At Anima International, we recently decided to suspend our campaign against live fish sales in Poland indefinitely. After a few years of running the campaign, we are now concerned about the effects of our efforts, specifically the possibility of a net negative result for the lives of animals. We believe that by writing about it openly we can help foster a culture of intellectual honesty, information sharing and accountability. Ideally, our case can serve as a good example on reflecting on potential unintended consequences of advocacy interventions.
Some post-communist countries of Eastern Europe have a tradition of buying live carp in shops and slaughtering them at homes for Christmas Eve.
Poland is a major importer and producer of carps, with 90% of domestic production consumed during the Christmas season.
Many groups, including Anima International, oppose and target the practice because of its incredible cruelty, as well as significant public sentiment against it.
Due to successful efforts of animal advocacy groups important victories were achieved, including major retailers withdrawing from selling live fish.
A consumer trend to move away from carp to higher-status fish, like salmon, is observed.
Anima International became increasingly worried that any effort to displace carp consumption may lead to increased animal suffering due to salmon farming requiring fish feed.
We ran polls and created a rough model to check these assumptions and then considered how our strategy should look like.
After careful considerations of a number of factors, including effectiveness estimates, we decided to disband our team focused on the campaign and invest the resources elsewhere.
Carp in post-communist countries
Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) is a domesticated freshwater fish. It’s the third largest fish farmed in the world’s aquaculture production. Poland is the European Union’s largest producer and top importer.
What is especially bizarre about Poland and other similar countries in Central and Eastern Europe is the relatively recent custom of buying live carps during the Christmas period. The tradition developed around 70 years ago due to a combination of factors:
- post-war reality – destruction of fishing fleets made carp farming a desirable investment;
- religion – in Christianity fish is not considered meat and is thus allowed during periods of fasting;
- communism – there was a special government-established “fish allowance” under which people received live fish (refrigerators were uncommon) from their employers as Christmas bonuses.
Due to this strong tradition 90% of Polish domestic production is sold around Christmas and ~25% of the population reports buying the carp alive. There is an intense public debate around this subject in Poland at this time of year.
Suffering of carps in Poland
Carp farming and the industry
Carps are farmed in small ponds. As omnivores, they feed on small invertebrates and later transition to special grain-based feed. There are 3,000 farms in Poland with an additional 1,000 businesses engaged in carp aquaculture. According to 2020 reports, Polish carp aquaculture was the biggest in the European Union, making up 36% of freshwater fish production in Poland.
While the Polish carp industry seems to be gaining momentum in Europe, it appears that popular demand and changing trends in consumption may be leading to stagnation. As economic models emerge, they point to aesthetics and the difficulty of preparation rather than price driving the stagnation, especially among young adults. From our anecdotal experience, this seems intuitive, as carp hasn’t been marketed well by the industry. We have seen experts pushing the industry to market carp better to fit the new trends.
Number of animals
It’s worth mentioning here that fish numbers are reported in tonnes, so we can only use rough estimates. FAO FishStatJ Database states that 23,020,000 kg of carp were produced in aquaculture in Poland in 2019.
While we know the volume of carp production, it’s not easy to obtain reliable data on live carps sold each year. The best estimates that we currently use come from the Polish Association of Fish Processors. They estimate that approximately 4,000,000 kg of live carps are sold each year in the country.
The average carp sold in markets and shops is 3 years old and weighs between 1.2 kg to 2.5 kg. For simplicity’s sake, we assume that on average a carp weighs 2 kg when sold. This translates to around 2 million live carps sold each year in Poland. While it’s an enormous number of individual animals, it’s relatively low in comparison to animals like broilers, of which around 1 billion are killed in Poland every year.
Animal mortality rate
It’s worth noting that factory farming optimizes output per resource used. While it may seem counterintuitive that farmers would be fine with high mortality rates, in principle what matters is not how many animals die, but how much profit is gained. As a consequence, for each animal killed and delivered as the final product we have to consider how many more of them die in the process.
According to Animal Charity Evaluators’ report appendix (table 4) the combined survival rate in farmed common carp equals approximately 20.6%. Therefore, we estimate that approximately one in five carp survives until slaughter.
