Fish welfare

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The welfare of all farm animals, including fish, has become a high profile issue in the current years and there is increasing pressure on the regulatory authorities to legislate on fish welfare. New research attempts to determine what fish desire, whilst identifying expressions of fear and stress.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • As stocks of wild fish are on the decline, it is becoming attractive to turn to farming new fish species. But, as with all farmed animals, when new environments are imposed on them, a question of welfare arises.
  • There is scientific evidence to support the assumption that some fish species have brain structures potentially capable of experiencing pain and fear.
  • With speedy globalization of the aquaculture industries, fish welfare needs have been left behind. However, in the last decade the welfare of fish has become a high-priority issue on political grounds. In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam agreed that throughout the EU the concept of welfare is the same in fish as it is in mammals and birds and necessary protection should be applied. More recently, the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) announced its plan to harmonise standards throughout its 172 member countries.

All about fish welfare

There has been a belief that fish did not possess complex emotions.

Can fish suffer?

In the realm of animal welfare one critical issue remains unresolved - whether nonhuman animals exposed to adverse experiences such as physical injury or confinement experience what humans would call suffering. It is argued that the neocortex, which in humans is an important part of the neural mechanism that generates the subjective experience of suffering, is lacking in fish and nonmammalian animals. Hence it is an indication that fish cannot suffer.

New research has pointed out that issues of fish stress and disease can have damaging repercussions on the industry. However, there is much less research on fish than on other animals though similar measures of welfare developed for other animal are often relevant to fish. Scientists are also deeply divided on what level of emotional response and sentience fish are capable.

Lack of investment

It is still not known how complex the emotional life of a fish may be. Further research and consequent aquaculture practise may bring no benefit to consumer or even to the fish, yet there are areas where fish farmers could benefit from knowing how to keep their products healthy and free of disease and there are ethical obligations that should be fulfilled.

Research has been hampered by a lack of investment. It is also difficult to carry some studies forward due to the complexity of the issue and the difficulty in achieving scientific, relevant measurements. The difficulties mainly lie in perceiving how a fish might interpret the world around it due to the different biological functions and senses that they possess.

Industry response

The industry recognizes that there is a clear relationship between improvements in fish welfare and the production of premium quality fish. There is general agreement that in order to be sustainable the production of farmed fish must not only demonstrate environmental care and ensure high welfare standards but must remain profitable.

One of the main drivers of fish welfare is maintaining good water quality. Farmers are under increasing pressure from supermarkets and consumers to address welfare issues in the production cycle.

Scientific opinion

On the advise of the European Commission the Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) panel was asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on welfare aspects of husbandry systems for farmed fish. The opinion tried to identify their capacity to experience pain, fear and distress, whilst taking into account expressions of sentience.

The report called for new research and developments in the areas of cognition and brain imaging techniques in fish. But many fish reactions to stressful and dangerous situations can be clearly observed with the human eye. Some fish show fight-or-flight response when encountering threatening situations, whilst others freeze and sink to the bottom of ponds, or hide behind rocks to avoid danger.

Fish behavior differences

Often the behavior shown by fish in a natural habitat such complex swimming, feeding, anti-predator and reproductive behaviors are lacking in fish farms. Fish farmers themselves have witnessed how prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to maladaptive effects or chronic stress.

Chronic stress responses include reduction in immune function, disease resistance, growth and reproduction and even result in death. Fin condition and parasite load are clear and comparable indications that are often associated with poor welfare.


  • Fish are in intimate contact with their environment through the huge surface area of their gills, so they are vulnerable to poor water quality and water borne pollutants.
  • Human activities that potentially compromise fish welfare include anthropogenic changes to the environment, commercial fisheries, recreational angling, aquaculture, ornamental fish keeping and scientific research.

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Additional information


  • Fishwelfare
  • Becoming Conscious About Fish Conscience
  • Emerging Welfare Issues