Animal advocates have achieved a lot of change for chickens. However, some advocates are concerned that the same approach could not be used to achieve similar changes for fish because people care about fish welfare much less than about chicken welfare. In this article I analyze whether this intuition holds up to scrutiny when it comes to Europe. Here is what I found:
- Some surveys suggest that Europeans care about fish welfare to a similar degree to which they care about chicken and pig welfare, although it’s unclear how to interpret the results.
- Some surveys suggest that Europeans think that mental abilities of fish are just a little bit lower than the abilities of chickens and pigs. However, one survey in Finland shows a big gap.
- Other indications of tractability include successful campaigns to stop the sale of live fish in some supermarkets in Lithuania and Poland, and The European Commission recognizing that fish are sentient.
Overall, this evidence made me think that the general public cares about fish welfare more than I previously thought.
By now animal advocates know well how much the public can get behind welfare reforms for chicken. Hence, I use people’s answers to questions about chickens as a benchmark. Where data for chickens is unavailable, I compare answers about fish and pigs.
2018 fish welfare survey
The most comprehensive survey on attitudes towards fish welfare I’ve seen is the 2018 fish welfare survey. The figures in the link are a bit difficult to navigate so I made a full survey summary here. The survey sample was 9,047 adults in nine European countries: UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Czech Republic (at least 1,000 respondents in each country). Data were weighted to be representative of all adults in these countries aged 18+ by age, gender, and region. The survey was conducted online. Below I present only questions that are relevant for my point but I encourage interested readers to read the full survey summary.
Interpreting these results is not straightforward for multiple reasons:
- It is unlikely that many respondents had an opinion on issues like ant, lobster, or fish welfare until surveyed, so their opinions could change a lot with further consideration.
- Answering positively to these questions doesn’t necessarily mean that respondents would agree to any costs or policies to protect the welfare of these animals.
- The question implicitly assumed that, for example, there is such a thing as ant welfare that could be protected. This could have influenced some respondents to answer positively.
- When answering the question about wild animals, some respondents could have answered positively to indicate that they care about protecting the species, even if they don’t care about the welfare of individual animals.
- Results could be skewed due to various forms of response bias.
Nevertheless, it’s surprising that answers for salmon are higher than for chickens and pigs. Perhaps it’s because respondents were thinking about the protection of wild salmon from fishers and dams which they might care about for environmental reasons rather than the welfare farmed salmon. It’s also possible that people think that chickens and pigs already have enough protection. I guess that answers for goldfish are lower because people think that pet fish don't experience much suffering (Rucinque et al. (2017) results suggest that people in South America think so), or because of the myth that goldfish have a memory span of only three seconds.
These results seem very encouraging for fish advocates. However, note that this question was preceded by multiple questions about fish welfare. I think this might help explain why 11% claimed that it should be protected to a greater extent than other food animals, which is something they might disagree with on contemplation. Another possible explanation is that some people want to protect fish more because some of the fish we eat are wild fish and people associate the welfare of wild fish with some environmental issues. Some of the result could be explained by the so-called lizardman’s constant.
Answers to this question can be compared with a similar question in the 2019 meat chicken survey. For comparison, in the table and graph below I only use data for countries that were surveyed in both surveys: UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland. The sample size for all questions in the table below is about 6,000 (~1,000 for each country in each survey).
Here are the same results in a table (in case it's difficult to read the graph):
We can see that the results are surprisingly similar, although people seem to be more uncertain about whether fish can feel pain. Note that questions 1a and 1b are a bit less comparable than others because 1b provided a definition. Also, the preceding question in the fish survey assumed that fish are sentient which could have impacted the results.
