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What do fish labels really mean?

Every day farmed and wild-caught fish are treated, and killed, in cruel ways. Hidden far from the public eye, fish suffer immensely on factory farms and when caught in the wild.

When on the lookout for higher welfare fish in supermarkets and restaurants, many people turn to the 5 largest certification labeling schemes for guidance:

However, Compassion in World Farming investigated the welfare standards of these certifications and exposed a shocking truth: fish certified by these labels may suffer in many ways. Many live miserable lives in overcrowded tanks and cages. Others endure prolonged and painful deaths. Practices allowed by some of these certifications include:

  • Starving fish for up to 14 days
  • Overcrowding fish in tanks or sea cages.
  • Inflicting a slow, painful death without adequate stunning
  • Shooting wild seals and harming dolphins.

Like other animals, fish are emotional, complex beings. They can suffer; they can feel pain. Yet they suffer in silence by the billions. Without a voice of their own, they need us to speak up on their behalf. These certifications tend to focus on the sustainability of fish stocks and the environment, which is important work. But they could also protect fish welfare. Currently, some certifications have little or no welfare protections in place. They must do more for the fish they certify. We analyzed and compared the different certifications’ welfare standards against eight key criteria – such as starving the fish, killing wildlife and allowing fish to suffer slow, painful deaths – and determined where improvements are desperately needed. See our table below to find out more about the level of welfare protection provided by each certification.

A table about fish welfare certifications

What does each label permit?

The standards for each criterion varies across each certification program. Click on the boxes to find out what each label actually permits.

Marine Stewardship Council

Marine Stewardship Council

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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the world’s largest certifier for wild-caught fish – certifying as many as 12% of wild-caught fish products sold worldwide. The MSC uses their wild fish certification program to recognize and reward sustainable fishing practices and influence the choices consumers make when buying seafood.

The MSC have told us that they currently have no plans to address the huge welfare issues faced by wild-caught fish. No responsible certification scheme should be certifying fish that have suffered a truly terrifying and excruciating death. Even minor welfare investments have the potential to significantly improve the lives of countless fish – and the MSC should be leading the way.

Fast and painless slaughter?

No, the MSC does not require the humane slaughter of the fish they certify. The vast majority of wild-caught fish are either left to suffocate, die from their injuries during capture or may even be gutted while still alive.

Reduced suffering during capture?

No, the MSC does not ensure that the methods used to catch fish and bring them aboard the fishing vessels protect fish welfare in any way. There are no restrictions on the type of fishing methods used or the duration of capture – so the fish can endure high levels of suffering for many hours.

Friend of the Sea

Friend of the Sea

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Friend of the Sea’s (FOS) certification certifies 1% of global farmed fish, which equates to hundreds of millions of fish each year. FOS has also developed a standard for sustainable fisheries – wild-caught fish – in response to unsustainable fishing practices and overfishing that threatens the health of our oceans and access to marine resources by future generations. FOS has recently established 24 species-specific fish welfare standards which include environmental enrichment recommendations, mandatory requirements for humane slaughter, and limits to starvation periods.

Enough space for fish to swim?

FOS has established maximum stocking densities for 24 fish species. However, some of the recommended densities are higher than Compassion recommends for these species.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

FOS has taken some steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms; they do not allow fish farms to use antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease and as growth promoters, which reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance. However, their standards do not specify the prohibition of antibiotics that are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organization.

Farmers prohibited from harming wildlife?

FOS has a predator control plan in their standards which includes the prohibition of killing endangered species, however, they will not prohibit killing or harm to non-endangered species such as seals and most dolphins and whales.

Starving of fish kept to a minimum?

FOS does specify a maximum limit time without feed for farmed fish. However, the time established by FOS is higher than recommended by Compassion.

Do the fish have enrichment?

FOS recommends enrichment is provided for farmed fish. This is a positive initiative since barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviors, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish.

Steps taken to reduce the use of wild-caught fish as feed?

No, FOS allows wild-caught fish to be fed to farmed fish and they do not encourage reductions. They only require that wild-caught fish for feed come from certified fisheries.

Fast and painless slaughter?

Yes, FOS does require humane slaughter of farmed fish. Stunning methods such as percussive and electrical, are required for each species. Moreover, ice slurry, an inhumane but commonly used method, it is prohibited in FOS standards.

Reducing suffering during capture?

No, FOS does not ensure that the methods used to catch fish and bring them aboard the fishing vessels protect fish welfare in any way. There are no restrictions on the type of fishing methods used or the duration of capture – so the fish can endure painful deaths for that can last over an hour.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

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The Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s (ASC) mission is to transform aquaculture towards environmental sustainability and social responsibility. They certify 1% of the world’s farmed fish, which amounts to hundreds of millions of fish each year.

