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Farmed fish welfare: An impending challenge for aquaculture

During the IV World Conference on Aquaculture of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Shanghai Declaration has been published, which points out the direct relationship between animal welfare and a real sustainable development of aquaculture.

Cinco dominios acuicultura

Floating cages. Photo: Unsplash

Claudia Millán, Marine Scientist, 

Equalia Fish Welfare Specialist

November 03 2020

Aquaculture is an economic activity aimed at raising aquatic animals (fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and algae) in captivity (1). After continuous industrial development since the mid-1980s, nowadays more than 50% of the fish and seafood consumed globally comes from this sector (2). In 2018, 39 countries, home to almost half of the world's population, produced more through aquaculture than fisheries (3). The 4th Global Conference on Aquaculture of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), held in Shanghai (China) from the 22nd to the 25th of September 2021, is therefore of particular interest (4).

In the aftermath of this conference, the Shanghai Declaration (5) has been published as a roadmap to optimise aquaculture within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda (6). The declaration points out the direct link between animal welfare and a real sustainable development of aquaculture. For the first time, the FAO states that animal welfare is not only achieved by keeping animals in good health.

What do we mean by animal welfare?


The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) describes animal welfare as the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies. The concept is based on the five freedoms, defined in the mid-1960s (7). This model is now obsolete and has been replaced by a new model of five domains (nutrition, environment, physical health, behaviour, and mental health). The five domains recognise animals intended for human consumption as sentient beings, valuing the importance of their welfare and promoting positive experiences to achieve this (8).

Conferencia Shanghai acuicultura

The five domains recognize the importance of positive animal welfare for farmed animals. Photo: Unsplash

Is the welfare of fish and other aquatic animals as important as that of cows, pigs, chickens, or hens?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, of course! Joking aside, the concept of animal welfare has traditionally focused on terrestrial animals. Fish are now being included - why? Until a relatively short time ago, more was known about the physiological and behavioural characteristics of mammals and birds than of fish (9). In addition, there is a great variety of species in aquaculture compared to livestock farming: more than 600 aquatic species (3) compared to 12 terrestrial species globally.

What legal protection is there for animal welfare in aquaculture?


Little and with numerous limitations. At the international level, the OIE has an Aquatic Animal Health Code with recommendations for humane farming, transport, and slaughter (10). FAO is working on its Guidelines for Sustainable Aquaculture (11), with an (estimated) publication date of 2022. In addition, EU Community policies must take into account the welfare of animals as sentient beings (12).

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Over the last 30 years, the EU has issued several directives and regulations on the protection of animals intended for human consumption, their transport, slaughter, health and welfare (13, 14, 15, 16). This legal framework (currently under revision) also includes aquaculture animals: the new Strategic Guidelines for Aquaculture mention the importance of animal welfare (17, 18). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also produced several reports to improve stunning and slaughter methods for aquaculture fish (19).

Equalia is already working to improve welfare standards in aquaculture


With continued exponential growth, more and more people depend on aquaculture for their livelihoods. From 51 billion to 167 billion fish were slaughtered by the global aquaculture industry in 2017 (20), compared to more than 68 billion land animals destined for consumption in the same year (21). Both consumers and the aquaculture sector need animal welfare standards that ensure sustainability, especially to avoid unsustainable scenarios like those in other industrial livestock sectors (e.g., broiler chickens).

Bye bye, Dory! Numerous scientific studies confirm the extraordinary capabilities of fish, disproving any preconceptions we may have had about them (as in the case of Dory, the protagonist of the film Finding Nemo). Fish can experience pain (22), are able to integrate information (23), have numerical skills (24) and good long-term memory (25). They can also learn tasks (26), solve problems (27), use a variety of tools (28), navigate long distances (29) and learn by watching other fish (30).

Public demand and the Spanish aquaculture sector


On the other hand, there is a growing public demand in the EU for better welfare standards in aquaculture. Consumers not only demand that the product is fresh, sustainable, and beneficial to their health, but they would also be willing to pay extra for fish farmed with better animal welfare standards (31, 32). With these arguments, the direct link between quality aquaculture products and the welfare these animals have experienced throughout the farming process is proven (33).

