Campaigners and the farmed fish sector have agreed on the need for tighter legislation on humane fish slaughter, following a parliamentary meeting this week.
Proposals for farmed fish to have the same legal protections at the time of slaughter as other land farmed animals were met with a “high degree of consensus” as there was currently a “legislative anomaly”, said chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for animal welfare, Lord Alexander Trees.
The proposals came from the House of Lords Animal Welfare Committee, which recommended that legislation should extend to mandatory inspections. It also suggested the use of CCTV monitoring, enforcement powers and penalties, plus regular reviews and updates of voluntary code standards.
Lord Trees said many aquaculture businesses were “operating to very high standards with the voluntary application of CCTV, stunning and so on”. However, “there is no actual legal underpinning of some of those critical requirements”.
“It does seem to most of us that we should now close the gap, put legislation in place to make some basic requirements for the welfare of fish at slaughter that are equivalent to terrestrial animals, particularly in light of the Animal Sentience Bill and the widespread recognition that fish are sentient beings,” he added.
Farmed fish currently have legal protection under a number of acts, said Edie Bowles, MD of Advocates for Animals. However, there was confusion about what the law required and inconsistencies in how it is applied, resulting in “widespread illegalities”.
She called for more species-specific requirements and guidelines as terrestrial animals have in law, adding “there is no legal or moral justification for this difference in treatment, nor is there a logical one”.
This was echoed by other campaigners, as was the need for legislation to act as a benchmark, rather than the responsibility falling on assurance schemes such as those run by the RSPCA or the Soil Association.
Asks highlighted by the AWC are already included in the RSPCA’s scheme. However, Sean Black, senior scientific advisor (aquaculture) at the RSPCA, said without legislation farms can drop off certification schemes leaving millions of animals without protection.
He added that legislation would provide assurance that fish were being well treated and highlighted that it was a significant industry with potential for further growth so it was crucial to bring in legislation sooner rather than later.
“It shouldn’t be left that the second most commonly farmed animal in the UK [salmon] has no detailed legal protections, neither do trout and neither do cleaner fish,” he said. “These animals should all be covered by legislation and not just left up to welfare standards”.
Salmon Scotland, which was not present for the event but shared a statement, said it took welfare seriously and acknowledged the lack of legislation in this area. It added it would support with the development of legislation as and when it was established in the future.
The industry body, which represents 100% of salmon producers in Scotland said that as legislation was likely to take a while to come into force it would continue to work with stakeholders to “enhance what we believe to be an already strong voluntary guidance”.
Lord Trees concluded the session saying there was “a lacuna [gap] that we should, to be consistent, close, but like much legislation there is a great danger in unintended consequences or things certainly not working the way you would like them”.
Concerns raised at the meeting included the impact on smaller businesses should legislation be brought in requiring a certain standard of equipment used, the risk that being too prescriptive would open the door to lower standard imports and the need for proper enforcement.
“We really need to spend more money and attention enforcing the rules we have got even, before we start introducing yet more legislation because that is the way we really drive up standards and drive up improved welfare for animals,” he said.
The government now has time to respond and the committee will share a letter showing the consensus reached by the group.