By Bianca Nogrady
Scientists and fishers all agree it is important to minimise the stress of fish during fishing activities. This is humane and results in fish of superior eating quality.
Ensuring the most humane treatment possible has been the aim of a working group, which includes commercial and recreational fishers, vets and animal welfare supporters, which is studying the issue of animal welfare for fish.
“Our group believes welfare of fish is best served when we minimise the stress that fish go through from when they are captured until they die or are returned to the water,” says Brett McCallum, chair of the Aquatic Animals Working Group, which was established by the government as part of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).
The group recently delivered a report on animal welfare within the recreational fishing sector, which has taken a practical, evidence-based approach to minimising suffering – a term used in this context to mean stress – in recreationally caught fish.
An estimated 3.5 million Australians enjoy recreational fishing each year, catching more than 71 million finfish per year. It is as much a part of the Australian coastal lifestyle as prawns on the barbecue, beach cricket and sunburn.
While mammals and birds have long been the focus of animal welfare-protection efforts, fish are more challenging, says veterinarian Paul Hardy-Smith, also the report’s primary investigator.
“Most people do not empathise with fish as much as they do with mammals, and while recreational fishing is widely accepted by the community, welfare concerns are nonetheless starting to surface."
Paul Hardy-Smith suggests that this could be partly attributed to the popular 2003 animated film Finding Nemo, and its somewhat unscientific decision to give its fishy stars eyelids. “In part, by adding eyelids to fish, Finding Nemo got us to feel empathy for fish,” he says.
In response to these growing welfare concerns, and as part of the Australian Government’s AAWS initiative, the Aquatic Animals Working Group was convened. When the AAWS was disbanded, the members of the group agreed to continue on a voluntary basis to complete a series of projects funded through the FRDC.
In response to the growing interest in animal welfare, the Aquatic Animals Working Group took an inclusive and non-judgemental approach to the question of fish welfare that steered clear of the emotionally charged debate around whether fish feel pain. It has instead focused on how to treat the animals with respect, minimise unnecessary stress and maximise the outcome for the fisher.
They applied several guiding principles towards this aim:
“From an animal welfare perspective there is no downside to killing a fish quickly, in the sense that we know that when we kill the fish either by a spike to the head or a quick blow, the fish is no longer aware of anything,” Paul Hardy-Smith says.
While being in the fish’s best interest, this approach also benefits recreational fishers because it maximises the eating quality of the fish flesh. A fish that is left to slowly die in open air goes through physiological changes. As well as being distressing to the fish, this leads to the breakdown of cells, build-up of lactic acid and ultimately results in poorer-tasting meat.
“If you think about cattle, when a cow comes to the abattoir it is killed quickly to minimise stress on the animal, which therefore maximises its eating qualities. The same goes for fish,” Paul Hardy-Smith says.
Given the intense debates and campaigns around animal welfare in other arenas, such as cattle, there has been an undercurrent of concern in the recreational fishing community about people who do not have all the facts coming in and laying down the law around animal welfare, Brett McCallum says.
“The recreational sector has recognised that it has a responsibility to address animal welfare because there’s not always the perspective to maximise seafood quality when catching fish as there is in commercial fishing,” he says.
A specific FRDC project trialled the guiding principles within the popular fishing tournament system in eastern Australia and received a very positive response from the recreational fishing groups involved.
As part of the process, researchers evaluated practices from a welfare perspective at two major fishing events – the Tea Tree Snapper Competition and the Mulwala Classic – as well as onboard several charter boat operations on the Great Barrier Reef, in the Northern Territory, and in estuarine and offshore Victorian waters.
For example, when surveying the Tea Tree Snapper Competition, the report examined how competitors killed their fish and how quickly. Many competitors placed their fish directly into an ice slurry after capture, thinking this was an effective killing method.
Unfortunately, research conducted on other large, warm-water fish species suggests that immediate immersion in an ice slurry may prolong death
The survey also showed nine per cent of competitors kept the fish they caught alive in a ‘livewell’, tub or bucket, under conditions that often were not ideal.
“We realised the biggest problem a lot of the time was that the information wasn’t out there, although many fishers really want to do the right thing by the fish,” Paul Hardy-Smith says.
The initial survey of this competition was followed up by an educational campaign via presentations, mailouts, social media and online, which had a positive effect on the practices in the following year’s competition.
The number of people killing the fish humanely by a blow to the head or spiking increased from 34 per cent to 43 per cent. Fish were also being killed more quickly when using these methods. The number of fish killed within a minute of capture increased from 25 per cent to 36 per cent.
“Giving them the tools didn’t detract from their love of fishing but heightened it and improved their eating experience,” Paul Hardy-Smith says.
The Mulawa Classic cod competition presented a slightly different challenge as the fish are generally brought live to the weigh-in and then released.
While most were kept in water until weighing, some were kept in nets or wrapped in wet towels or hessian sacks. In some cases they had been kept in the net for as long as 10 minutes.
Here, the aim was to educate fishers on the impact of air exposure on fish and to explore the possibility of equipping competitors with more appropriate storage options for live fish.
The group also observed that some European carp were being caught during the competition. Being considered pests, these fish were not returned to the water but, in several instances, were not killed quickly either. There was an opportunity to encourage humane killing of these fish, rather than leaving them to die slowly.
The recreational fishing sector is one of several aquatic-based sectors being explored from an animal welfare perspective as part of the Aquatic Animals Welfare Group initiative; others include commercial capture, and restaurants or retail outlets holding live fish and shellfish in aquariums.
The initiative is also looking to develop specific education materials about humane methods of killing live fish, such as spiking the brain.
“We’re trying to develop the best practices being used in industry, and get those as common practice across the rest of the aquatic sectors,” Brett McCallum says. “For fish being killed to eat, maximising quality of product is maximising animal welfare.”
The technique used to kill a fish quickly with a firm knock to the head or by spiking the brain is called iki jime, pronounced ‘i-ki ji-mi’. The Australian National Code of Practice for Recreational and Sport Fishing endorses these techniques.
The iki jime website provides details on ways to improve the handling of fish. It provides links to several smartphone apps that provide access to a database that identifies where the brain is located in many fish species, to help fishers kill their catch more quickly and humanely.
FRDC Research Code: 2012/508
Dr Paul Hardy-Smith, 0404 121 996
Brett McCallum, 0417 908 089