How are fish exported

Fish in aquaculture

Fish enjoy less compassion in most people than mammals or birds. They appear strange to us, they live under water in a space hostile to human life, they are, unlike mammals, cold-blooded, their facial expressions do not show any facial expressions and they are considered numb. But this impression is wrong. Scientifically speaking, fish are not inferior to land-dwelling vertebrates in many respects. They can learn, they memorize painful experiences and try to avoid them, and they develop different strategies based on success in order to get food. Their social behavior is complex and they perceive discomfort and pain, fear and stress just as much as other living beings that humans regard as "higher". These are all reasons enough to critically question their living conditions in the various forms of fish farming ("aquaculture").

Aquaculture - what is it?

The term »aquaculture« encompasses all forms of controlled rearing of aquatic organisms beyond their natural ecological capacities - in a clear differentiation from catch fishing. According to the definition of the “Food and Agriculture Organization” (FAO) of the United Nations, “Raising” means that the growth process of a species is intervened by measures such as stocking, feeding or deterring predators with the aim of increasing production. Aquaculture includes, for example, trout production, salmon farming in net cages, carp pond management, crayfish production in ponds, oyster production on table cultures, circular aquaculture or algae production.

The procedure in the aquaculture of fish is very different depending on the region, culture and technical effort. There are aquacultures in the form of simple water-filled pits in the ground, artificially created ponds, pools with water flowing through them, net enclosures in natural bodies of water up to high-tech partial circulation systems. In general, it can be observed that the greater the investment and technical effort required to operate an aquaculture facility, the greater the economic pressure to operate it with as much profit as possible. And the more profitable an animal husbandry is operated, the more likely the protection and well-being of the animals kept are subordinated to the pursuit of the highest possible yields. This general principle of industrial intensive animal husbandry can also be found in the expansion of aquaculture of fish and marine animals around the world.

Aquaculture is gaining in importance

All over the world, more and more fish are being bred on commercial fish farms ("aquacultures") in ponds, breeding tanks and net cages. This includes freshwater fish such as carp, trout, cichlids (tilapia) or catfish (Pangasius, Clarias) as well as marine fish such as salmon, sea bream, sea bass and tuna. The production of food of animal origin in aquaculture is now growing faster than the intensive industrial farming of land animals. In the years 2011 to 2018 alone, the amount of fish, crustaceans and molluscs bred in aquaculture increased by 85% from 61.8 million tons to 114.5 million tons. The number of wild-fished aquatic species has remained fairly stable between 86 million tonnes and 93 million tonnes since the late 1980s, but peaked at 96.4 million tonnes in 2018.More than a third of the world's fish stocks are now critically overfished. If you consider that around 8% of wild-caught fish are not even used for human consumption, more fish, crustaceans and molluscs from aquaculture are now consumed than from wild-caught animals. In its 2018 Status Report on the Global Development of Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA 2018), the FAO assumes that this development will continue unabated.

China has held the largest share of fish farming in aquaculture worldwide since 1991: year after year, more fish are reared in aquaculture in China alone than in all other countries on earth combined. Other important producer countries are India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt and Norway. South America and Asia - above all China - are considered net exporters of fish. North America and Europe, on the other hand, import the majority of the fish consumed there. Only 3.7% of the world's aquaculture production is produced in Europe, but with a trade value of just over 60 billion US $, most of the world's fish products are imported.

Aquaculture in the EU and in Germany

In the EU, less than a fifth of the total fishing yield comes from aquaculture - in 2016 around 1.29 million tonnes of "live weight" of marine animals. With a combined share of over half of EU-wide aquaculture production, Spain (314,957 t), France (188,622 t) and Italy (142,726 t) are the three largest breeding nations in the EU. A particular problem within the EU is that the animal welfare requirements for aquaculture farms are not uniformly regulated in the EU member states and are very different. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, there are clear legal requirements for an effective stunning of fish before slaughter, whereas in most aquaculture operations in the Mediterranean countries it is still customary to have the fish caught on ice asphyxiated without being stunned.

In 2016, around 18,500 t of fish were raised in aquaculture across Germany - i.e. in specially designed ponds, in cold and warm water systems and in net cages. The most important fish species bred in this way are the rainbow trout (6,200 t) as well as the salmon trout and the Alsatian char (1,600 t each). For comparison: In the same period, around 2,619 t of different fish were caught through commercial fishing in natural lakes and rivers, while angling at least 18,200 t, according to the Institute for Inland Fisheries, probably even more.

In contrast to the worldwide increase in aquaculture with annual growth rates of up to 8%, there is only a small expansion of fish farming in aquaculture in Germany. Around four out of five fish consumed in this country come from abroad. The reasons for this are the low prices of imported aquaculture products and the high regulatory requirements for aquaculture facilities in Germany compared with other countries. In this country you can find traditional carp ponds, trout pools with river or spring water flowing through them, as well as some technical aquaculture systems that work independently of the availability and quality of surface water. There is even a land-based seawater recirculation system in operation in Saarland.

Water quality: a crucial aspect of animal welfare

Even if parallels to industrial intensive animal husbandry emerge: With fish in aquaculture, the most burning animal welfare problem is not excessively high stocking densities, but rather ensuring that the water quality is good at all times. Fish need clean water to breathe, move and reproduce, eat food and get rid of metabolic waste products; they perceive their surroundings through the water and they orientate themselves in it.

A central requirement for improved animal welfare in aquaculture is to ensure that the water quality is sufficiently good at all times. Species-specific requirements of the different cultivated fish species must be adequately taken into account.

Poor water quality hinders gas exchange during breathing. Cloudy substances can irritate the gills and make them more susceptible to pathogens. Dissolved pollutants in the water also affect the skin of the fish, so that their resistance to pathogens and parasites is reduced. Water that is too warm or too cold, incorrect pH or insufficient salt content also affects the health and welfare of fish. Even stress can be transferred from one fish to another through dissolved stress hormones through the water - even between different species.

Depending on the species and stage of life, fish can often compensate for smaller, unfavorable changes in the various water parameters for a longer period of time. Compensation, however, costs energy and can even lead to the cold-blooded water dwellers that they stop growing. This is not a desirable condition in commercial fish farming and is therefore avoided as far as possible. But because the various water parameters influence each other, critical changes can occur relatively unpredictably and lead to suffering and damage - up to and including the death of the fish population.

How quickly the water quality of a fish culture can turn into critical values ​​depends in turn on the stocking density and the degree of water exchange or water treatment. The more fish are kept per cubic meter of water, the faster the water has to be exchanged or cleaned again through biological treatment. In near-natural extensive aquacultures, such as carp ponds, water purification takes place exclusively through microorganisms and plants in the pond ecosystem. In more intensive aquacultures, for example trout breeding in flow-through basins, fresh stream or spring water must be constantly supplied. When rearing salmon in marine net cages, the exchange of water through the ocean currents is crucial for the water quality. In closed systems, so-called circulation systems, attempts are made to maintain the water quality with the help of high-tech measurement, control, ventilation and treatment technology.

Aquaculture can only be regarded as appropriate to animal welfare in terms of water quality if it effectively avoids suffering and damage that can occur due to critical changes in water quality due to the stocking density, natural external influences or technical defects in the system.