one region and culture to another (OIE, 2010a).

Fish welfare acts should also consider the extent to which the regulations should be applied, whether it will be limited to big producers and processors that produce fish for export, or will include even the small producers that only target local markets.

If it will include the latter, the culture/tradition-rich Asia-Pacific countries will surely find it hard to abide on whatever fish welfare acts that will be promulgated, especially if it is more inclined or intended for fulfi lling international certification system for exported aquaculture products. As such, small (scale) producers and local consumers in the region might not partake at all on these fish welfare acts, as their main concern is just to produce and consume fish.

October 2011

the Fish Site Editor

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