J. D. Metcalfe

This is the first published paper to identify the key welfare issues in the capture of commercially-caught fish and how the capture process could be made more humane.

As Dr Metcalfe explains, most fish caught in commercial fisheries are not intentionally slaughtered but die in the process or harvesting and are frequently gutted alive. There is little or no regulation concerning the handling and killing of these animals. The author tellingly points out that:

“…it could be argued that no pig or sheep farmer would be allowed to treat pigs or sheep the way commercial fishermen are allowed to treat fishes”
and that, for example,
“…in the UK, animal welfare (including farming and aquaculture) is currently regulated by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 yet nothing in this Act applies in relation to anything which occurs in the normal course of fishing”.

The growing concern for animal welfare in general suggests that welfare in wild-capture fisheries is likely to further move up the public agenda.

There are many different types of fishing involving nets or hooks. There are many different aspects to consider in making the process more humane. These include the impact on target fish and also the fish that escape trawl nets before landing, and those that are discarded after landing because they are the wrong size or species. The fates of target, escaping and discarded fish are helpfully illustrated in a diagram. There are, Dr Metcalfe argues, some key welfare questions to be asked about current fishing practices, such as:

  1. How specific is the gear or capture method for the target species?
  2. What trauma or distress does the gear or capture method cause and how can this be reduced?
  3. For those fishes that are landed alive, is the method of killing humane?
  4. Does the gear cause damage to escapees, and if so can this be reduced?
  5. Can discarding practices be modified to improve long-term survival?

The time between first encountering the gear and final death is identified as an important factor affecting welfare and it may be possible to reduce this. Some types of gear may reduce the damage caused to escaping fish. Then there are practices that are considered much less acceptable, such as live-finning sharks which has been campaigned against by welfare organizations such as the UK’s Sharks’ Trust (www.sharktrust.org) and partially prohibited.

The paper recognizes that more humane fishing practice may lead to higher costs of fishing and that there may be conflicts between what is acceptable welfare and what is economically acceptable. One potential solution is offered by welfare premiums. Cornish fishers (www.cornishtuna.com) have recently started troll fishing for albacore tuna in which fish are stunned and killed soon after landing and bycatch is minimal. Tuna caught this way have a value several times that of those caught in nets. Welfare improvement may be possible through schemes that currently exist to raise standards of fish quality, such as the Responsible Fishing scheme (rfs.seafish.org), which may increasing adopt standards that relate to welfare. Such standards could increasingly become a condition for supply.

Link to paper