Human beings may affect the welfare of fish through fisheries, aquaculture and a number of other activities. There is no agreement on just how to weigh the concern for welfare of fish against the human interests involved, but ethical frameworks exist that suggest how this might be approached.
Different definitions of animal welfare focus on an animal's condition, on its subjective experience of that condition and/or on whether it can lead a natural life. These provide different, legitimate, perspectives, but the approach taken in this paper is to focus on welfare as the absence of suffering.
An unresolved and controversial issue in discussions about animal welfare is whether non-human animals exposed to adverse experiences such as physical injury or confinement experience what humans would call suffering. The neocortex, which in humans is an important part of the neural mechanism that generates the subjective experience of suffering, is lacking in fish and non-mammalian animals, and it has been argued that its absence in fish indicates that fish cannot suffer. A strong alternative view, however, is that complex animals with sophisticated behaviour, such as fish, probably have the capacity for suffering, though this may be different in degree and kind from the human experience of this state.
Recent empirical studies support this view and show that painful stimuli are, at least, strongly aversive to fish. Consequently, injury or experience of other harmful conditions is a cause for concern in terms of welfare of individual fish. There is also growing evidence that fish can experience fear-like states and that they avoid situations in which they have experienced adverse conditions.
Human activities that potentially compromise fish welfare include anthropogenic changes to the environment, commercial fisheries, recreational angling, aquaculture, ornamental fish keeping and scientific research. The resulting harm to fish welfare is a cost that must be minimized and weighed against the benefits of the activity concerned.
Wild fish naturally experience a variety of adverse conditions, from attack by predators or conspecifics to starvation or exposure to poor environmental conditions. This does not make it acceptable for humans to impose such conditions on fish, but it does suggest that fish will have mechanisms to cope with these conditions and reminds us that pain responses are in some cases adaptive (for example, suppressing feeding when injured).
In common with all vertebrates, fish respond to environmental challenges with a series of adaptive neuro-endocrine adjustments that are collectively termed the stress response. These in turn induce reversible metabolic and behavioural changes that make the fish better able to overcome or avoid the challenge and are undoubtedly beneficial, in the short-term at least.
In contrast, prolonged activation of the stress response is damaging and leads to immuno-suppression, reduced growth and reproductive dysfunction. Indicators associated with the response to chronic stress (physiological endpoints, disease status and behaviour) provide a potential source of information on the welfare status of a fish. The most reliable assessment of well-being will be obtained by examining a range of informative measures and statistical techniques are available that enable several such measures to be combined objectively.
A growing body of evidence tells us that many human activities can harm fish welfare, but that the effects depend on the species and life-history stage concerned and are also context-dependent. For example, in aquaculture, adverse effects related to stocking density may be eliminated if good water quality is maintained. At low densities, bad water quality may be less likely to arise whereas social interactions may cause greater welfare problems.
A number of key differences between fish and birds and mammals have important implications for their welfare. Fish do not need to fuel a high body temperature, so the effects of food deprivation on welfare are not so marked. For species that live naturally in large shoals, low rather than high densities may be harmful. On the other hand, fish are in intimate contact with their environment through the huge surface area of their gills, so they are vulnerable to poor water quality and water borne pollutants.
Extrapolation between taxa is dangerous and general frameworks for ensuring welfare in other vertebrate animals need to be modified before they can be usefully applied to fish.
The scientific study of fish welfare is at an early stage compared with work on other vertebrates and a great deal of what we need to know is yet to be discovered. It is clearly the case that fish, though different from birds and mammals, however, are sophisticated animals, far removed from unfeeling creatures with a 15 s memory of popular misconception. A heightened appreciation of these points in those who exploit fish and in those who seek to protect them would go a long way towards improving fish welfare.