Taking aquatic animal welfare seriously

Written by staff at FAI Farms

At FAI we believe developing an aquaculture sector that meets growing global demand for high-quality protein can be achieved while also supporting high levels of welfare in farmed aquatic species. And from a recent FAI-led review of scientific papers, it’s clear we’re not the only ones taking aquatic animal welfare seriously.

The global aquaculture sector is expanding rapidly, with an increasing focus on farmed aquatic species – such fish, prawns and shrimp – to provide high-quality protein to a growing world population. However, until recently the welfare of these species remained largely overlooked.

This is something we’re looking to change. We know that improving the welfare conditions of farmed aquatic animals is not only beneficial to the animals themselves but can also lead to improved product quality and economic gains for individual farmers.

“Our experience shows welfare doesn’t need to be sacrificed to achieve improved levels of production,” explains FAI Aquaculture Project Manager, Marius Nicolini. “In fact, it’s quite the reverse, with the implementation of improved welfare measures often increasing the quality of aquatic species being farmed and better production volumes.”

We believe robust scientific knowledge underpinning effective practical application is critical to guide improvements in animal welfare and are working to highlight its importance in the transition towards a more sustainable aquaculture system.

“That’s why FAI’s Chief Operating Officer Murilo Quintiliano co-wrote a Frontiers editorial at the end of last year,” continues Marius. “It analysed a selection of recent academic papers focused on topics related to enhancing the welfare of farmed aquatic species.

“What’s clear from this review is that welfare is a critical topic and should continue to influence aquacultural practices now and in the future.”

Stocking density
The review highlighted that defining limits on an individual basis and setting them around wider welfare assessments is more productive than strict, blanket stocking density limits for different aquatic species.

“Stocking density is a major welfare concern in aquaculture,” explains Marius. “High densities can lead to stress, injury, and disease. Very low densities may also cause health issues, stress for social species and/or more aggressive interactions – all of which impact welfare and potentially hinder the economic viability of fish farms.

“This aligns with our own experience and findings. Originally, we included a welfare indicator focused on density in the FAI tilapia welfare assessment app. But then we saw farmers with high density scores also achieved perfect scores on all other welfare indicators. This discovery sparked considerable debate regarding the true understanding of fish stress in relation to density.

“Ultimately, we are able to assess stocking density indirectly by examining other welfare indicators that reflect an inappropriate stocking density, such as water quality indicators (ammonia, nitrite, pH) and health indicators (external damages on skin, fin, eyes).”

Behaviour and physiological insights into fish welfare
Murilo’s editorial also examined an academic paper exploring the role of cortisol and sex steroids in regulating social interactions, as well as reproductive activities and combative behaviours in teleost fish.

“The paper emphasised the importance of focusing research on species-specific social behaviour and behavioural indicators,” says Marius. “It also reinforces the need to evaluate fish stress levels and their physical conditions through non-invasive methods, such as measuring cortisol levels in the water.”

These behavioural and physical assessments can then act as markers for fish health, welfare and reproductive conditions.

“However, evaluating and scoring these behaviours poses challenges, and there is currently insufficient research to construct welfare indicators based on the paper’s findings,” explains Marius.

“But we do fully agree with the paper’s emphasis on species-specific indicators. All our indicators and thresholds are tailored to specific species. Carp and tilapia, for example, have distinct welfare assessments with different thresholds for behaviour indicators.”

Social Enrichment
While most readers will be familiar with the idea of physical enrichment within the livestock and aquaculture sector – think artificial plants for fish and straw bales for poultry – there’s limited understanding of the positive welfare impact of social enrichment in aquaculture.

“The editorial highlights an example of multi-species farming involving black rockfish and fat greenling that naturally inhabit the same area,” says Marius. “The research suggested social enrichment could reduce aggressive behaviour and enhance the growth of fat greenling, but came at the expense of rockfish welfare.

“And that’s why we’ve not considered social enrichment in our welfare indicators and assessment tools – there’s simply a lack of sufficient studies on the topic. While it is undoubtedly an interesting area, building robust indicators around social enrichment currently proves challenging.”

Welfare Assessment Frameworks
When it comes to actual welfare assessments, one paper included in the editorial focused on an exploration of current certification schemes and assessment frameworks for aquaculture. This research highlights the need for comprehensive, validated and feasible welfare assessments that include ‘feeling-based approaches’.

“The dedication of scholars, professionals and researchers to aquatic animal welfare is paving the way for big developments in the industry,” says Marius. “However, this paper’s research showed welfare is a relatively small component of most certification schemes, and standards are currently unclear and lack measurability.

“FAI has constructed its aquatic animal welfare frameworks to incorporate many of the desired recommendations outlined in the paper. Our welfare indicators have been established based on extensive scientific literature reviews and include both input and outcome measure indicators. The assessment frameworks we use are comprehensive – tackling everything from nutrition to behavioural categories.”

Advancing welfare in aquaculture
With ongoing scientific research, there is growing hope welfare will become a more significant area of focus and improvement in the aquaculture sector.

“The research presented in this editorial showcases the importance of welfare in aquatic environments and recent advancements,” concludes Marius. “But it also highlights the ongoing challenges that need innovative solutions.

“We know that if producers improve welfare, they will not only enhance the lives of the aquatic species in their care but also potentially benefit from higher levels of productivity and profitability. It’s a win-win situation and one we will continue to champion with practical support, expert advice, innovation and the development of new technologies.”

Read the editorial in full
View the individual published papers assessed

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