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Fish certification schemes

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Every day, farmed and wild caught fish are treated, and killed, in cruel ways. Like other animals, fish are emotional, complex beings, who can feel pain. 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 labelling schemes for guidance. However, while these schemes tend to focus on the sustainability of fish stocks and the environment – important work – they should also protect fish welfare.

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Demand the schemes protect fish

Currently some schemes have no welfare protections in place at all. They must do more for the fish they certify.

Act for fish
2. Demand the schemes protect fish

What do fish labels really mean?

Compassion has investigated the welfare standards of these schemes and exposed a shocking truth: fish certified by these schemes suffer in a number of ways. Many fish live miserable lives in overcrowded tanks and cages. Even more endure prolonged and painful deaths. They suffer in silence by the billions. Without a voice of their own, they need us to speak up on their behalf.

Practices allowed by some of these schemes include:

  • Starving fish for up to 14 days
  • Overcrowding fish into small tanks or sea cages
  • Inflicting a slow, painful death without adequate stunning
  • Shooting wild seals and possibly harming dolphins with underwater noise

We have analysed and compared the different schemes’ 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 to find out more about the level of welfare protection provided by each scheme.

A table showing how each scheme compares on eight welfare criteria. A full explanation of each scheme's standards can be found on this page, within the section entitled 'So what does each scheme permit?'

Take action – please write to the CEOs of these schemes to encourage them to introduce or strengthen the welfare conditions for billions of fish.

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Help billions of fish

The scale of suffering is enormous. Billions of sentient beings living miserable lives and enduring excruciating, slow deaths. This has to stop!

Be the voice of billions
4. Help billions of fish

What does each scheme permit?

The standards for each criterium varies across the schemes. Click on the boxes to find out what each scheme 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 programme to recognise 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.

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.

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.

Friends of the Sea

Friends of the Sea

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Friend of the Sea’s (FOS) certification scheme for farmed fish strives to minimise the negative effects of fish farming on the marine environment and provide a tool for the industry to develop in a sustainable and fish-friendly way. They certify 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 standards do not currently consider animal welfare in their requirements, but they are currently working on improvements in their standards to promote animal welfare in the companies they certify. Compassion will continue to support FOS to ensure they strengthen their standards to levels adequate for good fish welfare and make these mandatory for all the companies they certify.

Standards for wild-caught fish

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.

Fast and painless slaughter?

No, FOS does not require humane slaughter of farmed fish. There will be reference to humane slaughter in the new standards, but it is not yet known whether this will be mandatory or optional. If given the option, many of the farmers will decide to not invest in the required equipment to ensure a humane slaughter, ensuring many fish endure a slow and painful death.

Standards for farmed fish

Enough space for fish to swim?

No, FOS does not ensure that the fish they certify have enough space for good welfare. They plan to introduce limits for fish per square metre for 25 species into their new standards, but we do not yet know the specifics and are unsure if these standards will be mandatory or adequate for good welfare.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

Yes, FOS has taken steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. FOS does not allow fish farms to use a constant stream of antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease, which reduces the chance of antibiotic resistance in humans. They plan to include more specific requirements on antibiotic use – especially the use of drugs deemed critically important by the World Health Organisation – in their new standards.

Farmers prohibited from harming wildlife?

No, FOS permits farmers to harm and kill wildlife to keep them out of their fish farms. FOS will introduce a predator control plan in their new 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?

No, FOS 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 at not being able to search for food, which can also result in aggression.

FOS intend to put specific and mandatory “time without feed” protocols for 25 species in their new standards, but we do not yet know if these standards will be adequate for good fish welfare.

Do the fish have enrichment?

No, FOS does not require enrichment for farmed fish. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviours, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish, with many experiencing inescapable and debilitating boredom.

FOS may include enrichment requirements for 25 species in their new standards – but it is not yet clear if they will be mandatory or optional. These standards must be mandatory to ensure that the farms they certify comply to improve the lives of countless fish.

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

FOS do have some recommendations in place to reduce excessive use of wild-caught fish for feed – such as the use of trimmings (by-products of the fishing industry) - but more active steps to reduce demand for wild-caught fish in farmed fish feeds are needed. They also ask that wild-caught fish for feed come from certified fisheries.

The new FOS standards will ask that the wild-caught fish come from more sustainable, transparent and traceable sources. However, they do not specify the required steps to actively reduce the amount of wild-caught fish in the feeds.

Fast and painless slaughter?

No, FOS does not require humane slaughter of farmed fish. There will be reference to humane slaughter in the new standards, but it is not yet known whether this will be mandatory or optional. If given the option, many of the farmers will decide to not invest in the required equipment to ensure a humane slaughter, ensuring many fish endure a slow and painful death.

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 current standards being inadequate to protect fish – and have hired an individual whose sole purpose is to develop, strengthen and implement welfare requirements. 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 ask farmers to enforce a maximum number of fish per square metre for any species other than pangasius (shark catfish) – and even this number is far higher than what Compassion recommends that the fish need.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

Yes, the ASC has taken steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. The ASC does not allow fish farms to use a constant stream of antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease, which reduces the chance of antibiotic resistance if left unchecked. They prohibit the use of antibiotics that are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organisation.

Farmers prohibited from harming wildlife?

