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3.4 Animal Welfare Issues

4 months ago

10 min read

3.4.1 Introduction

During the last decade, fish welfare has attracted a lot of attention, and this has led to the aquaculture industry incorporating a number of husbandry practices and technologies specifically developed to improve this aspect. The neocortex, which in humans is an important part of the neural mechanism that generates the subjective experience of suffering, is lacking in fish and non-mammalian animals, and it has been argued that its absence in fish indicates that fish cannot suffer. A strong alternative view, however, is that complex animals with sophisticated behaviours, such as fish, probably have the capacity for suffering, though this may be different in degree and kind from the human experience of this state (Huntingford et al. 2006).

The UK government's Farm and Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) has based their guidelines on the 'Five Freedoms' framework, which defines ideal states rather than specific levels of acceptable welfare (FAWC 2014). Freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress, as well as the freedom to express normal behaviour, provides us with a defined framework with which to assess welfare issues. Physical health is the most universally accepted measure of welfare and is undoubtedly a necessary requirement for good welfare. In a competitive, expanding and emerging industry, aquaculturists who incorporate welfare considerations into their daily husbandry practices can gain a competitive advantage and added price premium (Olesen et al. 2010) through improved consumer perception and confidence in their products. Grimsrud et al. (2013) provided evidence that there is a high willingness to pay, among all Norwegian households, to improve the welfare of farmed Atlantic salmon through increased resistance to diseases and salmon lice, which may imply less use of medicines and chemicals in the production process.

In intensive RAS, animal welfare is tightly connected to the performance of the systems. Over the past few years, animal welfare in the RAS has been mostly studied from the perspective of water quality and fish crowding effects on growth performance, stress bioindicators or the development of health disorders. The main goal of animal welfare research in the RAS has been to build and operate systems that maximize productivity and minimize stress and mortalities. Topics of interest have been stocking density limits (Calabrese et al. 2017), concentration limits of nitrogenous compounds in the rearing water (Davidson et al. 2014), concentration limits for dissolved carbon dioxide (Good et al. 2018), the effects of ozonation (Good et al. 2011; Reiser et al. 2011) and to a lesser extent, the accumulation of recalcitrant compounds in the RAS (van Rijn and Nussinovitch 1997) with limited water exchanges and noise (Martins et al. 2012; Davidson et al. 2017).


Fig. 3.6 Physical, chemical and other perceived stressors can affect fish and cause primary, secondary and/or whole-body responses. (After Barton 2002)

3.4.2 Stress

The stress response in fish is an adaptive function in the face of a perceived threat to homeostasis and stress physiology does not necessarily equate to suffering and diminished welfare (Ashley 2007) (Fig. 3.6). Stress responses serve a very important function to preserve the individual. Welfare measures in aquaculture are, therefore, largely associated with the tertiary effects of stress response that are generally indicative of prolonged, repeated or unavoidable stress (Conte 2004).

Stocking density is a pivotal factor affecting fish welfare in the aquaculture industry, especially RAS where high densities in confined environments are aimed at high productivity. Although rarely defined, stocking density is the term normally used to refer to the weight of fish per unit volume or per unit volume in unit time of water flow through the holding environment (Ellis et al. 2001). The concept of minimum space for a fish is more complex than for terrestrial species as fish utilize a three-dimensional medium (Conte 2004).

Beyond providing for the physiological needs, the FAWC (2014) recommends that fish 'need sufficient space to show most normal behaviour with minimal pain, stress and fear'. Stocking density is, therefore, an area that illustrates both the significance of species differences and the existence of a complex web of interacting factors that affect fish welfare. Calabrese et al. (2017) have researched stocking density limits for post-smolt Atlantic salmon (Salmosalar L.) with emphasis on production performance and welfare wherein fin damage and cataracts were observed in stocking densities of 100 kg msup-3/sup and above. However, the effect of stocking density on measures of welfare varies between species. For instance, sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) showed higher stress levels at high densities, as indicated by cortisol, innate immune response and expression of stress-related genes (Vazzana et al. 2002; Gornati et al. 2004). High stocking densities in juvenile gilthead sea bream (S. aurata) also produce a chronic stress situation, reflected by high cortisol levels, immunosuppression and altered metabolism (Montero et al. 1999). In contrast, Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus) feed and grow well when stocked at high densities while showing a depressed food intake and growth rates at low densities (Jorgensen et al. 1993).

Diet may also play an important role in stress sensitivity. African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) receiving a diet with a high supplementation of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) during early development showed a lower stress sensitivity (Merchie et al. 1997). On the other hand, common carp (Cyprinus carpio), fed large doses of vitamin C, showed a more pronounced cortisol (a steroid hormone released with stress) increase in response to stress when compared to fish fed recommended levels of the vitamin (Dabrowska et al. 1991). Tort et al. (2004) have shown that a modified diet providing a supplementary dosage of vitamins and trace minerals to assist the immune system may help to co-reduce some of the effects of winter disease syndrome. Other common aquaculture diseases regarding animal welfare and stress are reviewed in Ashley (2007).

