How much do you care about fish welfare?

CC BY 2.0 Sundy Lyn

Animal advocates want to talk about humane fish-farming practices, but some people aren't sure the time is right.

It is easy to get upset over photos of cute chickens crammed in tight cages, mother pigs unable to turn around in their crates, and dairy cows bellowing sadly for their disappeared babies. But fewer people feel outrage when the topic of fish and other seafood comes up. Fish arouse less compassion in human hearts than land-based animals.

This is something that animal welfare advocacy group Mercy For Animals hopes to change. It is preparing to launch a campaign that will "target the aquaculture industry and shine a light on the conditions in which finfish like salmon, tilapia, catfish, trout, pangasius and other species are raised" (via NPR).

Not everyone is convinced that the campaign will take off. In an article called "Do you care if your fish dinner was raised humanely?" NPR questions whether consumers are ready for such a message. With our seeming emotional disconnection from fish, is this a concept that could gain traction?

Stephen Frattini, veterinarian and president of the Center for Aquatic Animal Research and Management, is doubtful. He talks about the unique historical relationship of mutual dependence that has developed between humans and land-based animals.

"As humans, we've utilized terrestrial animals as food, but also to pull carts and plow fields. And along the way, a moral contract evolved that acknowledged we should provide for them in a way beyond not being cruel to them. But with fish, we're not there yet. We [as eaters] have yet to really struggle with that."

The science on fish's perception of pain is still up in the air (or, should I say, down in the watery deep?), which adds a complicating layer to the debate. (Animal welfare groups would argue otherwise.) Craig Watson, chair of the aquatic animal welfare committee for the National Aquaculture Association, a U.S.-based group of seafood growers, says the question of whether fish are sentient and feel pain depends on who you talk to; however,

"The science is clear that fish lack the neurophysiology to feel pain. They don't have the brain structure — a developed neocortex where pain occurs in higher vertebrates."

An added challenge is defining humane treatment. What might seem good in theory for fish can be bad. For example, predatory fish like Arctic char and tilapia will be more aggressive when they're given more space in a pen. NPR points out other welfare issues to consider:

"Are breeding techniques that sometimes result in skeletal deformities a humane issue? What about emerging evidence that accelerated growth rates of some farmed fish have resulted in hearing loss? For some farmed salmon, sea lice are more than just uncomfortable parasites that attach to fish and feed on them — unchecked, they can be deadly and can also infect wild salmon swimming nearby. Last year in Scotland alone, 10 million salmon were destroyed because of parasites, diseases and other problems. Should high mortality rates like that be viewed through a humane lens?"

Finally, Mercy for Animals faces a tremendous challenge in the fact that the vast majority of seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from Asia and South America, where the concept of worrying about fish welfare is as foreign as if fish suddenly started walking on land: "Welfare rights are primarily a Western phenomenon."

Despite these hurdles, it is certainly important for people who eat seafood to start thinking about what goes into putting that fish on their dinner plates. The current way in which fish is farmed is not sustainable, nor is fishing for wild species on the level that is currently happening. How these problems get addressed will depend a lot on people's emotional reactions to them, and that is precisely what Mercy For Animals hopes to influence in the coming months.

How much do you care about fish welfare?
Animal advocates want to talk about humane fish-farming practices, but some people aren't sure the time is right.

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