Moreover, the role played by the Spanish aquaculture sector within the EU market is another important reason. Spain is one of the main European producers, with numerous farms located along the Mediterranean coast, Galicia, and the Canary Islands. Sea bream, sea bass, rainbow trout, turbot and sole, among other species, are farmed. In fact, more than 254 million fish were farmed in Spanish fish farms in 2020 (34). It is also one of the largest fish and seafood markets (with a national average consumption of over 25 kg per person/year) (35).

We reach out to the Spanish aquaculture sector to make progress in animal welfare


Having explained the reasons for this, we now turn to developing our strategy for making progress in terms of animal welfare in aquaculture. We have designed it based on three pillars: corporate outreach, institutional outreach and public awareness. The first will allow us to work hand in hand with companies in the aquaculture sector, so that fish welfare is present throughout the supply chain (producers, distributors, and supermarkets). The objective of the second is to promote animal welfare policies adapted to the advances in this area and, with the third, we make available to the public verified and current information, so that they can make a responsible purchase, in accordance with their values.

When we started to design our strategy, we made a diagnosis of the current situation (what can be improved?), we studied the legal framework (laws, laws and more laws) and we identified the main social actors (who is who?). After these initial steps, we decided it was time to create an online tool to evaluate and compare aquaculture fish welfare policies of companies in the sector. Thus, Fish Track was born! The initial idea was to replicate the success of Egg Track (36) in Compassion in World Farming's (CIWF), but adding the complexity of the fish welfare issues to be considered.

How is a tool such as Fish Track created?


1) Areas for improvement within farmed fish welfare are defined. We searched for up-to-date information to describe them specifically, with the support of a group of animal welfare experts.

2) These areas are divided into three categories (short, medium and long term) to prioritise the most urgent ones. We analysed the priority areas for improvement and their feasibility to start working on them.

3) Corporate and institutional outreach begins. On the one hand, we will soon start a round of contacts with companies, and, on the other hand, we are working to expand the Equalia team.

4) In parallel, we are also designing the Fish Track website. We have taken ideas from other tools, such as the Seafood Stewardship Index of the World Benchmarking Alliance (37), and we plan to have a first version up and running before the end of 2021.

At the same time, we are part of two international coalitions: Eurogroup for Animals (EfA) and the Aquatic Animal Alliance (AAA). EfA is an animal advocacy organisation with extensive experience in the European Parliament (38). The AAA deals, among other issues, with the certification of animal welfare in aquaculture so that aquaculture products meet appropriate standards (39). As a member of both, Equalia actively participates in many international meetings and in the elaboration of various documents, providing our technical and strategic point of view.

We also collaborate with other related organisations, such as CIWF (40), the Changing Markets Foundation (41), and the fish welfare working group of the German Albert Schweitzer Foundation (42). Likewise, we are open to working with other social actors, always with the aim of integrating animal welfare into aquaculture sustainability policies. For example, the Spanish Aquaculture Business Association (APROMAR) invited us to the presentation of its 1st Sustainability Report (43). We have established a partnership to provide suggestions on animal welfare for the next report.

If you have come this far, you will have an idea of the challenge of working to integrate scientific advances in animal welfare into the aquaculture industry's value chains, and its sustainability policies... But this is just the beginning, we will keep you posted on our progress!


Claudia Millán

Marine Scientist - Equalia Fish Welfare Specialist


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2 Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Alimentación y la Agricultura (FAO). (2019). Contribution of aquaculture to total fishery production: the 50-percent mark. Disponible en:  

3 FAO. (2020). El Estado Mundial de la Pesca y la Acuicultura: Sostenibilidad en acción. Disponible en:  

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7 Organización Mundial de Sanidad Animal (OIE). Bienestar Animal. Disponible en:  

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13 Directiva relativa a la protección de los animales en las explotaciones ganaderas (98/58/CE). Disponible en:

14 Reglamento (CE) Nº 1/2005 del Consejo, de 22 de diciembre de 2004, relativo a la protección de los animales durante el transporte y las operaciones conexas y por el que se modifican las Directivas 64/432/CEE y 93/119/CE y el Reglamento (CE) Nº 1255/97. Disponible en:

15 Reglamento (CE) Nº 1099/2009 del Consejo, de 24 de septiembre de 2009, relativo a la protección de los animales en el momento de la matanza. Disponible en:  

