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Fish welfare at slaughter

13 February 2019

Fish behave in a manner that suggests high levels of awareness and intelligence and research indicates that fish may experience pain. It is important that consumers are made aware of this and of the availability of products made from fish which are assured/certified to have been slaughtered more humanely.” HSA’s Chief Executive & Scientific Director Dr Robert Hubrecht

Why has the welfare of fish become important?

Billions of farmed finfish are slaughtered for human consumption, far greater than any other type of mammal or bird, and many of these fish are not humanely stunned before slaughter.  Finfish are considered capable of experiencing fear and pain and legislation exists in some parts of the world (eg the EU) to protect their welfare.

Unfortunately, the most common methods of slaughter expose them to substantial suffering over a prolonged period of time - many species of farmed fish are typically killed by being taken out of water and left to asphyxiate in air.  Or fish might be frozen or gutted whilst conscious.

In addition, there are concerns about some non –fish species. Many crustaceans (eg crabs and lobsters) and cephalopods (eg octopus, cuttlefish and squid) are slaughtered for food without stunning and there is a lack of practical and scientifically validated humane stunning methods for these species.  

What can consumers do?

Just as for cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry, there are assurance schemes for fish, certifying that the producer complied with more humane methods of farming and slaughter.  When purchasing fish products, consumers can look for the UK RSPCA Assured label, which certifies farmed Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout and requires that both species must “be humanely killed” using specified, permitted stunning methods.  More humane slaughter of fish is associated with improvements in meat quality, for example firmer, translucent fillets with brighter colour and less gaping of the flesh.

Assurance schemes for farmed fish are rapidly growing in scope and often include animal welfare in their list of requirements alongside environmentally sustainable and socially responsible goals. You can also view the finfish video on our homepage which gives more information.

What is the Humane Slaughter Association doing?

The HSA has a proud history of seeking to improve fish welfare.  Following a report in 1996 by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee recommending further research into methods for stunning and killing fish, the HSA allocated funds for research into stunning methods.  These included funding research at Bristol University and Silsoe Research Institute into the development of a dry electrical stunning system for crustaceans suitable for use in restaurants or large-scale commercial operations and, together with the British Trout Association, major retailers and MAFF, research to find a more humane method of killing farmed trout.

In 2004, the charity organised an international workshop on the electrical stunning of fish. It has produced guidance on the humane harvesting of salmon and trout and made a number of fish-welfare related visits overseas.

Most recently, in March of last year, the HSA called for applications for research projects aimed at finding humane ways to slaughter crustaceans and/or cephalopod molluscs, and those species of farmed finfish which do not currently have satisfactory stunning methods or parameters. Thanks to an extremely generous donation, the HSA was able to offer £1.79 million for these projects and received a number of promising applications which are undergoing scientific review before the funding is awarded early in 2019. There are growing concerns about the capacity of some aquatic invertebrates to feel pain and the HSA is keen to advance understanding of these animals’ welfare.

As a charity, the Humane Slaughter Association relies on voluntary donations and legacies to fund vital and important work like this – work which has the potential to make a huge and long-lasting difference to the welfare of animals at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.  Please support our work with a donation – you can donate online at www.hsa.org.uk or by telephoning the office 01582 831919.  Thank you.

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