Changing community perceptions has prompted a review of aquatic animal welfare laws across Australia; the aquaculture and fishing sectors are confident their practices will measure up
By Catherine Norwood
Animal welfare is an issue of rising importance to Australia’s fishing and aquaculture sectors, and good aquatic animal welfare practices are reflected in best-practice handling procedures and improved food quality.
The fishing and aquaculture sectors have identified animal welfare as essential to their stewardship of the resource, reflected in the commercial sector’s pledge to the community (by Seafood Industry Australia), and the National Recreational Fishing Code of Practice.
Two FRDC-funded research projects are analysing the current state of play, in law and in practice, to identify any steps needed to address community expectations and improve aquatic animal welfare.
The 2005 Australian Animal Welfare Strategy provided the initial impetus for a flurry of work by both governments and relevant sectors to assess and improve animal welfare practices, including aquatics.
In 2006, the Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group was one of six groups formed to respond to the national strategy. It represented the ornamental, commercial and recreational fishing and aquaculture sectors, as well as animal welfare NGOs.
The FRDC has also responded to this issue with a suite of research to assess the welfare impact of existing fishing and handling practices and the use of these practices to develop specific animal welfare guidelines for fishers and seafood producers. This includes an initial audit of animal welfare legislation in 2006, which was repeated in 2021 to assess any changes and the implications for the sectors.
The latest audit includes animal welfare provisions for commercial wildcatch fishing and aquaculture, the ornamental fish trade and recreational fishing. It considers aquatic animals in the broader context of the seafood supply chain, and in educational and research settings.
The Australian Animal Welfare Strategy was an initiative of the Australian Government that covered animal welfare in the context of trade and international agreements, working with exporters to maintain international export standards.
However, animal welfare standards and laws to prevent animal cruelty are the responsibility of individual states and territories.
Aquatic animals are those that live fully or partially in fresh or saltwater habitats. They include fresh and saltwater fish and sharks. There is general acceptance by both the commercial and recreational sectors that procedures for careful and controlled capture, holding and processing should be welfare-oriented. Generic guidelines developed for the commercial wildcatch sector through the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy note that the overall aim is to minimise suffering within the constraint of practices inherent to a sector.
However, the principal investigator for the 2021 audit, Paul Hardy-Smith from Panaquatic, says variations in state legislation reflect diverse views about the issue of animal welfare and whether or not it applies to fish and other aquatic animals.
The aim of the audit is to provide advice to fisheries stakeholders about new scientific knowledge and changes in legislation, to allow them to assess current practices and identify potential risks for their sectors.
The 2021 audit updates the 2006 audit and includes a review of international scientific literature on the subject.
Hardy-Smith says the first indication of the changes over the past decade is in the scope of the two audits.
The 2006 audit, completed as part of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, focused only on finfish. The FRDC’s 2021 audit includes crustaceans (for example, lobsters, crabs and prawns) and cephalopods (such as octopus and squid).
Hardy-Smith notes that even the definition of an ‘animal’ in legislation varies widely across jurisdictions. “South Australian and Western Australian animal welfare legislation specifically exclude fish under their definition of an animal,” he says. “But in the Northern Territory, fish, crustaceans and cephalopods are all included as animals under new legislation. In New South Wales, there is welfare legislation related to how fish and crustaceans are treated within the context of a building – in live tanks at a restaurant, for instance. But there are no provisions relating to their welfare in other places, including at sea.”
Responding to change
Hardy-Smith says the 2021 audit will help the sectors get ahead of potential changes and help fishers and seafood producers understand what the changes may be and what they may need to do differently.
“It is good to be able to talk openly with our fishing and aquaculture sectors about it so that we can identify and address any issues and where we may have gaps. We don’t want to be caught by sudden changes in community attitudes, as has happened in some of the terrestrial animal industries with respect to welfare.”
He says possible fishing and aquaculture responses may include codes of conduct for different sectors outlining best practices to specifically address animal welfare. The development of these codes is underway in the NT, in conjunction with the Animal Protection Act 2018.
The 2021 legislative audit and scientific literature review is complete, and findings will be presented to stakeholders at a series of workshops where current practices and gaps can also be discussed. Arrangements for three planned workshops are being adapted to cater for the evolving COVID-19 conditions. Planned in-person events may instead be held via video conferencing. Contact Paul Hardy-Smith if you are interested in attending (email email@example.com).
Best practice uptake
The 2021 audit has been the impetus for a related research project into the factors that may help or hinder the adoption of aquatic animal welfare best practices in Australia’s commercial wildcatch and finfish aquaculture sectors.
Nicki Mazur from ENVision Environmental Consulting has been working on a project to assess how the commercial wildcatch and aquaculture sectors have responded to the issue of animal welfare over the past 15 years.