16 Reglamento (UE) 2017/625 del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo, de 15 de marzo de 2017, relativo a los controles y otras actividades oficiales realizados para garantizar la aplicación de la legislación sobre alimentos y piensos, y de las normas sobre salud y bienestar de los animales, sanidad vegetal y productos fitosanitarios, y por el que se modifican los Reglamentos (CE) Nº 999/2001, (CE) Nº 396/2005, (CE) Nº 1069/2009, (CE) Nº 1107/2009, (UE) Nº 1151/2012, (UE) Nº 652/2014, (UE) 2016/429 y (UE) 2016/2031 del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo, los Reglamentos (CE) Nº 1/2005 y (CE) Nº 1099/2009 del Consejo, y las Directivas 98/58/CE, 1999/74/CE, 2007/43/CE, 2008/119/CE y 2008/120/CE del Consejo, y por el que se derogan los Reglamentos (CE) Nº 854/2004 y (CE) Nº 882/2004 del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo, las Directivas 89/608/CEE, 89/662/CEE, 90/425/CEE, 91/496/CEE, 96/23/CE, 96/93/CE y 97/78/CE del Consejo y la Decisión 92/438/CEE del Consejo (Reglamento sobre controles oficiales). Disponible en:  

17 Bienestar animal: Revisión de la legislación de la UE. Disponible en:    

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20 Disponible en:   

21 Our World in Data. (2021). Number of animals slaughtered for meat - World 2017. Disponible en:   

22 Sneddon, L.U. (2020). Can Fish Experience Pain? Kristiansen T., Fernö A., Pavlidis M., van de Vis H. (Eds). In: The Welfare of Fish. Animal Welfare, vol 20. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 229-249.  

23 Sneddon, L.U. & Brown, C. (2020). Mental Capacities of Fishes. Johnson, L.S.M., Fenton, A. & Shriver, A. (Eds.). In: Neuroethics and Nonhuman animals. Switzerland: Springer Nature, 53-72.

24 Agrillo, C., Miletto Petrazzini, M. E. & Bisazza, A. (2017). Numerical abilities in fish: A methodological review. Behavioural Processes, 141(2), 161-171.  

25 Triki, Z. & Bshary, R. (2020).Long-term memory retention in a wild fish species Labroides dimidiatus eleven months after an aversive event. Ethology, 126(3), 372-376. 

26 Lucon-Xiccato, T., Gatto, E. & Bisazza, A. (2017). Fish perform like mammals and birds in inhibitory motor control tasks. Scientific Reports, 7(13144), 1-8. Disponible en:  

27 Kohda, M., Hotta, T., Takeyama, T., Awata, S., Tanaka, H. Asai, J. & Jordan, L.A. (2018). Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test. What are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals? bioRxiv. DOI: 10.1101/397067. Disponible en: 

28 Pryor, K.J. & Milton, A.M. (2021). Multi-species fish foraging associations during tool use by the graphic tuskfish Choerodon graphicus (De Vis 1885) (Labridae). Marine Ecology, e12669.

29 De Luca, G., Mariani, P., Mackenzie, B. R. & Marsili, M. (2014). Fishing out collective memory of migratory schools. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 11: 20140043. Disponible en:  

30 Webster, M.M. & Laland, K.N. (2017). Social information use and social learning in non-grouping fishes. Behavioural Ecology, 28(6), 1.547-1.542. Disponible en:



31 ComRes. (2018). All Eurogroup for Animals/Compassion in World Farming - Fish Welfare survey. Disponible en: 


32 European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA). (2017b). The EU Fish Market. European Commission. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. 1-108. Disponible en: 


33 Eurogroup for Animals (EfA). (2018). Looking beneath the surface: Fish welfare in European aquaculture. Brussels, 5-42. Disponible en:   


34 Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación (MAPA). (2021). Datos de producción de acuicultura. Disponible en: 


35 EUROFISH. (2016). Overview of the Spanish fisheries and aquaculture sector. Disponible en:,than%20any%20other%20EU%20country 


36 Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Egg Track. Disponible en: 


37 World Benchmarking Alliance. Seafood Stewardship Index. Disponible en: 


38 Eurogroup for Animals (EfA). Fish welfare. The forgotten farm animals. Disponible en:  


39 Aquatic Animal Alliance (AAA). Disponible en:  


40 Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Farm animals. Fish welfare. Disponible en: 


41 Changing Markets Foundation. Fishing the feed. Disponible en:  


42 Fundación Albert Schweitzer. Welfare Standards in the Aquaculture Industry. Disponible en:   


43 Acuicultura de España. Disponible en:

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