In the time-honored tradition of EA organizations writing EA Forum updates, we wanted to share such an update on Fish Welfare Initiative (FWI), 2.5 years after launching.

FWI is a product of the Effective Altruism (EA) community: Our founders were inspired by EA ideas in their university groups, we were incubated by Charity Entrepreneurship, and most of our support since, financial and advisory, has come from people in the EA community. For these we are immensely grateful, and we thus want to update the community on the project your support has built and the impact it has enabled.

Below we walk through a fairly comprehensive overview of what Fish Welfare Initiative is doing, what we’ve accomplished, what’s holding us back, and what we’ve learned. As the post is fairly long, you may want to skim to the sections that most interest you.

We believe this post will be most useful to the following people:

  • Those interested in charity entrepreneurship, particularly in animal welfare or in lower and middle income countries
  • Those interested in keeping up to date with FWI
  • Those interested in seeing what sort of projects the EA community can create and enable

If you have feedback or questions about our work, please leave them below!

Note: This post does not discuss in detail the welfare issues associated with fish farming, nor does it discuss why we think this is a particularly important problem area. For more on these, see our initial Forum post and our India Scoping Report.

Summary

  • Fish Welfare Initiative launched in 2019, via the Charity Entrepreneurship Incubation Program. Our focus is improving the lives of farmed fish.
  • Our primary country of operation is India, with smaller projects in China, the Philippines, Portugal, and the UK.
  • In India, our current main program is working with farmers to implement welfare improvements. We are also conducting earlier stage corporate outreach and policy work.
  • We estimate we have improved the lives of 214,000 fish thus far.
  • Our key bottleneck right now is improving our welfare standard. Based on our water quality data collection, our current welfare standard does not seem sufficiently impactful to warrant scaling it up significantly. Improving our welfare standard, along with early stage corporate outreach and governmental work, is our primary focus for 2022.
  • The main ways you can support FWI are by advising us, connecting us with relevant people, and donating.

Current Status of FWI’s Work

In Brief

Work in India

Why India? The following are the reasons we believe that India is a particularly promising country for fish welfare work:

  • Scale: India has the second largest population of farmed fish in the world (after China).
  • Hireability: Compared to the other countries we visited, we found it easier to find talented hires in India (although this is still a bottleneck—see Key Bottlenecks below).
  • Animal movement presence: Though little work has been done for fish in India, India does have one of the most well-established animal protection movements in the world. This means there are many experienced people we can consult on our work.
  • English speaking: English is widespread.

Our work in India began in the fall of 2020, with the hiring of our Managing Director Karthik Pulugurtha.

FWI engages in three program areas in India. At this stage, all are somewhat exploratory, and we expect in the next few years to cut or change one or more of them as we learn which approaches are more promising:

1 - Transitioning supply (farmers)

We work with farmers to transition their farming practices to practices that are less harmful to the fish (as of this writing, we are working with 53 fish farm ponds). Thus far, we have focused on reducing stocking densities and improving water quality. Our farmer program in India is called the Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture (ARA), which was launched in June of 2021. Farmers are generally motivated to commit to the ARA because 1) our practices help limit disease and mortality, 2) our field staff are supportive and provide free-of-charge water quality monitoring, 3) the farmers may later be able to sell their fish at a price premium, and 4) the farmers take pride in doing the right thing.

We believe our farmer work is important because, as far as we are aware, there are currently no commercially-grown fish in India that are raised under higher welfare conditions. Note that this is one important distinction between our work and current cage-free work: In many places, in part due to the work of animal advocates, there are already cage-free eggs that corporations can begin procuring, but in India there is no verified higher welfare fish.

Our farmer work is also important because it gives us an avenue for testing and revising our welfare standard, before attempting to gain widespread corporate and governmental support for them. Developing an improved welfare standard is in fact our current main focus, as we are not sufficiently confident in the impact of our current ARA welfare standard to scale it up—for more on this, see Key Bottlenecks below.

2 - Transitioning demand (corporations)

We work with corporations to transition their purchasing to fish that are raised in higher welfare conditions. This area is at an earlier stage than our farmer work. Our main accomplishment here is securing a commitment from SAGE Organics, a small cafe chain in Hyderabad, India—learn more here. Though the scale of this commitment is small (affecting only a few hundred fish a year), we think the precedent here is significant. As of this writing, we have also met with 9 other corporations in India.

