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Reconsidering welfare principles in aquaculture

By May 6th 2024May 15th, 2024No Comments

Document type : article published onThe Fish Site

Authors: Jonah van Beijnen, Kyra Hoevenaars

Preview: Opinions vary strongly on precisely what proper welfare in aquaculture entails. Even basic principles, such as whether fish are sentient beings that can feel pain, are debated. This has limited progress, both in terms of legislation and in terms of incorporating welfare assessments and programmes across the sector. With seafood buyers and consumers demanding more transparency in terms of the products they buy; a more proactive approach is needed. We spoke with two experts that are taking an active stance in developing solid welfare principles in aquaculture: Dr Maria Filipa Castanheira, standards coordinator at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), and Dr Heather Browning, lecturer on animal welfare at the University of Southampton. Dr Browning tries to engage the aquaculture sector by publishing position papers on animal welfare. In February 2023 she published an important essay in Frontiers in Veterinary Science titled Improving welfare assessment in aquaculture. "There remains relatively little attention given to the assessment of animal welfare within aquaculture systems. However, as the sector is growing and expanding quickly, it is crucial that animal welfare concerns are central in the development and implementation of aquaculture," she argues. "If welfare assessments are not prioritized early on, it becomes much more difficult to adapt in future," she adds.
Defining welfare (...)
Ahighly diverse sector
Once the definition of welfare has been agreed upon, a set of indicators for welfare needs to be set and it needs to be determined how to measure these indicators objectively. This is a challenge because aquaculture encompasses a wide range of genera and species. (...) Simultaneously aquaculture involves a variety of production systems, ranging from offshore cages and earthen ponds to land-based indoor recirculating systems. While most catfish would feel at home in a muddy pond, a coral grouper - which typically lives around reefs - would not. The farmers themselves are also a very diverse group, with a wide range of resources at their disposal. So how to develop a uniform approach to welfare in such a varied sector?
Welfareassessment tools
Dr Browning explains that any strong welfare assessment should consider completeness, validity, feasibility, and setting of reasonable thresholds for acceptable welfare. But where to start as a sector? (...) "Examples of morphological scoring parameters include assessing eye or skin damage, deformities, and changes in colouration. Behavioural scoring and mortality are dependent on the type of species. If downward trends are observed, farmers must investigate the situation and assess their farming density and modify accordingly," says Dr Castanheira. Meanwhile, Dr Browning refers to most of such indicators as partial indicators. (...) She ultimately recommends using whole-animal measures, as "these use a single measure to represent the entire state of welfare for the animal. This has the obvious benefit of being a complete welfare measure, inclusive of all the external and internal states that are impacting an animal's welfare. Examples of whole-animal indicators of welfare that may work for fish include qualitative behavioural analysis (QBA), cognitive bias, laterality, and skin mucosa ". These whole-animal measures can be harder to measure, and in most cases do require more training. (...)

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