Live carp sales
Carps are transported in very poor conditions resulting from the disregard of any welfare concerns and the fish being ill-adapted to endure such treatment. At first, they are taken out of ponds, moved to special tanks, deprived of food and prepared to be transported alive. Then the fish are loaded onto trucks and shipped to retailers. They are often transported without water and in overcrowded conditions. This level of negligence induces high levels of stress, resulting in serious injury or death.
Treatment by vendors
Carps are usually held in overcrowded water containers, often in dirty, bloodied and inadequately oxygenated water. Shops and staff engage in the sale of live animals only over a few weeks of the year and are therefore not experienced in handling these animals, especially when it comes to slaughter.
Footage of the conditions in shops is very graphic and generates a lot of attention in the media.
Treatment by consumers
People usually take the fish home in a container or plastic bag filled with water. Sadly, sometimes carps are transported in bags or containers without water, which under Polish law should be considered animal cruelty and thus illegal. Carps are then kept until Christmas Eve, when they are killed. Needless to say, most people are untrained in killing animals, which frequently results in an unnecessarily painful death, usually without any kind of stunning. Polish law states that it’s illegal for an untrained individual to kill an animal, but in this private context, laws against such violations are very unlikely to be enforced.
Two decades of advocacy work on live fish sales in Poland
The horrific and visible cruelty toward carps in Poland made it an obvious target for animal advocacy campaigns. Activists used various tools to help animals. Nowadays every major animal advocacy organization in Poland has a campaign about live carp sales (Viva!, Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Compassion and Anima International - known in Poland under Otwarte Klatki brand).
Public outreach campaigns – since as early as 1998 organizations like Klub Gaja were discussing the problem. Later on other organizations joined. Work included launching media campaigns, working with top influencers and petitioning.
Investigations – when it comes to live carp practices, there are two kinds of investigative material. The first type depicts the cruelty happening in shops and is usually filmed by activists, consumers or even staff. The other type shows the farming practices – here Anima International provided most of the footage in Poland.
Legal advocacy – a lot of focus in campaigning for fish is directed at changing the law. There have been instances of successful pushes for better welfare recommendations and important legal court rulings.
Building alliances – despite some of the laws protecting fish in Poland, authorities were ignorant or reluctant to enforce the law. Groups like Klub Gaja worked with the Polish Police and offered training to educate forces on what they should do to uphold the law.
Corporate outreach – many groups targeted companies to withdraw from selling live fish. Most notably a coalition was formed by Viva!, Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Compassion in World Farming and Anima International to coordinate better.
From the standpoint of campaigning for carps one of the most important outcomes was pushing seven key supermarket chains in 2019 to stop selling live fish that resulted in obtaining their public commitments.
A key legal milestone was the victory of animal activist and lawyer Karolina Kuszlewicz to prosecute staff in one of the supermarkets (E.Leclerc) for mistreatment of carps. After 10 years of legal struggle, the case finally reached The Supreme Court of Poland which overturned previous instances and ruled in favor of fish, finding staff guilty of cruelty. The court pointed to the shop manager as directly responsible for mistreatment. This created an important precedent for every court and prosecutor in Poland and sent a message to the public – especially businesses – that they should not think that cruelty toward fish will go unpunished.
Finally, public support for the live fish ban is high.
Strategy reevaluation in Anima International fish campaign team
In Anima International, teams are quite autonomous. Some teams consist to varying degrees of volunteers managed by the teams higher in the hierarchy. Our fish team was one of the minor teams as we focus mostly on other campaigns, like hens or broilers. Nevertheless, in 2018 we increased our resources in this area, because we spotted an opportunity to get companies to commit to stop selling live fish.
We focused mostly on:
- consumer awareness, obtaining footage from farms through investigations,
- corporate outreach (together with Viva!, Albert Schweitzer Foundation and Compassion in World Farming).
We successfully recorded footage from carp farms, which wasn’t available in Poland before, and managed to get major retailers to commit to stop selling live fish. This was an enormous victory after years of campaigning for fish in Poland.
While planning the strategy for the team in 2021 the new manager of the campaign, Weronika Żurek, stumbled upon more news about people in Poland switching to other fish species during Christmas, one of them being salmon. Carp is an omnivorous fish fed predominantly grain and soy, whereas salmon is a carnivorous fish, which in turn uses more animals in farming. The potential effect of that made us worried. We decided to reduce our actions around Christmas 2021 until we could investigate this further.
