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Riding the Waves of Change: Navigating Aquaculture’s Ethical Depths for a Sustainable Future

Our World in Data recently released statistics that hundreds of millions of fish are slaughtered every day.1 This highlights the magnitude of the aquatic food industry of which aquaculture forms a significant part. Aquaculture production has now surpassed wild caught fish.2 It has absorbed almost all of the growth in global demand in recent decades since the 1990s.3

Globally, we are faced with a triple planetary crisis – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.4 Of the total anthropogenic global greenhouse gas emissions, we know that animal agriculture contributes to at least 14.5%,5 which is more than the transportation sector. Surprisingly, this bleak statistic does not include aquaculture.6 The environmental footprint of aquaculture is often neglected within animal agriculture. Aquaculture forms and grows as a major part of the global food system and is a driver of these planetary crises due to unsustainable practices.7 Aquaculture is also a form of intensive animal farming that not only contributes to climate change8 through land use change and greenhouse gas emissions, but also degrades both the land and aquatic ecosystems9, severely impacting the environment and biodiversity.

Fish welfare is crucial to ensuring environmental and ethical sustainability10, just like the role animal welfare plays in terrestrial animal agriculture. The welfare of farmed fish lies at the core of the food safety, food security and nutritional needs of society. The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), an intergovernmental organization serving as a global authority on animal health, notes the critical relationship between fish health and fish welfare in the Aquatic Animal Health Code11. The Aquatic Code lays down standards to protect aquatic animal health during the production and trade in aquatic animals and aquatic animal products as well as makes recommendations for the welfare of farmed fish. While noting the economic benefits of improvements in farmed fish welfare, it also underscores the ethical responsibility that comes with the use of fish, to ensure their welfare to the greatest extent practicable.12

Fish are sentient beings, conscious and capable of experiencing pain and suffering13. As intelligent individuals, they need an environment that is enriched and free of stressors. Higher welfare standards help ensure this environment by regulating the density at which the fish are stocked in the ponds and the quality of the water including levels of ammonia, nitrite and dissolved oxygen. Having the dissolved oxygen in the water meet recommended levels is crucial for the wellbeing of fish, resilience for farmers and food safety for consumers14. Also due to poor feed quality, overfeeding practices and resultant phytoplankton blooms, the welfare of fish is negatively impacted.15
The snowball effect of the health of the fish on the health of the consumers and the ecosystem is a crucial consideration. For instance, the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics extends beyond the health of consumers and affects public health and biodiversity due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR)16. Interventions that regulate the use of antibiotics are the need of the hour. It was reported this year that climate change and drug use contribute to the risk of “sinking” the $230 bn aquaculture industry.

Thus, at the heart of aquaculture and its complex intertwined issues lies fish welfare and minimum welfare standards to ensure fishes live better lives with reduced suffering. All stakeholders including the fishes, wildlife, farmers, consumers, public, government and livelihoods and businesses that are dependent on aquaculture are feeling the harms associated with poor welfare standards. Also, there’s a need for welfare standards for species such as Indian Major Carp, Pangasius, Roopchand and other Asian species to be researched and established. Compliance with global norms for aquatic welfare based on solid scientific evidence and international best practices is of benefit to all important stakeholders.