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The fish farms of China’s Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province, China. Photo credit: Edward Burtynsky

How to save aquatic animals in China?

The suffering of farmed aquatic animals is deep and vast, and helping  them will not be an easy task. The meat/fish reduction programs are not an advisable way to help them in China, and it will be more useful to think of ways to reduce the farming of smaller aquatic animals.

Tse Yip Fai, professional advisor and researcher on animal welfare

April 04 2021

 

Asia raises most of the farmed animals in the world, yet it is currently the most neglected by the farmed animal movement. Zooming in closer, aquatic animals are the type of animal farmed in the greatest number in Asia, and most of them are farmed in China (for example, >50% of finfish are farmed in China). It seems very plausible to argue that a successful aquatic animal welfare outcome in China is critical to our movement.

But the question is whether aquatic animals suffer on these farms. That’s a good and important question, and the answer is a definite yes. Studies from different scholars and organizations, including the Fish Welfare Initiative, have found that, globally, including China, aquatic animals are often farmed in overcrowded spaces, and in poor water quality. Also, aquatic animals are more often than not slaughtered horribly, being descaled, skinned, torn, cut, or boiled alive without stunning or anaesthesia.

FAO. 2020. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Sustainability in action. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9229es

 

Despite the level and scale of their suffering, virtually no systematic or organizational work has been done for aquatic animals in China. This has to be changed. But trying to reduce the suffering of fish in China will not be an easy task.

First of all, it is not easy to do charitable work in China, due to the foreign NGO law. But this is not within the scope of this article as it is too complicated to do the topic justice with limited length.

Secondly, as a highly centrally planned economy, the Chinese government has historically set tonnage targets as a part of their food security plan, so it seems very likely that meat/fish reduction efforts will not have an expected net effect on fish consumption.

We might want to find ways to steer China away from farming the smaller aquatic animals, such as shrimps, small crabs, or a very small fish called pond loach.

 

Thirdly, average awareness on the why and how of animal welfare is still low in China among the farmers, the public, and the government.

There are potential solutions, or directions on thinking about them. For example, we might want to find ways to steer China away from farming the smaller aquatic animals, such as shrimps, small crabs, or a very small fish called pond loach. If done successfully, even though the total tonnage target is set, the number of animals farmed and killed could still be reduced. Additionally, the problem of small aquatic animals enduring generally worse treatments due to the economic unfeasibility of handling  them individually (in processes such as checking, treatment or stunning) is also lessened.

There are also ways to convince farmers to adopt welfare improvements, because there are overlaps of interests and incentives between animal welfare and the farmers/the industry. For example, better control of water quality and better disease prediction and prevention not only benefits the fish, but also the farmers and the industry, as there would be less cases where farmers lose all their fish and investments when the whole fish population dies out, as is often the case today. Therefore farmers might have the incentive to take action to improve fish welfare, such as receiving education/training, establishing internal standards and procedures, upgrading technologies, etc.

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The overlap of interests deserves a little  more explanation due to its importance. A good example of such overlap is reducing the cases of whole-population deaths of animals caused by sudden drops in dissolved oxygen (DO), which is an obvious lose-lose situation for the animals and the human stakeholders. Abundant reports of such cases have been found, and it could be observed that a lot of fish famers who had suffered from total losses were poor, low educated, and inexperienced or even new to the industry. Some of these farmers might find it hard to even understand issues like how DO levels change under different circumstances, how DO levels affect fish welfare and fatality, and how they can predict, adjust, and maintain DO levels. Here, help from the animal movement could be of great assistance.

It is crucial not to overlook the importance

of welfare reforms

 

To conclude, the suffering of farmed aquatic animals is deep and vast, and helping  them will not be an easy task. The meat/fish reduction programs are not an advisable way to help them in China, and it will be more useful to think of ways to reduce the farming of smaller aquatic animals. More importantly, it is crucial not to overlook the importance of welfare reforms, as it is delusional to think that the number of aquatic animals will drop substantially in the future due to our advocacy. As discussed before, farmers and the industry may have the incentives to consider welfare reforms, so it is important to look for opportunities along this line.  

This article is intended as an introduction to the topic, and not meant to convey too much insights. If you would like a deeper level discussion on this topic, reach out to Fai at tseyipfai@gmail.com

Fai is a professional advisor and researcher on animal welfare, focusing on Asia's animal welfare development, and the impact of emerging technologies on animals. He was previously the Chinese Strategy Consultant at Mercy For Animals, and is now advisor to a number of animal welfare organizations and foundations.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Equalia or Equalia’s staff.

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