Carnivorous species like salmon or tuna must be fed with almost exclusively animal-derived feed, such as fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) which are made up of so-called feed fishes. Most species of farmed fish, such as rainbow trout, are fed with a mix of plant- and animal-derived food.
As mentioned, common carp is not considered a high-quality product and people buy it live for Christmas only because it is a tradition. It also has a reputation of not being tasty in comparison to other species, such as salmon, which is considered to be a high-quality delicacy. Furthermore, salmon prices began slowly declining in Poland which made it easier for consumers to buy it.
Taking these factors into account, we started to worry that our work may cause more animals to be farmed than spared. This would be true in an unlikely scenario that people in Poland would switch to salmon just because they cannot participate in the tradition of buying live carp, with only frozen carp being available to them. For animal activists it was somewhat unintuitive why a lack of live animals for sale would make people switch to other frozen animal species rather than to the same frozen species.
To verify our model we commissioned a representative poll. Firstly, we asked how many are planning to buy live carps – 25.5% reported doing so. From these we asked respondents what they would choose for Christmas Eve if live carp was not available. While almost half (47.1%) said they would just buy frozen versions of carp, to our surprise 23.9% said they would switch to salmon and 21.2% to trout (followed by herring and pollock).
In a follow-up, people pointed out that they are more likely to switch to salmon because the price fell in recent years. Furthermore, we asked Aquatic Life Institute to research the relation between live carp sales and fish-derived feed products usage to supplement our research.
The data we obtained didn’t look good for the campaign and pushed us to further consider how effective our work is.
Looking at the numbers
Our poll suggests a trend to replace live carp with salmon. Salmon is a carnivorous fish which means that choosing salmon instead of live carp could cause more animals to die. Yet, we are skeptical of how much it can for sure be attributed to our campaign rather than other socio-economic factors and how much we should trust self-reported data.
Nevertheless, because of the stakes of animal suffering we wanted to be meticulous. We modeled a very conservative scenario where we assumed that due to Anima International’s campaign efforts just 1% of Polish people who usually buy live carp for their Christmas Eve meal switch to buying the same amount of salmon (non-live).
We assumed that this 1% of consumers will buy the same weight of salmon as they would of carp. If 4,000,000 kg of live carps are sold annually in Poland, it would mean 40,000 kg of carp replaced by salmon.
The average slaughter weight of salmon is around 4 kg and that of live carp – 2 kg. This roughly translates to 20,000 carps being replaced by 10,000 salmon.
We need to understand how many animals are killed in order to produce one animal that is sold. There is some disagreement on how many fish a salmon would need to eat to reach slaughter weight (for example, Compassion in World Farming places the number at around 350 animals), but even if we take the smaller numbers from the Global Reporting Programme, one Atlantic salmon consumes approximately 147 other fish before it is slaughtered. For comparison, one common carp requires only one feed fish.
We also needed to take the mortality in fish farms into consideration. For common carps the survival rate equals ~20.6% while the survival rate in salmon is about ~65%. To make calculations clear, we assumed that 1 in 5 carp and 2 in 3 salmon survive until slaughter. We furthermore assumed that fish that die prematurely eat only half of the feed.
Calculations for animals used to produce a single fish look as follows:
1 carp = 1 carp + 1 feed fish + 4 prematurely dead carps + 4 prematurely dead carps * 50% of 1 feed fish = 8 animals.
1 salmon = 1 salmon + 147 feed fish + 0.53 prematurely dead salmon + 0.53 prematurely dead salmon * 50% of 147 feed fish = ~187 animals.
In this model we want to assess how replacing 40,000 kg of product compares:
- For carps – it’s 20,000 animals which in total would mean 160,000 animals killed.
- For salmon – it’s 10,000 animals which in total would mean 1,870,000 animals killed.
It means that it takes around 1,870,000 fish deaths to produce the amount of Atlantic salmon equivalent to 1% of the amount of carp sold alive in Poland each year. It takes approximately 160,000 fish deaths in total to produce 1% of the carps that are sold alive in Poland.
