Improving aquatic animal welfare
How can we most improve the wellbeing of farmed and wild caught aquatic animals?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, computer science, economics, engineering, law, media and communications, and psychology and cognitive science, 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?

Over 100 billion fish are farmed globally each year, and possibly several times as many wild fish are killed, as well as billions of other aquatic animals such as crustaceans.

The Sentience Institute estimates that in 2019, virtually all fish raised for human use in the US were raised on factory farms, spending their lives in stressful and unhealthy conditions. These fish experience a range of welfare problems, such as infectious diseases and parasites, stress from handling and crowding, painful procedures and starvation.

The welfare of animals like crabs, lobsters and shrimp is also a serious issue. Crustaceans display physiological and behavioural characteristics that have been proposed as evidence of the experience of pain, but as well as enduring poor conditions on farms, these animals are often killed in very inhumane ways – such as being boiled while conscious.

While wild fish experience less human-caused suffering during their lives, methods of capture and slaughter often seem extremely inhumane and may leave fish injured or suffocating for hours or even days.

The scale of aquatic animal suffering caused by humans seems to be huge, and has been relatively neglected by animal advocates. Further research is needed on how to improve these animals’ welfare as effectively as possible. See the talk below for an introduction to the importance of this area.

Explore existing research

  • The Aquatic Life Institute: supports research to compare potential welfare interventions and advocates for the implementation of the most promising interventions.
  • 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 welfare. 
  • Fish welfare initiative: conducts 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: a coalition of advocacy organisations that believe aquatic animals should have lives free of suffering.

Find a thesis topic

Many of 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.

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  • Advancing technology means it is increasingly possible to monitor the welfare of individual fish, so a better understanding of how certain fish behaviours correlate with welfare could be useful. Apart from these advanced systems, research into indicators that can be used by simply observing fish by eye could be helpful for implementation in more extensive systems across Asia. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • Explore what welfare needs different species of commonly farmed have and what constitutes optimal welfare. To effectively help fish it is imperative to understand the needs of individual species. Species like Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, and tilapia have some preliminary welfare research done but other species commonly farmed mostly don’t. Even the more researched species like salmon lack definite recommendations on, for example, environmental enrichment and positive welfare improvements. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • 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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • For usual aquaculture operations, female fish are stripped – a process during which they are handled out of water. This handling creates  welfare issues. Finding out how female fish can spawn naturally while in captivity could allow farmers to avoid this procedure altogether. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • How does offshore aquaculture affect the surrounding environment? You could look at the impact on the welfare of surrounding aquatic wild animals and what the environmental reasons are to oppose offshore aquaculture. (Proposed by Yip Fai Tse)
  • AI holds the potential to alleviate many of the problems that animal farming afflicts. We believe that this potential is still not fully understood. 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!  Preliminary resources: Createview is one of the companies that use AI for monitoring fish health, and Shinkei Systems is a company developing automated methods for killing fish more humanely. We have more preliminary research from other groups – if you are interested, reach out to us. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • 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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • 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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
    • It could also be valuable to better understand fishmeal supply and demand and how reducing its use would impact animal welfare, as it’s currently unclear whether animal advocates should try to decrease the use of fishmeal.
  • 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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)

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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)

  • 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. Most fish are not effectively stunned. Improving onboard stunning could spare billions of fish per year tremendous suffering. Take a look at this summary of available solutions by Fishcount to begin. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • 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, affordable and effective developments for rural farmers could greatly increase fish welfare. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • Offshore aquaculture is currently limited by a number of engineering challenges, however if this approach becomes more widely used it could pose a disaster for fish welfare by drastically increasing the number of fish being farmed. It would be useful to explore how the use of offshore aquaculture may develop in the future, as this could inform the priorities of aquatic animal welfare advocates. (Proposed by Yip Fai Tse).
  • Do a comparative analysis of different countries and how they protect, or fail to protect, aquatic animals could help develop country-specific advocacy strategies. Examples include CITES, CBD, and UNCLOS.
  • Explore how endangered species laws and other laws could be used to promote fish welfare or protect fish, to provide extra leverage for impactful lawsuits. You could focus on laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • How can environmental law be used to promote fish welfare and protect fish? (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • Retailers offer a variety of products with labels such as “sustainable,” “natural,” and  “humanely raised.” But how many of these labels actually hold what they promise? How can consumer protection law/false advertising law be used to advance fish welfare? (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • 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. (Fish Welfare Initiative’s research agenda)
  • How do different communication and advocacy techniques affect attitudes towards aquatic animals specifically? (Proposed by Yip Fai Tse)
  • How do different communication and advocacy techniques affect attitudes towards aquatic animals specifically? (Proposed by Yip Fai Tse)

Further resources

  • Effective animal advocacy resources from Rethink Priorities includes many links to further reading, research repositories, blogs, conferences and more that can help you get started in this area.
  • Fish Count is a website focused on increasing understanding and awareness of fish sentience.
  • This spreadsheet from the Open Philanthropy Project displays data on fish populations.

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. Apply to join our community if you’re interested in meeting other students working on this research direction. You could also join the Aquatic Animal Alliance to connect with researchers working on aquatic animal welfare.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

If you’re interested in other research directions that could help animals, take a look at our profiles focused on increasing the appeal of alternative proteins, changing attitudes towards animals and farmed animal welfare.

Contributors

This profile was last updated 27/05/23. Thanks to Jennifer-Justine Kirsch, Yip Fai Tse and Ren Springlea for helpful feedback. All mistakes remain our own.

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