Eurobarometer surveys (2005-2006)
Eurobarometer (2005) is a survey in 25 EU member states which had 24,708 respondents in total. One of the questions was “In your opinion, from the following list, for which three farm animals should the current level of welfare/protection be improved the most?” Eurobarometer (2007) asked the same question in Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Turkey (~1,000 respondents in each country). In both surveys respondents could select up to three answers. The results from the question in both surveys are below:
The proportion of people who selected farmed fish ranged from 2% in Germany to 36% in Greece. In general, the support for fish welfare seems lower than in the 2018 Fish welfare survey analyzed above. I think that the most likely reason is that Eurobarometer surveys specifically asked about farmed fish while in the 2018 Fish welfare survey people may have been thinking about wild fish. It’s also possible that the concern for fish has increased between 2005 and 2018, or that people care about fish but think that the welfare of other animals is more important.
Similarly to the Q5 in the 2018 Fish welfare survey, answers to this question depend on the perception of how bad the current conditions are, and I don’t expect the average person to have much knowledge about the conditions of each farmed animal. It’s possible that a highly publicized undercover investigation or campaign could lead to a significant increase in the percentage of people who prioritized farmed fish when asked questions like that. Similarly, I think that broilers and laying hens were the most popular answers in this survey because there may have been more discussion about their welfare, rather than because people care about chickens more than about pigs, cows, and other animals.
Frewer et al. (2005)
Frewer et al. (2005) surveyed 1,000 representative Dutch consumers about their attitudes to either pig or fish husbandry (500 respondents each). All data were collected on six-point scales, anchored from ‘‘disagree completely’’ (1) to ‘‘agree completely’’ (6).
When asked if they agree that animal welfare oriented production is important, the mean answer for respondents who were asked about pigs was 4.87, while for respondents who were asked about farmed fish it was 4.64. The difference is statistically significant (p=0.001) but small (the effect size is 0.19).
Respondents believed that they were more knowledgeable about the welfare of pigs (mean score = 3.35) compared to fish (mean score = 2.7). Note that scores were rather low for both animals.
Consumers were also asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree that animals experience some emotions. You can see the results in the table below:
We can see that people who answered the question thought that fish are less likely to experience pain, boredom, fear, and stress, but a little bit more likely to experience pleasure. However, these are only scores of respondents who gave an answer other than “I don’t know”. For all five emotions, a much higher percentage of respondents chose the answer “I don’t know” for fish (more than 30% for each emotion).
Respondents were also asked about the extent to which they experience affective responses to animal welfare issues. See the results below.
Again, we can see that people care more about pigs than fish but that the difference is not that big. However, note that people may feel guilty or responsible because of the environmental effects of pig or fish production, not just because of animal welfare issues.
While the results of this survey are interesting, it’s important to remember it is more than fifteen years old.
Finland fish survey (2010)
Kupsala et al. (2013) and Kupsala et al. (2016) describe a 2010 postal survey of 1,824 adults in Finland. The survey sample had only small differences (0 − 6%) to the general population in terms of gender, age, place of residence, living area, and education. Hence, they claim that the sample can be regarded as representative of Finland’s population.
48% of respondents thought that the welfare level of farmed fish is very good or fairly good. Only 13% thought that it is fairly poor or very poor. Respondents thought that farmed fish welfare is better than the welfare of meat chickens, egg-laying hens, turkeys, and pigs, but worse than beef cattle, sheep, cows, and reindeer.
Respondents were also asked about which mental abilities they think various animals have. See the results below.
Table 4 in Kupsala et al. (2013) provides some more values for salmon and chicken from the same survey:
As you can see in the tables above, ratings for salmon were much lower than for chicken and other animals. This somewhat contradicts the findings in the surveys analyzed above. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. We can also see that a much higher percentage of respondents did not answer questions about salmon and shrimp, showing that people are more uncertain about the mental abilities of these animals. I’m uncertain how many of these attributes people need to think that fish have in order to care about them morally.
2019 BBC survey
The 2019 BBC survey had a sample of 3,655 UK respondents aged 16+. Data were weighted to be representative of all UK adults aged 16+ by age, gender, region, ethnicity, and religion. The question below was one of many questions on various topics.
We can see that answers for fish are quite similar to answers for other animals.
