Aquaculture is an important animal farming activity. Farming of fish and other aquatic species has increased in recent decades, and the husbandry practices used and associated welfare issues are becoming increasingly focused on by policy makers, scientists and consumers. Scientific approaches to assess fish welfare are continually evolving. Challenges include the great diversity of fish species and production systems, as well as an overall shortage of scientific data in this field.
In the EU, Council Directive 98/58/EC lays down minimum standards for the protection of animals bred or kept for farming purposes, including fish.
International organisations have also issued recommendations and guidelines concerning fish welfare. In 2005 the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on the welfare of farmed fish and in 2008 the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) adopted guiding principles for fish welfare. A number of codes of practice have also been adopted by industry that includes measures to safeguard fish welfare.
EFSA's role and activities
EFSA’s activities in the area of fish welfare are carried out in the wider context of animal health and welfare by the Panel on animal health and welfare (AHAW). The Panel provides independent scientific advice to risk managers on all aspects of animal diseases and animal welfare. Its work chiefly concerns food-producing animals, including fish.
Through its activities on fish welfare, EFSA aims to gain an in-depth understanding of the factors affecting the welfare of farmed fish and to provide a science-based foundation for European policies and legislation. Its scientific opinions focus on helping risk managers identify methods to reduce unnecessary pain, distress and suffering for animals and to increase welfare where possible. EFSA is not mandated to give advice on ethical or cultural issues related to animal welfare.
Welfare during transport
Fish welfare can be affected during transport. In an opinion in 2004 on the welfare of several species of animals during transport, EFSA experts identified a variety of hazards that contribute to poor welfare for several animals, including fish. The opinion highlighted that fish should normally be loaded and unloaded avoiding exposure to air, they should be provided with appropriate levels of oxygen in the water and maintained at a suitable stocking density.
In 2008 EFSA was asked by the European Commission to assess welfare aspects of husbandry systems for the main farmed fish species in the EU. The AHAW Panel has adopted five species-specific opinions on farmed Atlantic salmon, trout species, European eel, European seabass and gilthead seabream, and Common carp. For each species and different life stage, potential risks for welfare were identified. These include environmental conditions, feeding, husbandry practices, genetic make-up of stocks, disease and disease control measures. In its risk assessment, the Panel produces a ranking system for potential welfare hazards in the various farming systems.
General approach to fish welfare
In 2009 the AHAW Panel adopted an opinion on the general approach to fish welfare. This provides an overall approach regarding the welfare, biology and physiology of fish. It addresses and satisfies all the issues outlined in the minority opinions recorded in relation to AHAW Panel opinions previously adopted on the welfare of individual fish species.
Stunning and killing methods
In 2009 the AHAW Panel adopted 7 species-specific opinions on the welfare aspects of stunning and killing methods for farmed fish. The individual scientific opinions concern bluefin tuna, common carp, European eel, atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, European turbot, European seabass and gilthead seabream. This work updates the previous opinion on the welfare aspects of stunning and killing for the main animal species subject to commercial and farm slaughtering practices adopted on 2004, where general conclusions and recommendations were provided.