For the purpose of the model, replacement means that carps are not produced and are spared the suffering of living in farmed conditions, so we need to subtract the number of animals killed in carp production from the number of animals used in salmon production: 1,870,000 - 160,000 = 1,710,000. This then represents 1,710,000 additional fish deaths which would not have happened if the switch had not been made.
Our calculations suggest that buying one Atlantic salmon requires around 11 times more fish deaths than buying the same (weight) amount of common carp.
To restate it – assuming that 1% of people would switch to salmon because of Anima International’s work, this would lead to an 11-fold increase in the number of animals killed.
It’s also worth highlighting again that these calculations are only rough estimates as reliable data regarding live fish sold in Poland is hard to obtain and that we used the most conservative data on how many fish a salmon would consume.
Problems when comparing welfare
Death is not the only moment a fish suffers and it’s clear that a carp sold alive and killed later may suffer more than a salmon which is slaughtered earlier in the farming process. At the same time, feed fish which are consumed by salmon are typically killed in extremely unethical ways (usually live freezing in ice slurry, asphyxiation or getting crushed by the weight of other fish) and their agony often lasts a few hours.
Because of this and the differences in farming methods, fishes may suffer more or less during their lives, making it difficult to precisely calculate the levels of suffering for the two species discussed in this post. For the purpose of this model we ignored these differences as we used an already low estimate of 1% of consumers in the hope that a very conservative approach would offset any welfare differences.
Considering our future strategy
Speaking only about animals’ lives, the case of the live fish campaign being negative for animals seemed clear. However, it wasn’t clear how the model should impact our strategy – for example, whether we should discontinue the campaign altogether.
For brevity’s sake, this is a rough overview of considerations that our team flagged during the evaluation of the campaign. Some are more tangible, some are less, some may seem organization-centered rather than mission oriented, but for the sake of transparency we want to include them. As a general note, it’s hard to have high credence in thinking about indirect effects – as thinking about the next-order effects of our work is very speculative.
Naivety of the model – there is a mismatch between our model and reality. For example, a) asking people whether they would switch their dietary choices informs us only about what they respond to such surveys (which then correlates with outcomes that we extrapolate from it) or b) we cannot be certain how consumers behave in a potential reality when we try to mitigate the effects of buying salmon, etc. Treating such models as strong evidence rather than an update seems to be an error.
Expert models – there was a clear negative correlation between how experienced a person is and how strongly they would update on how much our estimations should weigh on the strategy. More experienced campaigners felt that the update should be less drastic and more nuanced. This may be attributed to a number of factors (stronger priors, sunk-cost fallacy, better internal models of social change, higher skepticism of self-reports, etc.).
Negative reputational effects with donors – considering how prominent a subject this is within Poland, many donors who supported this campaign will likely reconsider their support.
Increase in public support for fish – in view of the very supportive reception of carp campaigns in Poland, it is possible that the potential increase in fish welfare awareness will outweigh downsides in the long term.
Alliance building tool – from our experience, working on relatively non-controversial issues is a good foot in the door to push support for subjects that are more controversial from a policy standpoint (like advocacy for broiler chickens). The increase in traction potentially gained with influential policymakers, institutions and trendsetters could be high enough for groups to continue such campaigns.
Diminishing returns – most of the key results of the campaign have already been achieved – most retailers don’t sell live carps anymore. Furthermore, carps are sold live in marketplaces and small private shops, which are difficult to impact directly. So even if we assume that this campaign is effective, we see diminishing returns in continuing to invest in it.
Counterfactual value– assuming that the campaign is effective, it’s somewhat likely that due to other groups in Poland working on the issue, we don’t have much value to add anymore. The counterpoint is that not working on it actively may stall the legal advancements for fish.
Undermining cooperation with other groups – stopping our work and reasoning about it openly may lead other groups in the space to disagree and treat it as adversarial, especially if our assessment would assert that their work is ineffective or make donors move away from supporting their carp campaign.
Opportunity cost – while Anima International’s resources spent on the live carp campaign are relatively low in comparison to our other programs, it’s not obvious that moving these resources elsewhere would not produce more value. This argument is even stronger if we include coordination costs in a large organization.