Ellingsen et al. (2015)
Ellingsen et al. (2015) describe a survey of 2,147 adults in Norway. Amongst other things, people had to rate their agreement to statements below on a six-point scale, anchored from ‘‘disagree completely’’ (1) to ‘‘agree completely’’ (6). See the mean scores below.
The question is a bit unusual and hence it’s difficult to make conclusions. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see that fish are not that far behind other animals. E.g., the effect size compared to chickens is only 0.12.
Analyzed surveys weakly suggest that getting the European public behind fish welfare campaigns might not be that much more difficult than getting them behind welfare campaigns for chickens or pigs. However, the results could be interpreted in various ways and could have been affected by various biases. Furthermore, these surveys don’t tell us whether there is a critical mass of people who care about fish welfare deeply, which could be critical for the success of welfare reforms.
Even if people believe that fish can suffer, it might be more difficult to convince them that they do suffer under farm conditions and that suggested reforms would help fish. Also, imagery of low welfare fish farms may not trigger the same emotional response that footage of land animal farms does because fish might be more difficult to empathize with and don’t make any sounds comprehensible to humans. However, I don’t know if very cruel imagery is necessary to get the public behind welfare reforms. It may even prevent some people from engaging with the topic which might be why some animal charities seem to already be using it less.
Finally, note that all the surveys analyzed above were conducted in Europe. I chose to write about Europe simply because most of the interesting surveys I saw on the subject were about this continent. Faunalytics is working on a project that should show what is the situation in the U.S.
Other indications that fish welfare could be tractable
There have already been successful campaigns to stop the sale of live fish in some supermarkets in Poland and Lithuania. The results of Eurobarometer (2016) and Eurobarometer (2007) suggest that people in most European countries on average care about animal welfare more than people in Lithuania and Poland, which makes these victories even more encouraging. One of the people who worked on these campaigns said that from their experience, the general public sees fish in pretty much the same way they see other animals.
Also, note that some companies already make fish welfare claims. For example, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s claim that farmed fish they sell did not experience fin clipping, were stunned before their slaughter, and were kept at stocking densities that are below a specified maximum. All of these are criteria in the BBFAW benchmark, so it’s possible that they were encouraged by BBFAW to make these statements. This shows that fish welfare is already on the agenda of some food companies to some degree. Even if it’s just humane washing, it’s encouraging that grocers feel a need to humane wash about fish welfare.
Another way to see what attitudes towards fish are is to look at existing laws and regulations. In Norway and Sweden, it is already mandatory to stun farmed fish before slaughter (Röcklinsberg (2014), Norway. Animal Welfare Act 2009). In 2009, the EU Commission acknowledged that “there is now sufficient scientific evidence indicating that fish are sentient beings and that they are subject to pain and suffering”. However, Giménez-Candela et al. (2020) shows that regulations for fish are insufficient, not well thought out, underspecified, and not properly enforced. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that the foot is already in the door.
Appendix: surveys with a non-representative or unclear sample
Below I present some surveys that I think are less interesting or relevant than surveys I presented in the main article.
Respondents to The European Commission (2005) think that farmed fish conditions are better than conditions for meat chickens, laying hens, pigs, and some other animals. When asked if more needs to be done to improve the current level of welfare/ protection of various farmed animals farmed within the EU, 68% of respondents answered “yes” for farmed fish, which was the lowest result out of fifteen groups of animals included in the survey. Furthermore, 15% of respondents chose “I don’t know”, more than for any other animal group. However, very little can be inferred from this survey because it seems that it did not use a representative sample, as 66.4% of respondents were female, and the survey strongly overrepresented certain countries.
Bradley et al. (2020) asked 419 UK respondents how much they agree or disagree with various animals being used for various purposes. All data were collected on five-point scales, where 1 is “Strongly Agree” and 5 is “Strongly Disagree”. In the table below you can see mean scores for some of the species.
As you can see, scores for carp, chicken, and pig are very similar. However, the survey used snowball sampling which leads to an unrepresentative sample. Hence, very limited conclusions can be drawn from this survey.
