Introducing Fish Welfare Initiative

We’re ex­cited to an­nounce the launch of Fish Welfare Ini­ti­a­tive (FWI), a new EA or­ga­ni­za­tion in­cu­bated un­der Char­ity En­trepreneur­ship.

Our mis­sion is to re­duce the suffer­ing of fish as much as pos­si­ble. We aim to achieve this via a two-stage pro­cess:

  1. Iden­ti­fy­ing which welfare im­prove­ments, fish species, and coun­tries have the high­est po­ten­tial for im­pact.

  2. 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?

Others in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity have already ar­gued that work­ing on fish could be high-im­pact (see here, here, and here). Below we ex­am­ine work­ing on fish through the ITN frame­work.

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4].

  • 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 [5]. 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 [6].

  • Some changes, such as im­prov­ing dis­solved oxy­gen lev­els for farmed fish, may not be very costly to im­ple­ment [7].

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?

Which 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 [8]. 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.

Our Plan

There are two stages of our high-level plan: re­search and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Research

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: [9]

  1. Which species should we pri­ori­tize? Hu­mans con­sume hun­dreds of differ­ent species of fish [10]. Be­cause the welfare needs and treat­ment of differ­ent species vary greatly, this ques­tion is crit­i­cal.

  2. Which welfare im­prove­ment(s) should we fo­cus on? Some po­ten­tial im­prove­ments in­clude bet­ter dis­solved oxy­gen lev­els and bet­ter trans­porta­tion and slaugh­ter meth­ods.

  3. Which are the best coun­tries or re­gions to work in? Given that 93% of global farmed fish ton­nage comes from Asia [11], our work will po­ten­tially fo­cus in Asian coun­tries.

  4. 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.

Implementation

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.

Feedback

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.

Endnotes

1. Th­ese es­ti­mates are from Sen­tience In­sti­tute and FishCount.

2. Brown 2014: Fish in­tel­li­gence, sen­tience and ethics

3. See Com­pas­sion in World Farm­ing and Albert Sch­weitzer for ex­am­ples of on­go­ing fish welfare ad­vo­cacy.

4. See FishEthoBase for a com­pila­tion of welfare re­quire­ments of differ­ent species.

5. Hu­mane Slaugh­ter As­so­ci­a­tion 2018: Finish Con­sumer Video; RSPCA 2018: RSPCA welfare stan­dards for Farmed Rain­bow Trout

6. See Tesco an­nounce­ment (en­glish ver­sion)

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)

11. FAO—Fish­eries and Aqua­cul­ture In­for­ma­tion and Statis­tics Branch query