Public consequences of decreasing our resources spent on fish welfare – while it may seem counterintuitive, as what matters is the impact for animals, from our experience some grantmakers and evaluators are usually too resource constrained to ask charities for their reasoning and tend to focus on collecting budget and FTE data to assess group effectiveness or criteria for funding. On paper, pausing fish work makes us less attractive for funders, especially if they don’t have access to our reasoning. This in consequence may make it harder for us to raise funds to continue or expand our work (this dynamic of rewarding “high expected value” is also mentioned by Holden Karnofsky here).
In Anima International we strive to advocate for animals in the most effective ways possible. Sometimes that means admitting that we’ve made mistakes, that a campaign isn’t working or that our interventions are not having the effect they should. The real mistake, of course, would be to never investigate our impact in the first place.
When summing up the reevaluation, we were not strongly convinced by the mere weight of the calculations. It seems to us that the effects of switching to carnivorous fishes, especially salmon, could be mitigated by incorporating proper tools into campaigning. The difference in intuitions between experts was the strongest evidence that made us especially cautious not to take the estimations at face value. Yet the data and our reasoning heavily reduced our confidence in the cost-effectiveness of the campaign.
There are also plausible arguments in favor of important long-term effects for fish, despite the negative short-term outlook. However, in the real world, this would mean accepting the likelihood of vastly increasing fish suffering in the short term to reduce it in the long term. This somewhat resembles the “greater good” argument which we think has a very negative track-record and seems to enable fallacious reasoning, therefore we leaned toward discarding it.
Naturally, the most unnerving scenario for us, as animal advocates, is that the campaign we have been running for several years may in fact have had the exact opposite effect to what we expected, increasing animal suffering. Nevertheless, at the risk of motivated reasoning, we consider the value of information and intellectual honesty as conducive to successful animal liberation.
In the end, the expected (negative) value and reduction in our confidence in the overall campaign’s effectiveness made us decide not to invest our resources further. We have indefinitely paused any major campaign actions and disbanded the whole team that managed it, redirecting resources elsewhere.
It is important to note that this doesn’t change anything in Anima International’s commitment to work for aquatic animals, such as our work in regards to octopus farming. We are currently taking time to reassess how we can best have an impact for fish in Poland reasoning from the first principles.
Request for feedback and support
We welcome feedback on this post and on our reasoning, especially critical feedback. If you have any thoughts on how we can improve our reasoning, we encourage you to comment or contact Weronika.
This post was based heavily on expertise and an input from Anna Iżyńska-Tymoniuk, Kirsty Henderson, Anna Kozłowska, Paweł Rawicki, Keyvan Mostafavi, Bogna Wiltowska, and Andrew Skowron.
Special thanks to Aquatic Life Institute for additional information. If you care about fish, who are particularly neglected animals, please consider donating to ALI.
A kind reminder about Anima International’s Resource Library
As always, we remind you about our Resource Library. If your work aims to help animals, you can use any of our materials as you wish (without crediting it). Visit https://animainternational.org/resources for large amounts of investigative footage, including fish, as well as other resources.
We use the term “tradition” here as it’s considered as such by Poles, but, as explained, it’s quite a new practice. ↩︎
Based on Anima International’s unpublished 2021 poll in Poland. ↩︎
It’s hard to pinpoint the preferable weight for carp for uses other than live sale. If we assume that the preferred weight is the same as for live sales (which is unlikely), then it would mean that Poland produces a total of 11,000,000 of carps in a year. ↩︎
Data obtained through contact with the producers. ↩︎
Poland uses civil law, not common law, so “precedent” has a slightly different meaning and significantly less legal bearing than in Anglo-Saxon countries. ↩︎
In our representative poll, 59% of Poles said that welfare needs of fish in shops are not met and 44% were in favor of a ban on live fish sales (40% were against). It may not be intuitive why we consider it significant support as people are rarely in favor of bans, especially when it comes to selling products. For comparison, in 2016, 41% of the Polish population were in favor of the ban on cage eggs, which allowed us to convince companies covering most of the market to commit to stop using and/or selling cage eggs. ↩︎
It’s worth pointing out again that these self-reported answers seem to contradict some research where price was not an important factor in purchasing decisions, but rather the public perception of the product (status, healthiness, availability, difficulty of preparation). ↩︎
It seems that in the post “Why we can’t take expected value estimates literally (even when they’re unbiased)” Holden Karnofsky explains in a very thorough way something that we try to point at, so we strongly recommend it. ↩︎