Raising attention for target species in wild capture fisheries

The five millions tonnes of fish caught in EU fisheries every year equates to around 50 billion animals. The same weight again is caught of shellfish and other aquatic animals. Plus imports, consumption in the EU approaches doubling that number again. Without any objectives on animal welfare in EU fishery policy, and without initiative by the sector or certifiers, the capture and death of these animals is typically a long and horrific experience.

Unlike farmed fish, wild fish enjoy a near-natural life. However, for wild-caught fish, the end of each life is commonly exceptionally stressful due to practices that would not be allowed in any kind of terrestrial animal production.

During the capture process, fish are often chased to exhaustion, crushed, asphyxiated, injured due to interaction with fishing gear, eaten by predators while trapped, or subject to decompression injuries as they are brought to the surface. If they survive the capture process, they often die of asphyxia due to air exposure, or are killed without pre-slaughter stunning. By-catch (e.g. non-target species that are inadvertently caught) that are thrown back into the sea often have little chance of survival.

In addition to the capture experience, the environmental conditions and fishery management regimes are serious welfare as well as environmental problems. Overfishing of target species remains common in Europe and globally, threatening the future of whole populations of fish and the delicate balance in aquatic ecosystems. Non-target, by-catch animals are often killed, injured or highly stressed during capture, and the survival rates for those thrown back to the water can be low.

fish manipulation

With more attention on welfare aspects of commercial fishing, better practices can be introduced and enforced, and the gap can be closed between the welfare experience of fish, consumer expectations, and the development and application of higher welfare practices.


wild fish are caught globally every year, far outnumbering any animal farmed for food


European citizens recognise that the fish pain ‘debate’ is well and truly over, and that fish are sentient animals with both positive and negative emotions, and with complex social and behavioural needs. This is clear in surveys, and in responses to media coverage and public campaigns. 

In our own survey of 1,000 citizens in each of 9 EU countries, the answers on the above were very clear and strong. It showed that people want fish to have the same level of welfare protections as other animals that we eat. Additionally, it revealed that ‘welfare’ guarantees are an effective proxy for many product attributes that consumers are searching for - including product quality and environmental impact.

Of huge relevance for policymakers and the saturated market of ‘sustainable farmed fish’ labels, that are supposed to inform and reassure consumers, is that citizens expect that a ‘sustainable’ fish must have had high welfare. In fact EU regulations and most of these sustainability labels contain no specific requirements for fish welfare.


There is a complete absence of requirements, objectives or initiatives on fish welfare in wild capture fisheries at EU level. This is despite article 13 of the EU’s foundational Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union requiring that EU fishery policy pay full regard to animal welfare.

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is focussed on the maximal extraction of fish as resources. It contains important objectives on the sustainability of fishing activities including maintaining the size of fish populations, and on prohibiting the discarding of dead fish. However, every year unsustainable fishing quotas are set, and rules are poorly observed and implemented.

Few policies anywhere address fish welfare in wild capture fisheries. Stunning at slaughter is required for wild caught eel in the Netherlands, and in New Zealand for aquatic animals caught and held alive for later slaughter.