Out of sight, out of mind – why we need stricter rules for aquaculture

Aquaculture poses a massive threat to the welfare of fish. They are confined in basins under conditions that would be deemed unacceptable even in factory farming. Yet, their cognitive abilities often match or exceed those of other vertebrates. Despite this state of affairs, these non-human animals do not receive the same level of protection as their vertebrate counterparts. We must act now to protect fish and foster sustainable aquaculture practices. Join us in making a difference.

Over the last forty years, Switzerland has been increasingly dependent on aquaculture. In 2021, the country generated a total of 3’850 tons of fish, with 2’364 tons originating from aquaculture. This translates into roughly 5 million aquatic animals annually. The quantification of fish farming in tonnes, rather than in numbers of individuals underscores the emphasis on profitability alone. It is easy to overlook that behind these figures are sentient beings subjected to significant suffering in fish farming.

Fish are often perceived merely as part of a “school of fish”, rather than individuals with emotions, intentions and concerns, but evidence of fish sentience is growing. Fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed those of other vertebrates. Fish not only feel pain and other negative emotions, they show signs of altruism, as well as the capacity for pleasure – notably in the form of play and other behaviours.

Even with a growing body of evidence supporting the sentience of fish, far too little attention is paid to their welfare in aquaculture. The legal protection of fish in aquaculture is weak and, in some instances, entirely lacking. Yet, experts claim that these creatures must be equipped with the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.

The aim of our petition

With the “Invisible Animals” campaign, we aim to secure the welfare of fish by means of a stricter legal framework. Against this background, we call for restrictions on fish farming of certain species as well as on certain aquaculture practices, in order to take account of the animals’ needs.

Sentience’s asks for fish in aquaculture

  1. Expansion of the legal protection for fish in aquaculture
  2. Permitting housing only for species deemed appropriate for breeding based on scientific understanding
  3. General improvements in fish farming practices (e.g., structuring tanks with elements that serve the natural behaviour of fish)
  4. Mandatory recording and State oversight of relevant husbandry data (e.g., mortality rate, stocking density and water quality)
  5. Moratorium on the construction of industrial salmon farms

The unseen consequences of aquaculture

Fish farming, as we know it, is simply unsustainable and ethically questionable. The welfare of fish is not taken into account at all in Swiss law. The quickly expanding breeding of perch and zander, for instance, remains completely unregulated.

Furthermore, current legislation does not meet the needs of various fish-species. The primary aim of the law is to prevent illness and mortality amongst fish. Yet, species-appropriate husbandry practices must go far beyond survival. Take trouts for example: they reside in natural waters, adapt to different currents according to their needs, and enjoy a varied gravel bed. Unfortunately, conventional concrete flow channels in aquaculture completely overlook this crucial aspect of trouts’ welfare.

The lack of adequate regulations for species-appropriate practices, notably the absence of requirements for breeding systems (a standard for all other farmed animals in Switzerland) is alarming. Many fish species that are currently bred are ill-suited to current practices: salmons’ natural behaviour, for instance, is strongly restricted in industrial farms. In nature, they swim for hundreds of kilometres as they go from freshwater to saltwater. In farms, this change is determined artificially and shortened – which often leads to the premature death of these fish.

Although a permit is required to farm fish, complete novices can build a breeding system and simply wait to see whether it works, without adequate oversight. This lack of focus on fish welfare, coupled with insufficient official controls, raises serious ethical concerns regarding aquaculture conditions. At present, the system is designed to maximise production over animal welfare, leading to significant stress for the aquatic animals.

Stricter regulations from policymakers for the construction and maintenance of new facilities are urgently needed – especially concerning salmon farms. Immediate action is imperative to safeguard the welfare of farmed fish, and one impactful measure is to sign our petition.

Become an advocate for fish!

We, as consumers, can help improve the lives of millions of fish yearly by opting for plant-based seafood alternatives, as well as by exploring alternative forms of aquaculture that prioritise the cultivation of aquatic plants for consumption – rather than fish. In this way, we collectively support the production of sustainable and nutrient-rich food resources, whilst minimising the impact on fish welfare.

To put this into practice, we also need the support of our institutions; and by signing our petition today, you can drive positive change and ensure a more responsible approach to fish production, consumption and welfare. A single signature may feel like nothing, but a well-supported petition serves as a powerful demonstration of your concern and commitment to the protection of fish in aquaculture.

Become a voice for our forgotten finned friends in aquaculture.

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