Human beings have long been concerned with the welfare of animals and this concern is growing. Animal welfare is about the well being of animals as individuals. It is about ensuring animals have a good quality of life and are not treated in ways that cause suffering. It means accepting that we have a duty of care to the animals we use.

In addition to commercial, subsistence and sport fishing, fish species are used in fish farming, in scientific research, in aquariums for public display and as pets. What is our duty of care towards them?

In attempting to define and conceptualise animal welfare, three basic approaches have emerged:

  • Is the biology of the animal normal?
  • Is the animal in a good mental state?
  • Is the animal living a natural life?

Of these, a good mental state is the most important. It is, however, the most difficult to assess and cannot be measured directly.

The first approach is based on the normal biological functioning of the animal. According to Broom,

“The welfare of an animal is its state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment.”

In fish farming, for example, some fish may tolerate poor water quality conditions for a short period but when the conditions become too challenging or prolonged they cannot maintain homeostasis. They have difficulty coping and experience stress. Chronic stress reduces biological fitness and can, for example, impair the immune system.

The second approach is based on what the animal actually feels. This approach seeks to promote good feelings and avoid pain and suffering. This approach is the one most relevant for improving welfare in fishing.

The third approach calls for animals to be farmed, or kept, in ways that allow them to perform their full repertoire of natural behaviours. Webster sums up these different approaches by saying good welfare means an animal is “fit and happy”. In other words, is in both a good physical and mental state.

Welfare is often expressed in terms of the Five Freedoms which are:

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express natural behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

Freedom from pain, fear and distress require animals to be killed in a way that is humane. The humane slaughter association defines humane slaughter for fish as follows:

“As with mammals, a humane slaughter is one that results in an immediate loss of consciousness, or if slow acting, induces unconsciousness without discomfort or pain. This unconsciousness should persist until death intervenes”.

why should we protect wild fish?

This website focuses on the welfare of wild-caught fish in commercial fishing. There are many reasons why wild fish should be protected. “Animal welfare”, “animal rights” and “conservation” are different philosophical viewpoints that argue for this. These viewpoints are not mutually exclusive and one can support some or all three outlooks.


The conservation view also believes in protecting animals but is more concerned with the species as a whole, than with individual animals. This view believes that marine wildlife, including fish, should be protected from overfishing and destructive fishing methods. Fish, and the natural marine environment, need to be conserved for the benefit of future generations.

animal welfare

The animal welfare view believes that sentient animals, including fish, should be protected from inhumane treatment.

Killing animals for food is not normally considered to be an animal welfare problem so long as the killing is done humanely. However, the killing of very young animals is sometimes criticised on the grounds that the animals have not yet had a good life to justify killing them.

In fishing, it may not be possible to catch fish in a genuinely humane way. Good welfare may, therefore, not be achievable for wild-caught fish. The animal welfare view requires that, while fishing continues, the suffering caused should be minimised.

animal rights

The animal rights view takes animal protection further in that it believes animals have a right to life. The killing of animals for food, including fishing, is therefore not generally acceptable to the animal rights viewpoint.