No, farmers are permitted to harm wildlife in some circumstances on ASC certified farms. Although ASC does encourage farmers to use non-lethal methods to deter wildlife, like seals, from approaching their farms, killing the animals is permitted when those options are ineffective. They do not, however, allow the use of acoustic deterrent devices, which use harmful sound waves to deter dolphin and whales - with potentially devastating consequences on their hearing.

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 enrichment?

No, the ASC does not require enrichment for farmed fish. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviours, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish, with many experiencing inescapable and debilitating boredom.

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

The ASC does have some measures in place to reduce excessive use of wild-caught fish for feed – such as use of trimmings (by-products of the fishing industry) – but these measures are currently inadequate and more active steps are needed to ensure that countless wild fish aren’t killed to be fed to farmed fish.

Fast and painless slaughter?

No, the ASC does not require the humane slaughter of farmed fish. Without species-specific slaughter requirement, countless fish could endure painful deaths for that can last over an hour.

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 intend to work towards welfare improvements in the future and have updated their animal welfare standards as recently as February 2020, these are still inadequate to ensure good welfare for farmed fish. To be a globally trusted certification scheme for responsibly fishing, 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 metre for any species other than Atlantic Salmon – and even this number is far higher than what Compassion recommends that the fish need for good welfare.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

No, BAP has not yet taken adequate steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. BAP allows fish farms to use a constant stream of antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease with vet oversight, which increases the chance of antibiotic resistance in humans. They plan to include more specific requirements on antibiotic use – especially prohibiting the use of drugs deemed critically important by the World Health Organisation – in their new standards starting from January 1, 2021.

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.

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 at not being able to search for food, 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 behaviours, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish, with many experiencing inescapable and debilitating boredom.

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

BAP does have some recommendations in place to reduce excessive use of wild-caught fish for feed. BAP recommends 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. However, more active steps are needed to reduce the demand for wild-caught fish in farmed fish feeds.

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. have 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 are currently revising their standards – and this could improve the welfare of the fish they certify. 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.

Steps taken to reduce antibiotic use?

Yes, GLOBALG.A.P. has taken steps to reduce the use of antibiotics on certified farms. GLOBALG.A.P. prohibits fish farms from using a constant stream of antibiotics as a preventative measure for disease, which reduces the chance of antibiotic resistance in humans.

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

No, farmers on GLOBALG.A.P. certified farms are permitted to harm wildlife in some circumstances. Although 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 at not being able to search for food, which can also result in aggression.

Do the fish have enrichment?

No, GLOBALG.A.P. does not require enrichment for farmed fish. Barren farm environments limit the expression of natural behaviours, resulting in negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the fish, with many experiencing inescapable and debilitating boredom.

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

GLOBALG.A.P. does not require steps to actively reduce the amount of wild-caught fish in the feed. However, GLOBALG.A.P. specifies in its standards that the wild-caught fish for feed should not originate from any fisheries that are illegal, unregulated or unreported.

Fast and painless slaughter?

GLOBALG.A.P. requires humane slaughter for fish and recommend 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.

What does this mean for fish?

The focus on environmental concerns leaves the billions of fish reared and caught under these schemes with little to no protection. These intellegent, sentient beings may experience immense suffering throughout their lives, which often end in a slow, agonising death.

We are asking the schemes to improve the welfare of the fish, and prevent this needless cruelty.

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Prevent needless cruelty

Please write to the schemes and ask them to stop certifying this suffering.

Speak up for fish
9. Prevent needless cruelty

Just like with other farmed animals, 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 large numbers of fish are crowded into a farm, as with land animals like chickens and pigs, they can suffer poor welfare. Overcrowding can cause stress, and this can result in fighting and injuries from biting.

Water quality is important for fish welfare. Good water quality can ensure that the fish have adequate oxygen to breath 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 wellbeing.

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 sun burn if they are forced too close to the surface of the water.

Fish are usually 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 good animal welfare.

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 even found antibiotic resistant genes several kilometres 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 distress the farmed fish.

Farmers often take harmful or lethal measures to control these predators. One example is the shooting of wild seals by Scottish salmon farmers. Fish farms can apply for a licence to kill seals that are on or near their farms. What’s worse – there’s no restriction to shooting seals during breeding seasons, so some of the seals shot will be pregnant or nursing young pups.

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 may 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 may 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 long periods of time. This is sadly endemic across the fish farming industry.

In certain cases, starving for durations of between 1-3 days is deemed necessary to not further harm the fish. For example, clearing the gut before transport means that there is less waste excreted into the water while fish are transported, reducing the risk of harm to the fish from poor water quality.

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 to 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 behavioural and mental needs.

Fish suffer from boredom and frustration. Barren environments limit the expression of natural behaviours, 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. Providing enrichment can lead to 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 colour 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. Without massive new marine conservation areas and industry regulation, we may face a future of empty seas without wild fish.

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. They are caught in vast numbers so no individual capture and slaughter takes places. 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 agree. In a survey conducting by polling organisation YouGov, four out of five adults said they would like to see information about fish welfare on labels of fish products. Help us create a future where fish are protected by the schemes that certify them.

Want to know more? Check our Food Business Team's species-specific recommendations, and find out more about the complex lives of fish.

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If you have any further questions regarding this, or any other matter, please get in touch with us at supporters@ciwf.org.uk. We aim to respond to all queries within two working days. However, due to the high volume of correspondence that we receive, it may occasionally take a little longer. Please do bear with us if this is the case. Alternatively, if your query is urgent, you can contact our Supporter Engagement Team on +44 (0)1483 521 953 (lines open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm).