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

During the capture process, target species 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. 

In addition to the capture experience, practices in and management of fisheries cause serious welfare and environmental problems. Overfishing of target species remains common in Europe and globally, threatening the future of whole populations of animals 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. The gap can be closed between the welfare experience of target species, 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. Fish are sentient animals with both positive and negative emotions, and with complex social and behavioural needs. This is clear in surveys, 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 clearly 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 sustainability labels contain no specific requirements for the welfare of target species in wild capture fisheries.


There is a complete absence of requirements, objectives or initiatives on aquatic animal 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 (CFP) is focussed on the maximal extraction of animals as resources. It contains important objectives on the sustainability of fishing activities including maintaining the size of  populations, and on prohibiting the discarding of dead animals. However, every year unsustainable fishing quotas are set, and rules are poorly observed and implemented. Both the European Parliament and the European Council’s Presidency conclusions have called for the inclusion of animal welfare in the CFP.

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.