Ensuring the best aquatic animal welfare-based practices are used by fisheries and aquaculture stakeholders was the focus of a recently completed project providing synthesised research, and a review on animal welfare legislation.
By Dempsey Ward
Aquatic animals play an important role in maintaining a healthy environment and - as with other animals - better health through improved welfare and care can have beneficial impacts on sustainability and the quality of the final product.
The comprehensive research summarised the Commonwealth, State and Territory animal welfare legislation relevant to aquatic animals and reviewed almost 40 various standards, guidelines and codes of practice to identify gaps between legislation and animal welfare practices in fishing and aquaculture.
Language is important. The definition used for aquatic animal welfare was derived from the World Health Organisation for Animal Health’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code with the addition of the word “aquatic” i.e. ‘the physical and mental state of an aquatic animal in relation to the condition in which it lives and dies.’ (“animal” in the Terrestrial Animal Health Code means a mammal, reptile, bird or bee).
Under Australia’s animal welfare legislation, the term “animal” is defined differently between each state and territory. This means animal welfare legislation applies differently to aquatic animals depending on where they are. For example, fish are not included in the definition of animal in current animal welfare laws for South Australia or Western Australia.
These differences in language and definition between states and territories includes crustaceans/cephalopods and acts of cruelty to animals. In some jurisdictions, for example Victoria, animal welfare laws do not apply to any fishing activities carried out in accordance with the state’s Fisheries Act.
Principal Investigator, Veterinarian and Managing Director at Panaquatic, Dr Paul Hardy-Smith, says these differences in language make it extremely difficult for organisations to coordinate national approaches for aquatic animal welfare.
“If you want to be a responsible farmer and recreational fisher then instead of just having one set of rules to understand, you have to make sure you understand the specific rules of your jurisdiction,” Paul says.
“As such, industries must review each of the welfare laws in each of the states and territories in which they operate to ensure compliance with all of them. Our project, and its summary of relevant laws, could help with this.”
The report found, that with one small exception, all eight Australian states and territories follow the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animal for Scientific Purposes where fish or cephalopods are used for teaching, research, or other scientific purposes.
Pictured is a diagram showing the hierarchy of Australian State and territory legislation in relation to animal welfare. Paul says the codes of practice are generally voluntary documents written for specific animal industries, which detail the forms of acceptable uses of animals.
Comparing Industry Standards
The project reviewed nearly 40 national and international standards, guidelines, and codes of practice that addressed aspects of aquatic animal welfare, with each being categorised and measured through a colour-coded system.
Large inconsistencies were identified around how aquatic animal welfare was addressed in these documents.
An example identified from the report was the sustainability certification programs in the Australian aquaculture sector. These programs ensure, amongst other things, that there are appropriate levels of oxygen in the water, as it is vital for producing and maintaining healthy fish. Although not written to address animal welfare - these sustainability standards help ensure better treatment and welfare of fish.
Paul says that it’s a positive sign to see industry addressing animal welfare even with its confusing nature.
“There is no consistent format or wording around how the industry should address aquatic animal welfare - which is not far from the current legislative situation.” Paul says.
Providing a guide
As part of the report, four case studies were produced outlining how various sectors and organisations could deal with animal welfare issues currently being faced.
One of the case studies focused on methods to improve understanding of welfare for recreational anglers. It found that further education into how to treat your fish with respect would be a good starting point.
“With the recreational sector, we can start by doing very simple things, such as developing educational packages with input from recreational fishing organisations, or QR codes on jetty signage showing best practices.” Paul says.
Certain FRDC-funded projects are already working towards this goal, with Tuna Champions communicating the best welfare practices for Southern Bluefin Tuna (such as proper cutting and slurrying techniques) to improve the overall quality and taste of the fish. Importantly, these practices are founded in research and provide advice regarding handling practices to optimise tuna welfare.
Ready, Set, Review!
Paul says that it’s time for the fishing and aquaculture sectors to review their internal practices, and ask the question - does it align with the current laws?
“There are indicators that public sentiment is beginning to be more influential in driving legislative change, such as Victoria’s plan for new animal care and protection law.” Paul says.
“No one is expecting massive changes overnight - but knowing that we continue to develop and improve aquatic animal welfare practices is key.”
The project was conducted by Panaquatic, with funding provided by FRDC.
The final report will be available soon.