The Australian Government has published new voluntary animal welfare guidelines for Australian commercial fishers.

Emperor fish, Queensland, Australia

Emperor fish, Queensland, Australia.
Credit: Klaus Stiefel.

These guidelines, which have been released since December 2012 under the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS), cover vertebrate fish species in several different capture methods.

We believe these to be the first ever welfare guidelines for commercially-caught wild fish killed at sea*. Although, at present, they don’t yet recommend humane killing methods for most wild caught fish (and we have serious concerns regarding their recommendations for live chilling), the overall approach is groundbreaking, especially the recommendations for shorter capture times and ike jime killing of larger fish.

They are presented as “living documents” to be reviewed regularly and improved as capture techniques and understanding of animal welfare develop. There are 6 sets of guidelines relating to different capture methods as follows:

The codes recognise the “close relationship between animal welfare and the quality of seafood produced” and describe the general principles in reducing bycatch and stress caused to captured fish, through choice of gears; methods of handling; and by minimising capture duration. Where it is considered practical for fish to be killed individually, iki jime (spiking) is recommended as a more humane method. A new website (including video) has been developed with support from AAWS to demonstrate this method. (Spiking, when applied correctly, can cause immediate loss of consciousness and is therefore a potentially humane method of killing fish and is one recommended by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in its welfare codes for stunning and killing of farmed fish1).

The new guidelines, being voluntary and general in scope, are further limited by having been written, in collaboration with industry representatives, to “to ensure that the animal welfare guide lines did not contradict what industry applies in practice2.” As such they fall short from prescribing humane slaughter methods for fish where individual killing is not considered practical. Further, the recommendations they do make on killing (discussed below) may not be the best options for mitigating pain and distress. The guidelines on line fishing make no recommendations on choice of bait and fail to discourage use of bait fish, even the use of live bait fish impaled on hooks.

The guidelines recommend that exposure to air should be minimised and fish placed in refrigerated water or ice slurry as soon as possible. As stated in the above OIE codes, neither asphyxiation in air nor chilling in iced water are humane methods1. Live chilling of fish is aversive and paralyses them while leaving them sensible to pain and distress. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare has concluded that asphyxia in air and asphyxia in ice/thermal shock are not humane methods of killing fish and argues that temperate species of fish take longer to lose brain function when killed in ice than air3. Chilling fish as they suffocate may therefore increase both the severity and duration of suffering caused, compared to leaving them to suffocate in air. The recommendation to put fish in ice slurry seems to have been intended more for the benefit of quality than for animal welfare.’s recommendations for improving welfare of captured fish in commercial fishing can be summarised as follows:

  • Reduce the duration of capture
  • Use gears and handling practices that reduce bycatch, stress and injury
  • Avoid use of purpose-caught bait fish, especially live bait
  • Use humane slaughter methods.

The new guidelines encourage the first two of these while failing, apart from recommending use of iki jime on fish being killed individually, on the third and fourth. However, recognising where the fishing industry is starting from, and as a starting point for beginning to address the huge welfare problems in commercial fishing, we believe these welfare codes represent an important step forward. We hope the recommendations on killing will be subject to more critical scientific examination and improvement.

* Switzerland has welfare regulation on the killing of wild-caught fish in inland waters.


1. Chapter 7.3. Welfare aspects of stunning and killing of farmed fish for human consumption.

2. Article for use by Peak Industry Bodies. Western Australian Fishing Industry Council inc. website. Accessed at on 12/08/2013.

3. Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission related to welfare aspects of the main systems of stunning and killing the main commercial species of animals, The EFSA Journal (2004), 45, 1-29.