During that time, work by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and the FRDC has:
- refined the definition of ‘aquatic animals’;
- identified key challenges for improving aquatic animal welfare;
- established overarching principles for aquatic animal welfare;
- benchmarked harvest methods for reducing stress in fish;
- identified welfare practices for killing fish;
- developed fish welfare guidelines for seven commercial fish capture methods; and
- road-tested these fish welfare guidelines in the commercial and recreational sectors.
More recently, Seafood Industry Australia has formally pledged (‘Our Pledge’) to actively care for the marine environment and aquatic animals. And, while the Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group is no longer funded by the Federal Government, members have continued to meet to progress issues on a voluntary basis. Chair Brett McCallum has called for more coordinated and informed approaches to help the seafood sectors better appreciate the importance of adopting best practices and the need to credibly demonstrate that their practices are both based in science and socially acceptable.
Between December 2019 and September 2021, Mazur’s team conducted a desktop review of sector practices and guidelines, 23 stakeholder consultations and 16 in-depth interviews. These provided only a sample of industry responses, says Mazur, rather than a comprehensive, sector-wide assessment of practice uptake.
The researchers examined practices for rock lobsters, mud crabs, target shark and shark bycatch fisheries, trawl, seine and hook and line fishing, as well as two aquaculture operations.
“It is good to be able to talk openly with our fishing and aquaculture sectors about it so that we can identify and address any issues and where we may have gaps. We don’t want to be caught by sudden changes in community attitudes, as has happened in some of the terrestrial animal industries with respect
Table 1: Animal welfare best practice in selected Australian fisheries
Rock lobster (Southern, Eastern zones)
Careful handling to avoid stress, and broken limbs; holding procedures that avoid crowding and use optimal water quality
Mud crab (NT Fishery, some
Tying claws to prevent cannibalism, fighting
Target shark fishery and shark bycatch
Quick removal of target and non-target catch from net, humane slaughter of target catch
Trawl (Northern, Southern,
Bycatch reduction, maximising survivability
Seine (Purse, Beach, Danish)
Ice slurry for slaughter*, careful and minimal handling of catch generally
Hook and line (NSW Trap and Line)
Iki jime/spiking or percussion stunning
*Although ice slurries are considered best-practice slaughter in seine fishing, there is considerable international debate about this.
Source: ENVision Environmental Consulting
In line with other research, Mazur’s team found that more appropriately designed and consistently funded extension programs could help improve the uptake and adoption of animal welfare practices. However, a range of other factors influence the extent to which seafood producers will implement recommended welfare practices. For individual producers, other mechanisms, such as market premiums and regulations, may also be needed.
From a sector-wide perspective, Mazur says it will be important that poor practices are called out and addressed. Regardless of an individual’s personal philosophical views on aquatic animals and their welfare, when they do not meet broader community expectations, the behaviour of a few could jeopardise the continued operations of whole parts within the seafood sector.
Mazur highlights the importance of understanding how the existing recommended practices fit in with the day-to-day work for fishers, seafood producers and the welfare of aquatic animals. Then, if needed, and in close consultation with those stakeholders, existing practices can be adjusted or new ones developed. Previous research has already established wide-ranging guidelines for many parts of the sector. Based on those sectors sampled for the project, best practices mentioned by seafood producers are outlined in Table 1.
Mazur recommends that those already undertaking best practices should be recognised and encouraged to act as champions for change within their industries, either formally or informally. Training and skill-building programs, along with peer support programs, can help build momentum within a sector towards improved practices.
Ensuring that there are advantages for seafood producers undertaking improved practices will also help encourage the sector. Practices should be easy, inexpensive, easily trialled and result in measurable benefits, for example, earning a price premium for improved quality.
Safety was raised by interviewees as an issue in relation to shark catch and bycatch, where the quick release or dispatch of large animals can be difficult. This also points to other factors that affect fishers’ ability to undertake recommended practices, including vessel design, financial resources and the crew needed.
Mazur recommends proactively addressing animal welfare-related issues by tapping into existing sector engagement strategies and networks to build trust within the sector and with influential decision-makers and interest groups. This may include assessing the risk of negative public sentiment by incorporating animal welfare into existing public surveys conducted by and for the seafood sector, and efforts to increase buyers’ awareness of the link between product quality and best-practice animal welfare.
“There is also the question of shared responsibility,” Mazur says. “Society is calling for the seafood industry to clearly demonstrate its duty of care to aquatic animals using (more) welfare-focused methods. Where that duty of care requires step changes in fishing practices, considerable costs may be imposed on some fishers. This may be a barrier for some businesses, particularly those operating on slim profit margins. The fisheries policy community could investigate ways to ensure the procedural fairness of current and future decision-making when wider societal expectations impose large financial costs on the industry.”
Mazur’s report, Practicing Aquatic Animal Welfare: Identifying and Mitigating Obstacles to Uptake and Adoption by the Australian Seafood Industry will be available from the FRDC’s website, www.frdc.com.au. f
The aim of the audit was to provide advice to fisheries stakeholders about new scientific knowledge and changes in legislation, to allow them to assess current practices and identify potential risks for their sectors.