We believe our corporate work is important because it incentivizes farmers to transition their practices, and because it likely offers a more impactful scaling mechanism than working individually with farms (via the same corporate avenue that allows cage free campaigns for chickens to be so cost-effective).

Note that until we identify improved welfare standards, our corporate work is mostly focused on 1) understanding current corporate fish supply chains, 2) building positive relationships with fish-purchasing corporations, and 3) securing commitments with experimental corporate partners (such as smaller or environmentally-minded chains, as opposed to the chains with the greatest fish purchasing). At this stage, especially regarding point 3), we are optimizing more for exploring than exploiting in our corporate work. Request access to our 2022 corporate outreach strategy for more information.

3 - Creating policy incentives (government)

Our policy work is at an earlier stage still than our previous two programs. Thus far, our policy work has largely focused on building relationships: Largely through the generous support of our fellow animal advocacy organizations in India (shoutout to People for Animals and Mercy for Animals India), we’ve met with 18 Indian government officials, including those at the local, state, and central level. We believe these connections will prove critical for our future work.

Going forwards, we aim to formally partner with a governmental entity, for the purpose of 1) gaining greater credibility, and 2) increasing our capacity to scale up. We are currently in the final stages of finalizing a memorandum of understanding with a Central Government institute, and we hope to share a positive update on this in the coming weeks.

To learn more about our scaleup plans in India, see Our 2022 and Onwards Scaleup Plan

Work in China

FWI’s main activities in China have been:

Given that ICCAW works closely with the Chinese government, we think presenting at ICCAW’s conference will be a particularly promising development. The conference is currently scheduled for April.

Work in the Philippines

FWI’s main activities in the Philippines have been:

  • Completion of our Philippines Scoping Report.
  • Building connections, including having interviewed ~20 farmers and met with ~5 potentially aligned organizations.
  • Hosted 2 webinars on fish welfare in the Philippines (recording 1 and recording 2).

In both China and the Philippines, our projects have been much smaller than those in India, and we are currently working to identify what our longer term plans ought to be. See Key Bottlenecks below for more discussion of this process.

Other Projects

We have also conducted the following other projects:

Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (UK)

We worked with Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation (CAWF) to write a report on fish welfare in the United Kingdom. This report was then shared with CAWF’s patrons and other prominent figures in UK politics. Given what we heard from CAWF, we feel very positive about the report’s potential impact.

Welfare Improvements on a Farm/Research Facility (Portugal)

Our fish welfare specialist, Dr. Marco Cerqueira, consulted a farm in Portugal about how they could improve fish welfare. The facility accepted his recommendation, and is making improvements that we believe will improve the lives of tens of thousands of fish there each year. We were particularly interested in this project because 1) Marco had a prior connection there, 2) the facility is connected with the Portuguese government and may set a precedent, and 3) we see it as a way to test the model of welfare consultations on large farms.

Tilapia Welfare Improvements Consultation (Tanzania)

We provided welfare consulting to several individuals in Tanzania who were planning to begin farming fish and were interested in learning best practices for welfare. We plan to publish our report on this shortly.

Other Research Projects

We have completed a number of reports on fish welfare. For these, see Our Research.

Key Accomplishments

The following are what we believe to be the most significant accomplishments of FWI’s first 2.5 years of operation:

Numbers

We estimate that we have improved the lives of 214,000 fish (see Our Impact).

Connections

We have built relationships with numerous farmers, corporations, government officials, and animal advocacy NGOs in India (and to a lesser extent in the Philippines and China). We believe these relationships lay the foundation for our future work, as well as that of other NGOs interested in working with these stakeholders to improve fish welfare.

Movement Building in Asia

We built a team of 9 full-time equivalent people in India, as well as several contractors/interns in the Philippines and China. Most of these people had never worked in the animal movement before, and we now believe that all of them will be more likely to consider future work in the movement (after FWI) than they would have otherwise. One anecdote we’re particularly proud of is that of one of our interns, who after getting involved with FWI is planning to change her career to focus on animal welfare.

Precedent

We are one of the first organizations to work on farmed fish welfare, one of the first to take the approach of working with fish farmers directly (also see FAI Farms), and the first to secure a corporate commitment for fish in India.

