Debate about humane killing of fish rages on

Compared with most other agricultural industries in South Africa, the farmed fish industry is in its infancy. With no legal framework yet in place, fish farmers and animal welfare organisations are at loggerheads about how to kill fish with the least suffering.

Debate about humane killing of fish rages on
The World Organisation for Animal Health provides guidelines on how to slaughter fish humanely. However, there is no international agreement on the best methods.
Photo: FW Archive
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The slaughtering of farmed fish is not officially regulated in South Africa. According to the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), some local fish farmers employ cruel methods, and they should rather follow the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines.

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However, local representatives of many industry organisations argue that they have the expertise and that neither government, with its proposed Aquaculture Development Bill, nor the NSPCA has the know-how to make decisions on fish welfare.

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The debate
Nicholas James, the tilapia representative of the Aquaculture Association of Southern Africa (AASA), says the tilapia farming sector operates under a recognised set of norms and standards drawn up by the Tilapia Aquaculture Association of South Africa.

James, who breeds tilapia in the Eastern Cape, says there is no international consensus on how to humanely kill fish for human consumption. Each country has its own methods, and public perception also plays a role.

“For example, over-sedating gives rise to toxicity issues in the public’s eyes. Clubbing the head comes across as brutal, and dropping live fish into iced water also seems brutal to some consumers. Asphyxiation, when a fish is removed from water, is the most humane method; the fish is simply overcome by lack of oxygen. We catch our slaughter Welfarefish and place them in a clean plastic crate until movement stops, before processing them.”

He explains that slaughter and stocking rates fall outside the jurisdiction of legislation, and breeders do not welcome government intervention.

“The [proposed] bill is a monstrosity and a duplication of legislation in an infant segment of agriculture that is already completely over-burdened with legislation. It will simply further restrict the size of the sector. Both AASA and the producer organisation, Aquaculture South Africa, have voiced serious opposition to the bill. Government is forcing it through regardless.

“There are no government agencies with competency to draw up such legislation, and so small is the scale of the sector that it’s far too early to do so. The norms and standards set by producer organisations used for self-policing are preferable to state-enforced prescription.”

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Nazareth Appalsamy, the national senior inspector for the NSPCA’s Farm Animals Protection Unit, says farmed fish should be stunned before killing, ensuring immediate and irreversible loss of consciousness. If the stunning works only temporarily, fish should be killed before consciousness is recovered.

He adds that the Animals Protection Act of 1962 makes provision for humane slaughter and stocking rates.

According to the NSPCA, asphyxiation, as used in South Africa, is inhumane and the OIE guidelines should be used.

Appalsamy says that once the proposed aquaculture bill has been approved, regulations can be incorporated and a national standard set through the South African Bureau of Standards.

The NSPCA is also working on stocking density requirements.

“We’re hoping that slaughter methods will be incorporated into the bill,” says Appalsamy.

“The only protection fish actually have in terms of welfare is the Animals Protection Act.”

Global guidelines
The OIE guidelines state that the chosen method of slaughter should take account of species-specific information, if available.

All handling, stunning and killing equipment should be maintained and operated appropriately, and tested regularly to ensure that performance is adequate.

Effective stunning should be verified by the absence of consciousness. Like the NSPCA, the OIE states that any fish that regains consciousness should be re-stunned as soon as possible.

The OIE guidelines state the following: “Mechanical, or percussive, stunning and
killing is achieved by a blow of sufficient strength to the head applied above or immediately adjacent to the brain in order to damage the brain.

Mechanical stunning may be achieved either manually or using specially developed equipment. Spiking or coring are irreversible stunning and killing methods of fish based on physical damage to the brain by inserting a spike or core into the brain.

“[…] Unconsciousness following mechanical stunning is generally irreversible if correctly applied.”

According to OIE guidelines, electrical current carry-over can differ between levels of brackishness in water, and must be considered.

Fish can recover consciousness if not killed immediately after stunning and care must be taken that this does not happen.

The OIE is against some of the methods applied by local tilapia operators.

“The following methods are known to be used for killing fish: chilling with ice in holding water; carbon dioxide in holding water; chilling with ice and carbon dioxide in holding water; salt or ammonia baths; asphyxiation by removal from water; exsanguination without stunning. However, they have been shown to result in poor fish welfare,” the organisation’s guidelines state.

But James says that stunning by physical or electrical means is not necessarily humane.

“To take the fish to where the stunning can take place involves crowding, lack of oxygen and stress to the fish.

“Electrical stunning is also very species-variant in its efficacy,” he adds.

Source: OIE Aquatic Animal Health Code: ‘Welfare aspects of stunning and killing of farmed
fish for human consumption’. 2015.

Email the NSPCA Farm Animal Protection Unit at [email protected], or Nicholas James at [email protected].

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Gerhard Uys grew up as a real city lad, but spends his free time hiking and visiting family farms. He learnt the journalism trade as a freelance writer and photographer in the lifestyle industry, but having decided that he will be a cattle farmer by the age of 45 he now indulges his passion for farming by writing about agriculture. He feels Farmer’s Weekly is a platform for both developed and emerging farmers to learn additional farming skills and therefore takes the job of relaying practical information seriously.