A practical approach to aquatic animal welfare

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Collecting outcome measures for better welfare

By Marius Nicolini, Oistein Thorsen, Pau Badia Grimalt, Murilo Quintiliano and Ralf Onken, FAI Farms.

Tilapia feeding in a pond in Hainan (China). Studies have suggested that fish are capable of experiencing pain and fear, similar to other vertebrates.

The work on aquatic animal welfare started in 2018. The leading UK food retailer, Marks and Spencer (M&S), received the 2019 Aquaculture Award for animal welfare in recognition of their Welfare Outcome Measure Programme, developed and delivered by FAI.

This Welfare Outcome Measure Programme gathers welfare outcome data such as mortality rates, disease prevalence, injuries and fish body condition across different growth stages and production units in their supply chain. This data provides insights into how fish experience and are impacted by various farming systems. By adopting an outcome measure approach, M&S can collaborate with suppliers to identify risk areas and implement improvement initiatives where necessary. This approach helps integrate welfare management into daily business operations through data-driven decision-making. Additionally, this approach enables greater transparency and brand integrity amidst growing scrutiny from citizens, regulatory bodies and NGOs on animal production practices.

Alongside the collaboration with M&S, FAI Farms has also been working on a highly practical approach to animal welfare in aquaculture. This approach centres around placing farmers at the heart of a comprehensive welfare framework, empowering them with the knowledge and tools necessary to ensure the highest possible animal welfare standards in their operations.

Looking differently at aquatic animal welfare
The status of aquatic animal welfare is generally considered to be less advanced compared to land-based farm welfare. This is primarily because aquatic animals like fish and crustaceans are often considered less sentient or less capable of experiencing pain and suffering compared to land animals like cows, pigs and chickens.

However, over the past two decades, numerous studies have demonstrated that fish possess anatomical, physiological, behavioural, and pharmacological mechanisms that suggest they are capable of experiencing feelings such as pain and fear, similar to other vertebrates.

This evidence has been summarised in Braithwaite’s book, “Do Fish Feel Pain?” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Recently, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of improving the welfare of aquatic animals. This has been driven by concerns around the environmental sustainability of current aquaculture practices and the ethical and moral obligations of treating all animals with respect and compassion.

There are several challenges to improving the welfare of aquatic animals, including the difficulties in assessing and monitoring their welfare due to their unique physiology, living environment and behaviours. There is a needed effort to develop and implement appropriate standards and guidelines adapted to the many aquatic species farmed around the world.

Over the past four years, FAI Farms has been working to develop a welfare approach specifically tailored to the aquaculture industry. As part of this effort, we have created species-specific operational welfare indicators and tools, making it easier to integrate welfare considerations into the industry’s everyday practices. Our goal is to make animal welfare a mainstream concern in aquaculture and promote the adoption of best practices throughout the industry.

Welfare framework for aquatic species
The aquaculture industry must consider various welfare critical points, which require the assessment of several indicators to ensure farmed animal welfare. Routine management practices, such as physical manipulation, can lead to physical and psychological stress. Water quality and associated environmental factors, such as dissolved oxygen, carbon, pH, temperature, and light regimes, are essential for maintaining fish and shrimp homeostasis. Indicators may be a direct observation or measurement from the animal, or an indirect information related to the environment and farm management.

A welfare protocol’s validity, reliability and feasibility are crucial to its effectiveness. It must be validated by expert judgment, produce consistent results and be practical in terms of required time and farm conditions. Protocols for salmon and trout have been established for decades, but it is only recently that FAI Farms, in partnership with the Animal Welfare Laboratory at Paraná State University (LABEA) and Wai Ora, have developed protocols for tilapia, carp and shrimp, some of the most commonly farmed aquatic species worldwide.

The welfare assessment protocols for tilapia, carp and shrimp were established to address four out of the five domains of animal welfare: nutrition, environment, health, and behaviour. Indicators related to the psychology domain were not explicitly categorised but were indirectly evaluated through other proposed indicators. For each indicator, the reference values were determined based on literature and field experience. We have made a concerted effort to acknowledge that the degree of tolerance or ideal level of a given factor or indicator is not solely dependent on the animal’s life stage. Rather, it is also influenced by the production system used and the environmental conditions in which the animals are raised.

Our approach considers these factors, recognising their critical role in promoting optimal welfare outcomes for farmed aquatic animals. Each indicator is scored to reflect the continuum of animal experience, ranging from positive (score 1) to very negative (score 3). We believe that non-invasive methods, such as those proposed by FAI farms, for assessing farmed fish and shrimp welfare will become a standard tool for farms. In the future, it will become increasingly challenging to produce seafood without considering their welfare throughout the production cycle.