Local Team

We hired a local team in India, led by our Managing Director Karthik Pulugurtha. Karthik brings previous experience of having worked at Humane Society International India.

Research Completed

We published a number of reports on fish welfare, particularly in countries (e.g. Vietnam) and with species (e.g. Catla) where little to no investigation of fish welfare had been done previously.

Key Bottlenecks

The following are what we believe to be the main bottlenecks holding us back:

Hiring

We often find it difficult to find sufficiently talented people for our work, particularly in the local regions we need to hire them in (e.g. it’s tricky to find many Telugu-speakers that fit our desired profiles).

Welfare Standard Development in India

After 6 months of working with farmers and collecting data, it appears that our welfare standards  are not as impactful as we intend (we plan to write about this more and publish our data in the future). Specifically, we are not currently seeing improvements in water quality that we believe would be sufficient to justify a mass scaleup of our welfare standard. 

To address this concern, our main priority for 2022 is improving our welfare standard. Specifically, we are planning to test lower stocking densities (lower than the ones we already have), pond preparation, feed management, and aeration. We expect that our improved welfare standard will be a combination of these, in addition to our current water quality standard.

Before attempting to scale to the level of millions of fishes, it’s important for us to get the initial model right.

Scaleup in India, China, and the Philippines

Even once we sufficiently resolve our welfare standard, we’re unsure the best way to scale up in India. Our best plan is a combination of corporate procurement commitments and governmental incentives, such as government insurance conditional on higher welfare practices, but many details here remain to be ironed out: For instance, what will be the price increase (if any) of higher welfare fish, and will corporations be willing to pass these costs on to their consumers? To what extent will we need to redirect supply chains? What are the human health benefits (if any) of higher welfare fish? Which governmental entity makes the most sense to partner with, and which sort of incentives should we aim for?

We are even less certain about if, and if so how to scale up in China and the Philippines, as we have comparatively less experience in those countries.

We are currently working to resolve these questions, and look forward to sharing what we discover.

Lessons Learned

It’s often better to explore by exploiting (as opposed to theoretical desk research).

We believe that we initially overvalued desk research and undervalued real world experience. For instance, initially we had a fairly discrete research process, where we aimed to answer the following 4 big prioritization questions separately via desk research:

  1. Which (fish) species should we work to help?
  2. Which country should we work in?
  3. Which welfare improvement(s) should we make?
  4. Which approach(es) should we take?

This process made sense to people sitting at a desk in London (as our cofounders Tom and Haven were), who lacked prior aquaculture experience (as Tom and Haven did). However, the reality is that, however hard we tried to answer these questions separately (for instance, see here, here, and here), these questions are all interlinked—you can’t, for instance, work on Atlantic salmon welfare in India because there are no Atlantic salmon farmed here. This is something we would have better internalized had we gone out into the field earlier (for instance to actually visit farms and talk with companies in the countries like India where we were interested in working). It’s not that these theoretical research projects were a waste of time: We still built important foundational knowledge in doing them. Rather, we believe that the decoupled manner we investigated them was suboptimal.

Particularly in an information-poor environment like fish welfare in Indian aquaculture, there are hard limits to what one can learn with desk research—figuring out how to really identify and implement welfare improvements requires local knowledge and staff, experience, and constant experimentation and revision. It involves getting your hands dirty and interacting with farmers and fish sellers in a way that is uncomfortable, but we believe necessary.

Retrospectively, instead of our long, step-by-step research process we believe we should have done something like the following in order to pick our intervention:

  • Research in tandem the most promising welfare improvements, countries, species, and approaches for fish welfare work. Estimated time: a couple months.
  • Identify the most promising few countries, in which the welfare improvements, species, and approaches also don’t seem to be limiting factors.
  • Conduct country scoping to understand the ground situation better and find promising relationships, especially hires. Estimated time: another couple months.
  • Hire someone local who’s aligned with the mission, and ask them to implement the broad project in the specific ways that they think most promising. On-the-ground reality will do a much better job of answering the prioritization questions than theoretical research.

In practice, we spent about a year trying to answer our prioritization questions separately, and largely doing it through desk research. Had we taken something more like the above approach, we believe we could have cut that down to roughly half the time

Now, one of our organizational mottos is “explore by exploiting”: We often think the best way to learn how to do something is just to try to do it. The true bottlenecks usually become clear in the attempt.

