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Aerial view of sea cages in the sea. Photo: iStock

Transparency on animal welfare issues in aquaculture

According to FAO statistics, global aquaculture production has doubled over the last 20 years and will continue to be the driving force behind the growth in global fish production. Indeed, aquaculture production is projected to reach 106 million tonnes by 2030 representing 53% of total seafood production that year. However, in order for the aquaculture sector to contribute to the transition towards sustainable food systems, this growth must be accompanied by environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices.

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Farmed rainbow trouts swimming. Photo: iStock

Helen Packer, Seafood Stewardship Index Lead at World Benchmarking Alliance and Claudia Millán, Fish Welfare Specialist at Equalia

August 12 2022

In this context, a few questions arise. What does animal welfare mean in aquaculture? How is this topic related to sustainable development and food safety? The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, former OIE) defines animal welfare as the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies. Therefore, the welfare of all farmed animals, including those from aquaculture, should be considered at the rearing, transportation and slaughter stages.

Animal welfare, sustainable development and food safety

Animal welfare is inextricably linked to ethical, environmental, and social issues and thus plays a crucial role in sustainable development. For example, there is evidence that poor animal welfare practices can have an impact on water quality, disease control, antimicrobial resistance and food safety, all important factors to consider if aquaculture is to support the transition towards sustainable food systems.

Proceso de despesque de carpas de acuicultura

Farmed carps’ capture process from a sea cage. Photo: iStock

“Practices that are not in line with high-level welfare standards are no longer considered acceptable by businesses and consumers”

Some companies (e.g., Blumar Seafoods, Cargill) and producers’ organisations (e.g., Global Salmon Initiative) are including animal health and welfare parameters in their sustainability reports. However, despite these efforts to increase transparency, the focus is mainly on animal health issues, leaving other welfare aspects behind.

Moreover, the EU Strategic Aquaculture Guidelines state that “keeping fish under good welfare conditions also has economic benefits for the industry, through reduced costs and better-quality products” (EU, 2021). Given the link between animal welfare and sustainable aquaculture as well as rising consumer scrutiny, the aquaculture industry must consider animal welfare and ensure appropriate information is shared with stakeholders, including consumers.

How transparent are seafood companies on animal welfare issues?

The 2021 Seafood Stewardship Index, produced by the World Benchmarking Alliance, revealed that the 30 most influential companies in the seafood industry are still struggling to demonstrate robust targets and be truly transparent about their environmental and social responsibility, including animal welfare. Twenty-seven of the 30 companies assessed were evaluated for their efforts to improve animal welfare, with only 10 disclosing a policy to address animal welfare issues in their operations or supply chain. Only a few companies demonstrated time-bound targets and progress reporting on animal welfare issues such as fish mortality levels or stunning and slaughter methods.  

The lack of transparency on animal welfare practices is hampering progress as it hinders our ability to evaluate progress, reward and highlight good practices and hold laggards to account. Transparency is essential to support progress and generates corporate value by creating trust between a company and its stakeholders. As stakeholders increase their expectations towards companies on issues such as animal welfare, transparent disclosure beyond legal compliance is becoming essential to maintain trust and thus stay in business. Moreover, some jurisdictions, such as the European Union, are increasingly making corporate reporting mandatory.

Why is transparency on animal welfare so low and what can be done about it?

Aquatic animal welfare, and associated transparency on the topic, has been neglected for several reasons. First, animal welfare has been considered equivalent to animal health, with data requirements focused on medicinal treatments and mortality rates. However, animal welfare encompasses a range of factors, including animal health, behaviour, feeding, rearing conditions, slaughter, etc. Therefore, there is a need to raise awareness about the link between animal welfare and sustainable aquaculture and define aquatic animal welfare more comprehensively, together with appropriate indicators to measure it. This work is done by organizations like Equalia and the Aquatic Life Institute.

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Main factors related to animal welfare. Photo: Equalia

Second, current animal welfare regulations and voluntary certification standards primarily focus on terrestrial animals. This situation has resulted in specific rules for the welfare of mammals (e.g., cows, hens, rabbits) and a lack of standards and rules for farmed fish, molluscs and crustaceans’ welfare. For instance, the Aquatic Life Institute’s recently benchmarked 6 seafood certification schemes in terms of how they address aquatic animal welfare issues, revealing various levels of performance. Recognising sentience in aquatic animals (e.g., fish) may be the first step toward improved, more transparent welfare voluntary and legal frameworks. For example, the UK recently recognised lobsters, octopus and crabs as sentient beings under the scope of its Animal Welfare Bill.

Fragmented legislation on data collection and transparent reporting

Lastly, there is a lack of specific and comprehensive rules specifying what information should be collected and shared publicly. For instance, even though animal health and welfare appear in different EU regulations and guidelines (1), there is a lack of coherence in their requirements for data collection and transparent reporting. Only the 2005 recommendation concerning farmed fish provides a comprehensive set of data points to be collected but it is not legally binding. In Spain, even though the Multiannual Strategic Aquaculture National Plan 2014-2020 had a line of work dedicated to “provide…more transparency to investors and customers”, none of the strategic actions designed to achieve this objective describe how to improve transparency. This plan has now expired so the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPA) is working on the next one. Although it has not been clarified how animal welfare will be addressed in the updated edition.

In conclusion, seafood companies can play a leadership role in increasing the recognition of the importance of animal welfare for sustainable aquaculture by advocating for improved standards and regulations in partnership with regulators and NGOs. The seafood industry can also take a leadership role by voluntarily increasing transparency on the issue in their sustainability reports, which will improve our understanding of progress and increase stakeholder trust.

 

REFERENCES

1 Council Directive 98/58/EC, regulations 762/2008, 1380/2013, 2017/1004, Commission Implementing Decision 2021/1168, 2005 EU recommendation concerning farmed fish, and Strategic Aquaculture Guidelines 2021-2030

 

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