In the latter part of 2017, several aquaculture associations became aware that the animal rights community had decided to launch a campaign against seafood products, both wild caught and from aquaculture. The various discussions that resulted turned toward animal welfare, standards for welfare in aquaculture, and a host of other topics. From a research perspective, what are the key needs and knowledge gaps related to these discussions?

Animal rights and animal welfare are not the same. The mission of animal rights groups is to liberate all animals from human subjugation. Animal rights activists, for example, are opposed to the use of animals for food, milk, as pets, or for other forms of service to humans. Animal rights groups view animals as independent, sentient beings that should be liberated from human bondage. One step toward liberating animals, in their view, is to convert or compel people to convert to strictly vegan diets. Actions and initiatives by animal rights groups are designed to appeal emotionally to consumers or to directly increase costs of production that would make animal sources of protein too expensive for consumers to purchase. Scenes of gratuitous cruelty to animals developed by undercover investigators are used to elicit very strong and emotionally negative responses that lead to expressions of the need to improve the welfare of animals raised on farms.

It is important to not lose sight of the motivations and tactics underlying much of the discussion of animal welfare. Alinsky (1971: 154–155) in his book that is a well‐used guide for social activists, especially those more radically inclined, recommended:

For example, since the Haves publicly pose as the custodians of responsibility, morality, law, and justice (which are frequently strangers to each other), they can be constantly pushed to live up to their own book of morality and regulations. No organization, including organized religion, can live up to the letter of its own book. You can club them to death with their “book” of rules and regulations.

While there is always room for improvement in any aspect of farming, including the well‐being of animals raised, efforts to identify improvements must be based on objective and comprehensive approaches that avoid unintended consequences. For example, standards developed for a variety of reasons often are highly prescriptive in terms of allowable management practices. Such an approach is defined as “command‐and‐control” and does not allow for flexibility or adaptability to new technologies or management practices developed as new research findings become available. Rigid, specific command‐and‐control approaches in a dynamic and rapidly changing industry such as aquaculture have stifled growth and development without achieving the originally stated societal goals (Osmundsen et al. 2017). Stifling growth and increasing costs of animal livestock production are important goals of animal rights groups.

Terrestrial livestock industries have been engaged with animal rights groups for many years. In response, a number of universities have created faculty positions and centers that focus on various aspects of animal welfare, as they relate to livestock production. Early research that addressed animal welfare principally focused on characterizing and measuring stress responses by animals as well as on management practices that reduce the negative effects of stress. However, the academic field of animal welfare has evolved considerably to focus more on behavioral responses of animals rather than on stress physiology (CAST 2018).

One of the challenges for aquaculture is that practices that may result in positive enhancements of welfare in one breed or species may negatively affect other breeds or species (Grandin 2009). Grandin, a well‐known consultant and proponent of methods that improve welfare in livestock handling, spent considerable amounts of time observing farm livestock and developed in‐depth understanding of the behaviors of each type of species and breed. She clearly stated that meaningful progress to improve welfare of farmed animals will need to be grounded in experience and knowledge of the animals being raised. Aquaculture includes a tremendous variety (species and strains) of animals farmed in different production systems around the world. Thus, blanket and prescriptive sets of standards or approaches to improve welfare for aquaculture species will not produce meaningful results.

Aquatic animals differ from terrestrial animals raised as livestock at several fundamental levels. For example, crowding of terrestrial animals is often cited as a welfare problem whereas for many fish species schooling and shoaling are characteristically normal behaviors. In fact, if we anthropomorphize for a bit, “one is the loneliest number” (Stone et al. 2016) may, for a fish, result in reduced welfare if not allowed the security of being part of a group clustered tightly together.

Grandin (2009) notably stated that one of the current problems related to livestock handling is that few individuals have grown up with livestock and thus have little experience with or understanding of their behaviors. Farmers who make a living raising fish often spend long hours observing them, particularly when feeding. Successful fish farmers understand the signs of stress in their fish and work to understand and minimize them, knowing that stress can trigger disease outbreaks and severe losses. Aquaculturists understand the need to manage environmental conditions that positively affect the welfare of the animals they raise, particularly those that principally drive water quality dynamics such as dissolved oxygen. In aquaculture, possibly even more so than with terrestrial livestock production, good animal welfare is practiced as deemed necessary for good growth, health, and a successful aquaculture business.

However, as production systems evolve over time and move further away from those that resemble natural conditions, more attention will likely need to be devoted to whether such systems provide conditions conducive to animal welfare outcomes that lead to good growth and production efficiencies. More research on animal welfare, beginning with comprehensive and thoughtful reviews on the biology and behavior of the aquatic animals raised in aquaculture, is essential. The conundrum posed by the need to treat animals with antibiotics to ensure optimal welfare and the increasing human health concerns over subtherapeutic use of antibiotics and the resulting antimicrobial resistance need to be addressed by finding successful alternative practices to achieve this goal. Functional genomics approaches to develop breeds of animals better suited to farming conditions is a growing area for terrestrial livestock research (CAST 2018) and may similarly be useful for aquaculture.

The Journal of the World Aquaculture Society (JWAS) publishes research that contributes to the growth and development of aquaculture worldwide. The welfare of the animals raised is an integral aspect of viable aquaculture production. JWAS welcomes papers that provide substantive contributions to our understanding of improved ways to raise aquatic animals and plants.

  • Alinsky, S. 1971. Rules for radicals: a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. Random House, New York, New York, USA.
  • CAST (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology). 2018. Scientific, ethical, and economic aspects of farm animal welfare. Task Force Report No. 143. CAST, Ames, Iowa, USA.
  • Grandin, T. 2009. Animals make us human: creating the best life for animals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
  • Osmundsen, T. C., P. Almklov, and R. Tveterås. 2017. Fish farmers and regulators coping with the wickedness of aquaculture. Aquaculture Economics & Management, 21(1):163–183.
  • Stone, N., A. M. Kelly, and L. A. Roy. 2016. Fish of weedy waters: golden shiner biology and culture. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, 47(2):152–200.