Herzog and Galvin (1997) surveyed 57 males and 112 females taking social psychology classes at the University of Tennessee in the spring of 1990 and found that goldfish was ranked lower than most other animals in terms of sentience and cognition. Note that ratings for goldfish could have been influenced by a common misconception that their memory span is just three seconds long. A big gap between goldfish and salmon in Q5 in the 2018 fish welfare survey suggests that ratings for a different fish species may have been higher.
Herzog et al. (2001) cite Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach, Inc. (1983) which asked Americans how much they are concerned about the welfare of various animals. 64% of respondents expressed concern for fish welfare. For comparison, 89% expressed concern for dogs, 76% for birds, 71% for cats, 70% for farm animals, 67% for rabbits, and 34% for hamsters/guinea pigs/mice. I was unable to find the original source and Herzog et al. (2001) doesn’t mention what was the sample
Rucinque et al. (2017) analyzes the perception of fish sentience, welfare and humane slaughter by highly educated citizens of Bogotá, Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil. Most of the respondents considered fish to be sentient and thought that they suffer in some scenarios. However, the survey used a convenience sample, hence it is not very informative.
Bradley, A., Mennie, N., Bibby, P. A., & Cassaday, H. J. (2020). Some animals are more equal than others: Validation of a new scale to measure how attitudes to animals depend on species and human purpose of use. PloS one, 15(1), e0227948.
Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach Inc. 1983. America’s binding relationship with the animal kingdom. Soundings 12: 9–10.
Ellingsen, K., Grimsrud, K., Nielsen, H. M., Mejdell, C., Olesen, I., Honkanen, P., ... & Sandøe, P. (2015). Who cares about fish welfare?. British food journal.
Eurobarometer (2005). Attitudes of consumers towards the welfare of farmed animals. Special Eurobarometer, 229, 45-6.
Eurobarometer (2007). Attitudes of consumers towards the welfare of farmed animals: Wave 2. Eurobarometer (Ed.), Special Eurobarometer, 229(2), 56.
Frewer, L. J., Kole, A., Kroon, S. M. A. V. de, & Lauwere, C. de. (2005). Consumer Attitudes Towards the Development of Animal-Friendly Husbandry Systems. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 18(4), 345–367. doi:10.1007/s10806-005-1489-2
Giménez-Candela, T., Saraiva, J. L., & Bauer, H. (2020). The legal protection of farmed fish in Europe: analysing the range of EU legislation and the impact of international animal welfare standards for the fishes in European aquaculture. In dA Derecho Animal: Forum of Animal Law Studies (Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 0065-118).
Herzog, H. A., Galvin, S. (1997). Common sense and the mental lives of animals: An empirical approach.
Herzog, H., Rowan, A. N., & Kossow, D. (2001). Social attitudes and animals.
Kupsala, S., Jokinen, P., & Vinnari, M. (2013). Who cares about farmed fish? Citizen perceptions of the welfare and the mental abilities of fish. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 26(1), 119-135.
Kupsala, S., Vinnari, M., Jokinen, P., & Räsänen, P. (2016). Public perceptions of mental capacities of nonhuman animals: Finnish population survey. Society & Animals, 24(5), 445-466.
Röcklinsberg H. Fish Consumption: Choices in the Intersection of Public Concern, Fish Welfare, Food Security, Human Health and Climate Change. J Agr Environ Ethic. 2015;28: 533–551.
Rucinque, D. S., Souza, A. P. O., & Molento, C. F. M. (2017). Perception of fish sentience, welfare and humane slaughter by highly educated citizens of Bogotá, Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil. PloS one, 12(1), e0168197.
The European Commission. (2005). Response statistics for Community action plan on animal welfare and protection: welfare and protection of farmed animals
This essay is a project of Rethink Priorities. It was written by Saulius Šimčikas. Thanks to David Moss, Jason Schukraft, Neil Dullaghan, and Peter Hurford for reviewing drafts of this post and making valuable comments.