The ASC has shown a willingness to collaborate with Compassion in developing their fish welfare standards. They have been open about their existing standards being inadequate to protect fish. In fact, the ASC is currently working on a fish welfare project to develop new best practice indicators for their Farm Standard. We will continue to support the ASC in their commitment to improve the lives of the fish they certify.

Enough space for fish to swim?

No, the ASC does not currently ensure that the fish they certify have enough space for good welfare in fish farms. They don’t require farmers to enforce a maximum number of fish per square meter for any species other than pangasius (shark catfish) – but this is far higher than Compassion recommends for these fish.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

The ASC has taken steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. The ASC does not allow fish farms to use antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease or as growth promoters, which reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance. They also prohibit the use of antibiotics that are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organization. However, the routine use of antibiotics is not specifically prohibited.

Farmers prohibited from harming wildlife?

Not entirely. The ASC does prohibit killing of threatened or protected species, plus mammals, elasmobranchs, birds, or reptiles (excluding vermin), aside from exceptional circumstances (occasional situations, e.g., where animals are injured and unlikely to recover). However, they do not prohibit the use of acoustic deterrent devices (ADDs) which may be damaging for wildlife. ADDs are devices that emit sounds to deter seals from fish farms. However, there are real concerns that ADDs are harmful for marine mammals (including dolphins and whales), due to potential hearing damage and exclusion from marine habitats they need for feeding and other activities.

Starving of fish kept to a minimum?

No, the ASC does not set a limit on the time fish can be starved. As a result, farmers are permitted to starve fish for days or even weeks. These fish suffer from hunger and frustration at not being able to search for food, which can also result in aggression.

Do the fish have enrichments?

No, the ASC does not require enrichments for farmed fish. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviors, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish.

Steps taken to reduce the use of wild-caught fish as feed?

Yes, the ASC is taking some steps to reduce reliance on wild-caught forage fish. For example, the scheme encourages producers to take a greater percentage of fishmeal and fish oil from by-products (trimmings and offal, rather than purpose-caught forage fish) and to improve their feeding efficiency, by setting maximum Forage Fish Dependency (FFDR) ratios.

Fast and painless slaughter?

Yes, the ASC requires the humane slaughter of farmed fish in the upcoming revision of their standards. This will make stunning species-specific methods a mandatory requirement; farmers are allowed between 0 - 6 years, depending on the species, to adapt to the new standards.

Best Aquaculture Practice

Best Aquaculture Practice

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Best Aquaculture Practice’s (BAP) mission is to be the most trusted certification body for farmed fish in the world, embracing and enabling the role of responsibly farmed fish while meeting global nutrition needs. They certify 1% of global farmed fish, which equates to hundreds of millions of fish each year.

Although BAP intends to work towards welfare improvements in the future and has updated its animal welfare standards as recently as March 2021, these are still inadequate to ensure good welfare for farmed fish. To be a globally trusted certification scheme, they need to drastically update and strengthen their current fish welfare standards.

Enough space for fish to swim?

No, BAP does not ensure that the fish they certify have enough space for good welfare in fish farms. BAP does not ask farmers to enforce a maximum number of fish per square meter for any species other than Atlantic salmon – but this is far higher than Compassion recommends for good fish welfare.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

BAP has taken some adequate steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. BAP does not allow fish farms to use antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease with vet oversight, which increases the risk of antibiotic resistance. Also, the use of antibiotics as growth promoters is prohibited but the routine use of antibiotics is not specifically prohibited and the use of antimicrobials that the World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes as ‘critically important’ to human medicine can be used in some circumstances.

Are farmers prohibited from harming wildlife, e.g. seals and dolphins?

No, BAP permits farmers to harm wildlife to keep them out of their fish farms. Although BAP does encourage farmers to use non-lethal methods to deter wildlife from approaching their farms, killing the animals is permitted when those options are ineffective. They also allow the use of acoustic deterrent devices – a device that uses harmful sound waves to deter dolphin and whales, with potentially devastating consequences on their hearing. However, they do require an effective predator control plan with records of mortalities, dates and species, and the killing of endangered species is prohibited.

Starving of fish kept to a minimum?

No, BAP does not specify a maximum limit time without feed for farmed fish. As a result, farmers are permitted to starve fish for days or even weeks. These fish suffer from hunger and frustration, which can also result in aggression.

Do the fish have enrichment?

No, BAP does not require enrichment for farmed fish. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviors, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish.

Steps taken to reduce the use of wild-caught fish as feed?

No, BAP allows wild-caught fish to be fed to farmed fish. BAP does however recommend the use of trimmings (by-products of the fishing industry), feed ingredients coming from land sources, wild-caught fish for feed coming from ‘responsibly managed’ fisheries and encourages an overall reduction of feed being sourced from wild-caught fish.

