Aquatic Animal Welfare

April 16 2021

Diego Plaza Casanova

Although several pieces of research have concluded that aquatic animals are sentient beings, many of them are still being confined, cultivated, and executed by aquaculture companies to satisfy human needs. This reality, comparable to that experienced by land animals that are victims of the farming industry, differs from the latter in the absence of clearly defined welfare standards.

However, at the end of last year, the Aquatic Animal Alliance (AAA), together with a group of world experts, created a comprehensive guide, the first of its kind, on the welfare of wild and farmed aquatic animals.

The AAA states in its recommendations that: “It is our position that in order to experience a ‘life worth living,’ each animal must have:

  1. Freedom to access sustenance that sustains health and vigour,
  2. Freedom to live in an appropriate environment that enables and does not impair wellbeing,
  3. Freedom to live in an environment that prevents disease and does not expose to undue risk of injury, and have diseases rapidly and appropriately treated,
  4. Freedom to live with sufficient space, and with such companionship and materials required to express natural behaviours,
  5. Freedom to live in conditions that promote good psychological health and avoid mental suffering.”


This could be considered as an important step forward since the welfare of aquatic animals has not been a topic of particular interest in our predominant moral and legal discourses. For example, in Chile, Article 13 F of Law No. 18,892 on Fisheries and Aquaculture establishes that “Aquaculture shall include rules that safeguard animal welfare and procedures that avoid unnecessary suffering“. However, it does not expressly establish what such welfare would consist of, which is not a priority in the context of a law and an institutional framework aimed at exploiting these animals as resources, and which preempts Law No. 20,380 on Animal Protection.

In the above context, the importance -and rawness- of the milestone marked by the AAA’s recommendations does not lie in the supposed advance of the frontiers of human moral consideration, nor in a vindication of that dignity and liberty that we have taken away from many of the non-human inhabitants of this planet.

What is relevant and overwhelming about this milestone is the fact that we have exploited for centuries countless numbers of these sentient individuals in circumstances that are dangerous for them, for human beings and ecosystems, without even the slightest cultural questioning of this practice or its conditions, at least regarding the inherent value that each sentient being has. Until now.

Today, we can talk about concrete criteria that would define the “welfare” of aquatic animals in those previously described contexts. However, does not the genuine welfare of these non-human animals lie in their liberation from humans and the suppression of all forms of exploitation?

According to the latest FAO report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 (SOFIA 2020), 82.1 million tonnes of aquatic animals, 32.4 million tonnes of aquatic algae and 26,000 tonnes of ornamental seashells and pearls were produced. Although it is difficult to estimate how many lives such a figure would represent, we can make the following calculation: A fish such as the Atlantic salmon can be slaughtered between 3 and 5 kg in weight. If we estimate that a farmed fish of another species would have similar proportions to those of an Atlantic salmon, and if we obviate the existence of animals other than fish that are also victims of this industry (such as shellfish), we could conclude that, based on an average weight of 4 kg per farmed animal, around 20,500,000,000 animals died during 2018. This would be equivalent to more than twice the human population of the planet.