Introducing Fish Welfare Initiative
Our mission is to reduce the suffering of fish as much as possible. We aim to achieve this via a two-stage process:
Identifying which welfare improvements, fish species, and countries have the highest potential for impact.
Implementing a pilot program based on our findings, which we can later scale up or pivot to a new approach.
In this post, we make a case for focusing on fish and outline our plan for doing so.
Why focus on fish?
Importance: Fish are farmed in massive numbers: 111 billion fish are alive in aquaculture at any given point, mostly in intensive systems. 0.79 to 2.3 trillion more wild-caught fish are slaughtered annually. To put this into perspective, there are 31 billion terrestrial farmed animals alive at any given point . Since fish, like other groups of farmed animals, are so numerous, scale will unfortunately not be a limiting factor anytime soon.
Of course, scale only matters insofar as the fish involved live miserable lives. Sadly, fish suffering can be extreme. While different species, different regions, and different farming techniques involve different welfare challenges, some common issues include bad water quality and stocking densities, parasites, limited ability to express natural behaviors, and prolonged deaths without prior stunning. For a more complete list of fish welfare issues, see Compassion in World Farming’s report on the welfare of farmed fish.
There is also now a scientific consensus that fish very likely feel pain .
Neglectedness: Currently, few groups advocate for fish welfare. However, this is changing as fish welfare becomes a greater focus in both academia and advocacy organizations . We expect that fish will be a future focus of the animal advocacy movement, as chickens are currently.
Tractability: This is the most uncertain aspect of working on fish issues, given the little historical advocacy and public support there has been for fish. However, there are several reasons in favor of fish being tractable:
There is a growing scientific literature on the welfare needs of many species, which helps advocates know what standards to promote .
Some of these welfare needs, mostly relating to stunning before slaughter, have already been implemented. For instance, most UK rainbow trout are now stunned before slaughter, in large part due to support and pressure from the RSPCA and Humane Slaughter Association . Just last week, Tesco announced that it would stop selling live fish in their Polish locations, at least partly in response to pressure from advocacy groups .
Some changes, such as improving dissolved oxygen levels for farmed fish, may not be very costly to implement .
We hope that our work will provide further evidence to the tractability of fish.
For more information on why we chose fish and the causes of their suffering, see our previous blog post: Why focus on fish?
Currently, we intend to focus primarily on farmed fish. Unlike wild-caught fish, humans influence the whole lives of farmed fish, not just their deaths. Additionally, the number of farmed fish stands to increase as the aquaculture industry continues to grow . However, we do not mean to say that we should not work on the welfare of wild-caught fish and we are open to doing so in the future.
Some neglected fish groups that we probably will not focus on for the foreseeable future but are still promising include juvenile fish in hatcheries, fish killed for fish meal, fish used for fish stocking, shellfish, and baitfish.
There are two stages of our high-level plan: research and implementation.
We did not begin with an object-level plan. Rather, our high-level goal is to reduce fish suffering, and we are open to a variety of ways of achieving that.
For the next six months, we will be answering the following questions in order to determine our object-level initiative: 
Which species should we prioritize? Humans consume hundreds of different species of fish . Because the welfare needs and treatment of different species vary greatly, this question is critical.
Which are the best countries or regions to work in? Given that 88% of global farmed fish tonnage comes from Asia , our work will potentially focus in Asian countries.
What kind of approach or campaign has the highest expected impact? Some examples include subsidizing equipment for improved welfare on farms, working with corporations, and working with governments.
We will publish our full findings on our website so that they can be used by other organizations or individuals working on fish issues.
Based on our answers to these questions, we will publish a list of the 3-5 most promising initiatives. We’ll then start a small-scale pilot of our most promising initiative. As our impact looks more or less promising, we will scale up or down accordingly.
For instance, one possible initiative would be to work with the government in Vietnam to secure stunning before slaughter for pangasius catfish, especially given that there is already pressure from European markets to implement higher welfare practices.
Our long-term goal is to uncover a few initiatives that are extremely cost-effective and then scale these. This will likely take years and involve several pivots. Ultimately, we envision an FWI that is consistent in its impact and can be scaled based on available resources.
How you can help
We are looking to connect with people involved in the fish aquaculture industry as well as with potential job candidates, as we will be hiring for a researcher and people to work in-country in the next few months.
Keep in touch by signing up for our newsletter.
We value your feedback and suggestions, particularly at this early stage. You can comment below or reach out directly on our contact form.
Fish Welfare Initiative was incubated under Charity Entrepreneurship, an effective altruism organization, which provided our initial funding with a $50,000 seed grant. Our current team members are Tom Billington, Research Director; and Haven King-Nobles, Operations Director.
2. Brown 2014: Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics
4. See FishEthoBase for a compilation of welfare requirements of different species.
7. Sarek et al. 2019: Improving Environmental Conditions—A summary
8. FAO 2018: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (page 3)
9. We may further outline our research agenda in a future blog post.
10. FAO 2018: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (page 21)