Fast and painless slaughter?

Although humane slaughter is required in BAP’s standards, they do not specify the methods of stunning or killing that should be used for each species. Each species is physiologically unique and requires a different stunning and slaughter method to ensure the process is fast and painless. Without species specific standards, countless fish could endure painful deaths for that can last over an hour. However, carbon dioxide exposure in water, a cruel and slow slaughter method, is prohibited.

GlobalG.A.P.

GlobalG.A.P.

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GLOBALG.A.P. is an international trademark and aims to be a set of standards for good agricultural practices. They certify 3% of global aquaculture, amounting to many hundreds of millions of fish each year.

GLOBALG.A.P. has shown a strong commitment to working with Compassion to continually strengthen their welfare standards, improving the lives and deaths of countless fish each year. They recently reviewed their standards and have introduced some improvements such as the recommendation to use environmental enrichment for fish. However other important issues need attention. For instance, GlobalGAP still allows fish to be killed by immersing them in ice slurry without pre-stunning. Unfortunately, this slaughter technique is common, but it causes slow deaths with significant suffering for fish. Compassion will continue to engage with GLOBALG.A.P. to ensure they strengthen their standards to levels adequate for good fish welfare and make these mandatory for all the companies they certify.

Enough space for fish to swim?

No, GLOBALG.A.P. does not ensure that the fish they certify have enough space for good welfare. Species-specific maximum densities are not established in GlobalGAP standards.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

GLOBALG.A.P. has taken steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. GLOBALG.A.P. does not allow fish farms to use antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease or as growth promoters, which reduces the risk of antibiotic resistance. However, they do not specifically prohibit the use of antibiotics that are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organization.

Are farmers prohibited from harming wildlife, e.g. seals and dolphins?

GLOBALG.A.P. does encourage farmers to use non-lethal methods to deter wildlife from approaching their farms, killing the animals is permitted when those options are ineffective. However, they do require an effective predator control plan with records of mortalities, dates and species, and the killing of endangered species is prohibited.

Starving of fish kept to a minimum?

No, GLOBALG.A.P. does not put a limit on the time that fish can be starved. As a result, farmers are permitted to starve fish for days or even weeks. These fish suffer from hunger and frustration, which can also result in aggression.

Do the fish have enrichment?

GLOBALG.A.P. does recommend enrichment for farmed fish but it is not mandatory. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviors, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish.

Steps taken to reduce the use of wild-caught fish as feed?

No, GLOBALG.A.P. allows wild-caught fish to be fed to farmed fish. GLOBALG.A.P. specifies in their standards that the wild-caught fish for feed should not originate from any fisheries that are illegal, unregulated or unreported. However, they do not require steps to actively reduce the amount of wild-caught fish in the feed.

Fast and painless slaughter

GLOBALG.A.P. requires humane slaughter for fish and recommends percussive and electrical stunning where effective technology is available. However, they do not specify the methods of stunning or killing that should be used for each species, and currently allow a method that involves fish suffocating for an hour or longer in a mixture of ice and water. Each species is physiologically unique and requires a different stunning and slaughter method to ensure the process is fast and painless. Without species-specific standards, countless fish could endure painful deaths for that can last over an hour.

Find out more about the welfare criteria

Just like in a typical land factory farm, huge numbers of fish are reared in underwater factory farms. To ensure maximum profit, farmers tightly pack many thousands of fish into underwater cages and tanks. These farms are crowded, barren places where the fish have little else to do other than swim in endless circles.

When there is a high number of animals crowded onto a farm, as with land animals like chickens and pigs, fish can suffer poor welfare. Overcrowding can cause stress, and this can result in poor water quality, stress and aggression.

Water quality is important for fish welfare. Good water quality can ensure that the fish have adequate oxygen to breathe comfortably and reduces the prevalence of disease. Fish excrete into the water, so when lots of fish are in a small space, waste products such as ammonia can build up to dangerous levels. The resulting poor water quality can significantly impact a fish’s well-being.

Fish also need enough space to swim and behave normally. Having the ability to choose to be in certain areas of the cage to adjust to different temperatures and light is essential for higher welfare – and this is restricted in higher stocking densities. It has even been shown that fish may suffer from sunburn if they are forced too close to the surface of the water.

Fish are often given antibiotics in their feed to prevent the spread of various diseases which may occur in intensive conditions. Fish are kept in such huge numbers that diagnosis, separation and treatment of an individual fish is impossible.

However, as with land animals, there are issues when fish are given feed containing antibiotics as a preventative measure, or where all animals in the group are treated even though only a few are sick. Use of antibiotics in this way means that the fish may be more able to survive in overcrowded and dirty conditions, but antibiotics should not be used as a substitute for proper hygiene and husbandry.

