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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, computer science, engineering, economics and law, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.
Why is this a pressing problem?
The Sentience Institute estimates that in 2019, virtually all fish in the US were raised on factory farms, and the situation is similar across the globe. Intensively farmed fish spend their lives in unhealthy conditions and suffer from a range of welfare problems such as infectious diseases and parasites, stress from handling and crowding, painful procedures and starvation.
While wild fish experience less human-caused suffering during their lives, methods of slaughter are often extremely inhumane and may leave fish injured or suffocating for several hours.
There is also a huge amount of suffering caused to animals like crabs, lobsters, shrimp and prawns. Despite the confidence of many researchers that crustaceans experience suffering, these animals are often killed in very inhumane ways – such as being boiled while still conscious.
The scale of aquatic animal suffering caused by humans is huge, and has been relatively neglected by animal advocates and researchers. Further research is needed on how to improve the welfare of these animals. See the talk below to learn more about the scale of this problem and the work that has been done so far.
How to tackle this
The ideas below are from the Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda (see their agenda for all questions). They encourage students interested in working on these questions to reach out to them, as they may be able to provide guidance and helpful connections.
- Advancing technology means it is increasingly possible to monitor the welfare of individual fish, so a better understanding of how certain fish behaviors correlate with welfare could be useful. Research specifically on indicators that can be used when observing fish by eye could also be helpful.
- There is some preliminary welfare research on some commonly farmed fish species, such as Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, and tilapia. However, even the more researched species lack definite recommendations on, for example, environmental enrichment and positive welfare improvements. It would therefore be valuable to explore the welfare needs of different commonly farmed species and establish what constitutes optimal welfare.
- Billions of young fish die in aquaculture hatcheries. Some of these deaths are natural, as fish are r-selectors and naturally have high mortality rates, but it is likely that some of these deaths are due to poor hatching conditions and welfare issues. It would be helpful to know more about how many juvenile fish die in hatcheries, how this varies across regions and species, and how these deaths can be prevented.
- For usual aquaculture operations, female fish are stripped – a stressful process during which they are handled out of water. Finding out how female fish can spawn naturally while in captivity could allow farmers to avoid this procedure altogether.
- AI holds the potential to alleviate many of the problems that animal farming afflicts. It could be highly valuable to dedicate some resources to exploring how AI can help safeguard fish welfare. This project could also have a practical side, including the development of AI techniques! Createview is one of the companies that use AI for monitoring fish health.
- It could also be valuable to model aquaculture growth. As wild fish stocks are depleted, aquaculture has the burden of supplying over 50% of global seafood – and that share is rising. However, aquaculture operations are limited by various factors such as regulations, feed availability, water quality, and land availability. How much will aquaculture grow? What systems will dominate future operations, and in which countries will aquaculture likely grow the quickest? Understanding the most likely growth scenario for aquaculture enables stakeholders to act accordingly when setting long-term strategies. You can find the United Nations’ predictions on page 164 of the FAO’s SOFIA report.
- Wild fish welfare has been a highly neglected topic due to its complexity and the limited tractability of interventions. The biggest opportunity seems to be at the point of human interaction – during capture and slaughter. Currently, most fish are not effectively stunned and improving onboard stunning could spare billions of fish per year tremendous suffering. To get started, take a look at this summary of available solutions by Fishcount and the company AceAquatec, which offers electric stunning that can be installed on boats.
- Affordable and effective developments for rural farmers could greatly increase fish welfare, as in many countries farmers want to improve welfare but don’t have a way to access and maintain the equipment necessary to do so. If marketed right, developments for rural farmers could greatly increase fish welfare.
- All food production supply chains are driven by supply and demand. Understanding the interplay between these two allows us to better understand what drives the aquaculture market, which in turn enables more effective advocacy work. It would therefore be valuable to look at what drives global aquaculture production, what happens when production increases or decreases and how demand affects production.
- The structure of supply chains differs greatly across continents and between individual countries and territories. Analyzing local supply chains shows us who is involved in aquaculture production processes and, ultimately, who can drive forward change. This knowledge allows animal advocacy organizations to accurately target these stakeholders. Therefore it would be useful to explore which stakeholders are involved in aquaculture production in different countries and what their relationship to each other is.
- There is a great discrepancy in regulatory frameworks safeguarding fish welfare between many Western and Asian countries. Producers from countries like Vietnam have to comply with far more stringent rules when exporting to Europe as opposed to selling their produce on local markets. The regulations of import countries can thus impact how fish are farmed in exporting countries. It could therefore be valuable to explore the extent to which regulations in receiver countries dictate aquaculture operations in exporting countries. An analysis of this relationship might reveal leverage for safeguarding fish welfare.
- A comparative analysis of different countries and how they protect – or fail to protect – aquatic animals could help develop country-specific advocacy strategies. Examples of agreements to explore include CITES, CBD, and UNCLOS.
- How can endangered species laws and other laws be used to promote fish welfare or protect fish, by providing extra leverage for impactful lawsuits? You could focus on laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- How can environmental law be used to promote fish welfare and protect fish?
- Retailers offer a variety of products with labels such as “sustainable,” “natural,” and “humanely raised.” But how accurate are these labels? How can consumer protection law/false advertising law be used to advance fish welfare?
- Legislation is a major driver of change. Countries that have laws safeguarding animal welfare and a strong law enforcement unit arguably see less animal abuse. Animal advocacy groups can push governments to create animal welfare laws and/or include aquatic animals in these. But first, we need to understand which countries include aquatic animals in their welfare laws. From there, we need to determine whether these also apply to farmed aquatic animals.
Who is already working on this?
- Key Aquatic Animal Welfare Recommendations for Aquaculture – the Aquatic Animal Alliance
- Browman et al., Welfare of aquatic animals: where things are, where they are going, and what it means for research, aquaculture, recreational angling, and commercial fishing and a summary of the paper from Faunalytics
- Billington & Cerqueria, Prioritizing Fish Species for Effective Welfare Improvements
- Hastein et al., Science-based assessment of welfare: Aquatic animals
- Prioritizing Between Farmed and Wild-Caught Fishes – Animal Charity Evaluators
- The Aquatic Life Institute supports research to compare potential welfare interventions and advocates for the implementation of the most promising.
- Rethink Priorities produces research on opportunities for – and cost effectiveness of – farmed animal interventions, including on shrimp welfare.
- Shrimp Welfare Project conducts outreach, and works with farmers and other stakeholders to try to improve shrimp wellbeing.
- Fish welfare initiative does research and advocacy to improve the welfare of farmed and wild caught fish and other aquatic life.
- Crustacean Compassion campaigns for the humane treatment of crustaceans in the UK
- The Aquatic Animal Alliance is a coalition of advocacy organisations who believe aquatic animals should have lives free of suffering.
- Fish Count is a website focused on increasing understanding and awareness of fish sentience.
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