We were overconfident in how we communicated our welfare standard.

We believe that developing and implementing a welfare standard with a new fish species (as we have) is almost inherently a trial and error process. Our experience has borne that out: The initial welfare standard we rolled out has issues in both impact and implementation, issues that we are now addressing.

However, for the first few months of our Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture program (working with farmers), we were overconfident in how impactful our welfare standard was. Particularly, we believe we were mistaken in 1) not communicating to farmers that this is a trial and error process, and that we unfortunately don’t have everything resolved currently, and 2) internally planning that we would just be able to scale up our welfare standard immediately. In practice, we believe that our failure in #1 has led to a gap between farmer expectations and what our welfare improvements actually deliver (i.e. less water quality improvement than farmers would like).

We had unrealistic expectations for the standardization we could get farmers to adhere to.

In the first half of 2021, we attempted to run a pilot study to examine the impacts of our welfare improvements on the fish we were trying to help. A large part of the purpose was to also showcase the viability of our model to our Indian stakeholders (e.g. government officials), who usually prefer India-specific data.

However, in May we decided to end the study early (at that point we were just getting the initial farmers enrolled). We did this for two main reasons:

  • It proved impossible for farmers to uphold the standardization protocols we were asking of them (e.g. one farm frequently had water buffalo bathing in the fish pond, and in the village context there wasn’t an obvious way to stop this practice). We now believe the level of standardization we were asking for is generally naive in the Indian aquaculture context, but especially with farmers we had only just met.
  • Government officials and farmers seemed more keen on our project than we expected, so it seemed less necessary to create a proof of concept first (at least for signalling purposes).

The 5 months spent on this project were not completely wasted: We still learned a great deal about what it’s like to actually implement welfare improvements on the farm, and we built solid relationships with farmers who are now taking part in our Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture (the main difference from the pilot study being that there are far fewer conditions for farmers to participate in the ARA than there were for them to be in the pilot study).

For more, see our post Why We’re Ending Our Pilot Study Early.

Fish Welfare Initiative Itself as an Experiment

In several ways, FWI is representative of many new EA organizations:

  • Our intervention was chosen not through our founders’ closeness to the issues, but rather out of a systematic research process that sought to answer which new organizations could do the most good. Our country of implementation (India) was likewise chosen, though we also spent several months in India first.
  • Our founders were early career (in this case straight out of their undergrads), though driven and ethically committed.
  • We were incubated by Charity Entrepreneurship, an EA incubator.

Taking the broader view, we see FWI as one data point that speaks to the potential promise of organizations fitting such a profile. Our (biased) intuition is that FWI is a promising update of how such EA organizations really can have a significant impact, in particular by working on a problem and in an area that other organizations have been hesitant to address.

How You Can Help Us

  1. If you have knowledge or experience that could speak to any of our key bottlenecks above, reach out and advise us. To reiterate, our bottlenecks are hiring (particularly in lower and middle income countries), developing our fish welfare standard, and scaling up.
  2. If you know talented people in India, the Philippines, or China that you think we’re not already in touch with, connect us.
  3. If you see flaws in our thinking or planning, reach out or comment below. We always want to do better, and we have little doubt that in our next major retrospective post we will have several new lessons learned to share.
  4. Donate. We’re currently looking to fill a $350K funding gap for 2022.

Thank You

We’d like to conclude this lengthy post with a note of gratitude to everyone who made and continues to make this project possible. That includes our team, Charity Entrepreneurship, our donors (particularly the EA Animal Welfare Fund and all those who donate to it), our advisors, and our partner NGOs (particularly Mercy for Animals, Humane Society International India, and Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations).

And thank you, our fellow EA community member. The impacts Fish Welfare Initiative has created would not have happened if not for the community that you, in whatever way, have helped build.

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Haven (and FWI team), I wanted to publicly thank you for the great work you are doing, both directly and indirectly (including the continuous mentorship we at Shrimp Welfare Project kindly benefit from).  Keep up this level of transparency, it is invaluable for other EAA organizations working with aquatic animals in Asia and elsewhere. 

You're very kind Andres. We're very grateful for what SWP does as well!