When antibiotics are given to fish in an open environment like a sea cage, antibiotics will leak out from the farm. Some studies looking at sediment beneath sea cages have found antibiotic-resistant genes – even several kilometers away from the farms. In general, microbes can become resistant to antibiotics faster the more they are used. This risks the future effectiveness of antibiotics – even for humans.

Birds, seals, sea lions, walruses and otters are predators of farmed fish in sea cages, land-based tanks or pond farming systems. Also, dolphins and wild fish such as swordfish and bluefin tuna predate on farmed fish. These animals can damage nets, leading to fish escapes, and eat or stress the farmed fish. Farmers often can take harmful or lethal measures to control these predators. 

Some farms use tools called acoustic deterrent devices (ADD) to keep aquatic mammals away. These devices use random frequency sweeps and tones to unsettle approaching animals. Other devices use sound pressure at a specific frequency to cause discomfort to animals if they come within close range. These devices can cause long-term damage to the hearing of the seals, dolphins and whales that swim into the areas surrounding farms. Hearing is a critical sense to these animals, who depend on their hearing for navigating, finding food and communicating underwater, so the results can be devastating.

In some European countries, pond systems have problems with predation by otters and beavers. Both otters and beavers are frequently culled despite their protected status.

Before certain procedures that require fish to be crowded and handled, such as transport or slaughter, fish are starved for some time.

In certain cases and durations of between 1-3 days, this is deemed necessary to not further harm the fish – clearing the gut before transport for example means that there is less waste excreted into the water while fish are transported, and bad water quality from excreted substances will harm the fish.

However, fish are regularly starved for far longer than necessary – sometimes even up to 2 weeks. This may be to boost profits by saving money on feed. The fish suffer from hunger and frustration at not being able to search for food, which can result in aggression.

Intensive farms are completely barren and vastly different from the natural habitats that fish would find in the wild. As with other farmed animals, good welfare means giving fish an environment that is similar to conditions in the wild and complex enough to meet their behavioral and mental needs.

Fish can suffer from boredom and frustration too. Barren environments limit the expression of natural behaviors, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the animals, with many experiencing inescapable boredom.

Environmental enrichment involves deliberately increasing environmental complexity to improve welfare. There are a growing number of studies showing various welfare benefits of enrichment for fish - there is evidence for reduced aggressive interactions, a reduction in disease and injuries, improved cognitive capacity and exploration, reduced impact from stressors, improved foraging ability, and decreases in larval deformity and mortality.

Enrichments that allow the fish some level of control over their environment can include shelters (e.g. pipes or shells), changing the color of the tank, self-activated fish feeders or adding a cover to the top to create a shade. There are even some examples of music having a positive effect on fish growth.

We face a global crisis of overfishing.

Fish farming is responsible for much of the industrial fishing of our decimated oceans. Many widely farmed species such as trout and salmon hunt other fish in the wild. In order to farm these animals, they are fed fish feed that is made of wild-caught fish. Approximately one-quarter of all wild-caught fish are used to make fish feed. This comprises of somewhere between 450 billion and 1 trillion fish. In other words, it can take up to 350 wild-caught fish to raise a single farmed salmon, so fish farming actually increases the pressure on wild stocks.

Since these wild fish die without any form of humane slaughter or prior stunning, the welfare cost of the fish feed is massive.

Most fish are caught by huge industrial fishing vessels. Many are caught by trawling vessels that scoop up hundreds of thousands of fish in one go, and they are crushed together in the nets causing injury and death. Those that survive the capture are left to suffocate on decks or are gutted alive.

Fish are sentient and can feel pain fear and suffer. Therefore, slow, painful slaughter without prior stunning is a horrific ordeal for the fish.

Many farmed fish are killed using methods that are painful and stressful and their suffering can sometime last hours. Some will be left to suffocate to death in tanks of ice slurry.

Wild-caught fish also frequently die in slow and painful ways. Many of the ways of capturing wild fish can cause the fish to be crushed to death, suffer from the pressure change of being pulled from the depths of the ocean, or be dragged along a line with a painful hook in their mouths for over a day. Those that survive the capture are left to suffocate on decks or are gutted alive.

Rethink Fish

Billions of fish, whether farmed or wild-caught, routinely endure truly terrifying treatment. Farmed fish are often kept in barren pens with nothing to do but swim listlessly in circles for many months, a far cry from their life in the wild able to migrate thousands of miles across the world. Farmed fish are deliberately starved for as many as 2 weeks before slaughter. And when they are killed, the vast majority are slaughtered whilst fully conscious, taking up to an hour to die.

This must change – fish deserve lives worth living.

And the public agrees. In a Yagree survey, four out of five adults said they would like to see information about fish welfare on the labels of fish products. Help us create a future where fish are protected by the schemes that certify them.

Want to know more? See our food business species-specific recommendations.

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