Assessment is a powerful tool for improving animal welfare in aquaculture. Evaluating the physical, physiological, and behavioural indicators of animal welfare allows for identifying areas of improvement and implementing strategies to address them. For example, regular welfare assessments can help identify potential sources of stress or harm, such as poor water quality or overcrowding, and allow for interventions to be put in place to address these issues. Assessments can help ensure that best practices are followed throughout the production process, from hatchery to slaughter, to promote optimal welfare outcomes. They can also facilitate communication and collaboration among stakeholders within the aquaculture industry, including producers, researchers and regulators.

Sampling for on-site water quality measurements in a tilapia farm in Hainan province, China.

By establishing shared standards and protocols for welfare assessment, stakeholders can work together to develop and promote sustainable and responsible aquaculture practices. This can ultimately lead to improved animal welfare and increased efficiency, profitability and public trust in the industry. These assessments trigger a virtuous cycle of enhancements by appealing to the farmers’ intrinsic desire to excel and improve. If a problem is detected during the assessment, measures will likely be taken to rectify or enhance it, ultimately leading to improved welfare.

Communicating welfare to the aquaculture industry

An industry-wide adoption of welfare indicators and assessment protocols is necessary to ensure consistent and effective animal welfare monitoring. At all levels of the aquaculture industry, education and training are vital to promoting animal welfare. To that end, we offer free online training on welfare and we are currently developing mobile applications that farmers can use to perform welfare evaluations easily.

Is there anything to suggest harvest methods which are in line with animal welfare guidelines for shrimp? Yes, electrical stunning has been tested in order to accelerate the stunning time, reduce crowding and handling time by pumping the animal directly into the electrical stunner. It shows a better consistency on stun delivery: source tesco-and-hilton-seafood-case-study-improving-the-welfare-of-whiteleg-shrimp-at-harvest.pdf (compassioninfoodbusiness.com)

Mobile applications offer many benefits for performing welfare assessments of aquatic species. By providing real-time data collection, easy data access, a user friendly interface, improved accuracy and cost-effectiveness, mobile apps are an effective tool for assessing the health and well-being of aquatic animals. The app can be used as a farmer self-assessment or as a second- or third-party assessment tool. The assessment results can be easily shared with various stakeholders, including customers and certification bodies, to ensure compliance with good production practices and promote positive outcomes.

“Who cares the most about tilapia welfare? We believe farmers are the most important factor in driving welfare improvements in aquaculture. We believe they are an untapped force for good whose power can be unleashed through practical farm assessments that align business and welfare objectives,” said Øistein Thorsen, CEO of FAI.

The FAI Tilapia Welfare App gives producers an opportunity to conduct on-site welfare assessments of their fish using a mobile application. This tool helps them evaluate the well- being of their fish and identify any necessary improvements to enhance their living conditions.

The FAI Academy offers a free online training program focused on tilapia welfare. This course is specifically designed for individuals working in tilapia aquaculture production, such as farm managers and technicians. Its primary objective is to equip learners with the knowledge and skills necessary to implement effective welfare practices in their daily routines, from hatchery to slaughter. As part of our ongoing commitment to animal welfare, additional courses on welfare for other aquatic species, including shrimp and carp, will be made available soon.

“FAI’s online training suite on tilapia welfare is the first of its kind focused on implementing welfare practices in tilapia aquaculture daily routines, from hatchery to slaughter. The courses can be accessed on a smartphone, tablet or computer and were created for everyone working in tilapia aquaculture,” said Thorsen.

Building a community around welfare in aquaculture

The establishment of welfare indicators for aquatic animal species has presented several challenges. One significant obstacle is the limited amount of information available on the biology of certain animals. To address this, we have utilised the most reliable and current news from the technical and scientific literature to develop our indicators.

However, we recognise that these indicators and associated reference values require ongoing evaluation and updating to ensure their accuracy and relevance. To this end, we aim to foster a community focused on aquatic animal welfare, creating a platform to share knowledge on welfare and revised protocols, based on the latest research and developments in the field. Our goal is to continually improve our approach on welfare assessment and promote the adoption of best practices across the aquaculture industry.

We invite all individuals and organisations involved in aquaculture to join us in our mission to enhance the lives of farmed aquatic animals worldwide. Together, we can create a brighter future for these animals and promote sustainable and responsible practices within the aquaculture industry.

Marius Nicolini is Project Manager, Data Solutions; Oistein Thorsen is CEO; Pau Badia Grimalt is Project Manager Thailand;Murilo Quintiliano is Director of Aquaculture Strategy; Ralf Onken is CTO.

This article was published in issue May/June 2023



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