3.4.3 Accumulation of Substances in the Process Water

Intensive and 'zero-discharge' RAS offer significant environmental advantages. However, culturing of fish in continuously recycled water raises the question of whether substances released by the fish into the water may accumulate, resulting in decreased growth rates and impaired welfare. The existence of growth retardation in Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) by comparing the growth, feeding behaviour and stress response of fish cultured in the RAS with different levels of substances accumulated (TAN, NOsub2/sub-N and NOsub3/sub-N, orthophosphate-P) was investigated by Martins et al. (2010a). Results showed that the large individuals had a trend towards growth retardation in the highest accumulation RAS while small individuals, on the contrary, seem to grow better in such systems based on high levels of blood glucose as a stress indicator. A similar study done by the same author on carp embryos and larvae (Martins et al. 2011) found results that suggest that the concentration of substances (orthophosphate-P, nitrate, arsenic and copper) were likely to affect the development. Despite these findings, the authors claim that overall, the percentage of mortalities and deformities recorded in the study were relatively low compared to other studies. In both studies, the authors used systems with very limited water exchange rates with the aid of denitrification reactors (30 litres of new water per Kg of feed per day). Similarly the accumulation of hormones in coldwater salmonid RAS has been studied by Good et al. 2014, 2017). Their research in 2014 found neither a relationship between water exchange rate and hormone accumulation (except for testosterone) nor a link between hormone accumulation and precocious maturation in Atlantic salmon, but further study was suggested. Their study in 2017 focused on the use of ozonation for the reduction of hormones in the same RAS, with inconclusive results regarding the steroid hormone accumulation, but with a positive reduction of oestradiol by ozone.

On the other hand, the accumulation of humic substances in 'zero exchange' RAS has shown to have a protective effect against bacterial infections (Yamin et al. 2017a) and ectoparasites (Yamin et al. 2017b). Humic acids have also been shown to reduce ammonia and nitrite toxicity (Meinelt et al. 2010). This has implications for RAS operated with ozonation, as ozone may improve water quality while sacrificing the apparently beneficial effects of humic substances.

3.4.4 Health and Behaviour

The fundamental characteristics of good welfare are good health and absence of disease and, with respect to aquaculture, good productivity (Turnbull and Kadri 2007; Volpato et al. 2007). While the physical health of an animal is fundamental for good welfare (Ashley 2007; Duncan 2005), the fact that an animal is healthy does not necessarily mean that its welfare status is adequate. Thus, welfare is a broader and more overarching concept than the concept of health. Physiological and behavioural measures are intrinsically linked and are dependent on one another for a correct interpretation with regard to welfare (Dawkins 1998).

The behaviour of animals and in our case fish, represents a reaction to the environment as fish perceive it and behaviour is therefore a key element of fish welfare. Changes in foraging behaviour, gill ventilation activity, aggression, individual and group swimming behaviour, stereotypic and abnormal behaviours have been linked with acute and chronic stressors in aquaculture and can therefore be regarded as likely indicators of poor welfare (Martins et al. 2011). Behavioural welfare indicators have the advantage of being fast and easy to observe and therefore are good candidates for use 'on-farm'. Examples of behaviour that are commonly used as an indicators of welfare are changes in food-anticipatory behaviour, feed intake, swimming activity and ventilation rates (Huntingford et al. 2006). However, Barreto and Volpato (2004) caution the use of ventilation frequency as an indicator of stress in fish because although ventilation frequency is a very sensitivity response to disturbance, it is of limited use because it does not reflect the severity of the stimulus.

3.4.5 Noise

Farmed fish are cultured over long periods of time in the same tanks of the same colour(s) and the same shape and exposed to the same, potentially harmful, background noises (Martins et al. 2012). Intensive aquaculture systems and particularly recirculating systems utilize equipment such as aerators, air and water pumps, blowers and filtration systems that inadvertently increase noise levels in fish culture tanks. Sound levels and frequencies measured within intensive aquaculture systems are within the range of fish hearing, but species-specific effects of aquaculture production noise are not well defined (Davidson et al. 2009).

Bart et al. (2001) found that mean broadband sound pressure levels (SPL) differed across various intensive aquaculture systems. In his study, a sound level of 135 dB re 1μPa was measured in an earthen pond near an operating aerator, whereas large fiberglass tanks (14 m diameter) within a recirculating system had the highest SPLs of 153 dB re 1μPa.

Field and laboratory studies have shown that fish behaviour and physiology can be negatively impacted by intense sound. Terhune et al. (1990) have observed decreased growth and smoltification rates of Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, in fiberglass tanks that had underwater sound levels 2—10 dB re 1μPa higher at 100—500 Hz than in concrete tanks. Therefore, chronic exposure to aquaculture production noise could cause increased stress, reduced growth rates and feed conversion efficiency and decreased survival. However, Davidson et al. (2009) found that after 5 months of noise exposure, no significant differences were identified between treatments for mean weight, length, specific growth rates, condition factor, feed conversion or survival of rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss. Similar findings are described by Wvysocki et al. (2007). However, these findings should not be generalized across all cultured fish species, because many species, including catfish and cyprinids, have much greater hearing sensitivity than rainbow trout and could be affected differently by noise. For instance, Papoutsoglou et al. (2008) provided initial evidence that music transmission under specific rearing conditions could have enhancing effects on S. aurata growth performance, at least at specific fish sizes. Moreover, the observed music effects on several aspects of fish physiology (e.g. digestive enzymes, fatty acid composition and brain neurotransmitters) imply that certain music could possibly provide even further enhancement in growth, quality, welfare and production.