June 8th was World Oceans Day, a great opportunity to raise awareness of the impact we can have on the oceans which make up 70% of our planet and produce at least 50% of Earth’s oxygen. This was also a chance to think more about welfare for animals that live in our seas.
The UK is one of the best countries for protecting animal wellbeing, and as a lifelong campaigner for animal welfare – and vegetarian for over 20 years – I fully endorse the great strides we have taken as a nation to protect the creatures we share our world with.
Unfortunately, fish have often been neglected by much of the advancement we have made in animal welfare standards. Today, the UK farms an estimated 28 to 77 million fish, and catches a further 1.5 to 2.7 billion each year but there is very little regulation on the treatment of these animals. Scientists first found evidence for fish sentience over two decades ago and 76% of people in the UK believe that the welfare of fish should be safeguarded to the same extent as other animals farmed for food.
There are a number of effective ways to help improve fish welfare, and now the UK has left the EU we are presented with a unique and historic opportunity to level up our animal welfare provisions and shine the light for the rest of the world.
One vital element would be something as simple and effective as mandatory labelling. This would enable the consumer to make an informed decision and reward morally-aligned producers with higher sales.
Effective mandatory labelling should also take the form of accurately reflecting what labels truly mean for fish welfare, including terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’. In a British 2018 study, 48% of respondents thought that the label ‘sustainable’ means that fish are able to express their natural behaviour when in captivity, 55% thought that ‘sustainable’ indicated bycatch, and 35% believed that fish are killed quickly and painlessly. None of these assumptions are reality.
It is vital therefore, that consumers are clear as to what the labelling actually means, which will allow them to make a more informed choice. 80% of UK consumers have expressed a preference for methods of production to be clearly labelled on animal products, this is information the British people want to see.
Through mandatory labelling with standardised terms, and by ensuring that the public awareness of what these terms mean is raised, we can help to improve animal welfare in the oceans.
These moves do not need to hinder the hardworking men and women of the fishing industry either, post-Brexit we have a great opportunity to support these communities and we must do so. Mandatory labelling may actually bring them increased profits, as we saw when the same rules for eggs caused a doubling of free range egg sales. Further, as we know this is a nation of animal lovers, and the vast majority want to see increased welfare standards for fish, therefore through mandatory labelling we could expect to see sales increase as the morally minded consumer choses to purchase humanely sourced fish.
Additionally, increased standards need not impact our international competitiveness. A significant amount of the European fishing industry depends on UK waters, and the UK government could impose welfare standards that affects all vessels in the UK exclusive economic zone. If EU vessels failed to comply, they would be restricted from fishing in our waters and from there, local domestic producers would have greater opportunities to fish.
The moral case for improving animal welfare for fish and marine life is substantial, and through simple steps like mandatory labelling the UK could ensure that consumers are well informed and happy, producers are protected and enhanced, all whilst we continue to be a world leader in animal welfare.