The next wave in animal welfare: Fish

Mercy for Animals, a U.S.-based animal welfare group, is launching a campaign to bring awareness to the plight of fish in industrial aquaculture. The group’s key concerns include “too many fish routinely crammed into pens and tanks, fish being raised in dirty water, high disease and mortality rates,” writes Clare Leschin-Hoar in FERN’s latest story with NPR’s The Salt.

“More and more fish are being farmed in intense factory farms,” says Nick Cooney, executive vice president at Mercy for Animals. “At the same time, there’s an increasing amount of research discovering just how intelligent and social fish are as individuals.”

However, while the harm done to pigs in gestational crates and chickens in laying cages is clearer, exactly what constitutes “pain” for a fish remains an open debate. Some scientists argue that fish don’t actually experience pain, since they lack a developed neocortex — the part of the brain where higher vertebrates feel physical discomfort.

But even if “pain” is taken out of the equation, the issue of how to improve fish welfare is still far from simple, considering that species often prefer different living conditions. For example, lowering stocking density in fish pens is beneficial for some species, but it could lead to more aggression in others like arctic char.

Industry groups argue that activists are ill-informed about fish biology. “As fish farmers, our mission is to provide U.S. consumers with environmentally sustainable, wholesome, high-quality seafood at affordable prices,” says Randy MacMillian, a National Aquaculture Association board member and vice president of Clear Springs Foods, an Idaho-based trout farm. “We have to look at husbandry conditions. We’re looking at feed conversion [the amount of feed it takes to grow one pound of fish], mortality, morbidity — and we use those metrics to inform us if we’re doing a good job.”

But companies are already taking steps to reassure consumers that they’re considering the welfare of the fish they sell. For example, “supermarkets like Whole Foods are addressing the issue by including language in their seafood standards requiring producers to minimize stress, and have gone so far as to stop carrying live lobster in their stores,” writes Leschin-Hoar.