Welfare of farmed fish had been protected by voluntary measures.
Ministers in the UK are considering new welfare requirements to ensure that fish do not suffer stress and injury on the way to slaughter and that they are stunned before being killed.
Welfare rules on slaughtering animals exclude farmed fish. The UK industry, which rears up to 80 million fish a year, has instead adopted voluntary codes of practice.
Currently, slaughterhouses for land animals are required to have a vet on site and must have CCTV covering all areas where animals are handled, stunned and killed, with footage stored for independent inspection. Those legal requirements do not apply to fish slaughter facilities, which are not subject to routine welfare inspections by public bodies.
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According to The Times, companies such as the Scottish Salmon Company that had signed up to voluntary codes have been guilty of a number of abuses.
In 2014, the government’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, an independent advisory body of senior vets and farmers, made recommendations for the humane slaughter of fish and said they should be included in EU welfare legislation.
However, the European Commission rejected the proposal and decided that the welfare of farmed fish could be protected by voluntary measures.
The Animal Welfare Committee (AWC), which was renamed in 2019, is updating its 2014 opinion after being asked by the government to review the latest evidence.
It is expected to repeat its call for new rules to ensure the humane slaughter of fish.
Senior vets and scientists wrote last week to the AWC urging it to recommend regular unannounced inspections and CCTV at fish slaughter facilities.
A Whitehall source said that voluntary codes were insufficient and new welfare measures would be introduced.
The letter said: “The industry cannot continue to be permitted to self-regulate. With a heavy reliance on opt-in certification schemes, and a lack of governmental oversight, aquatic animals are being seriously let down.”
James Russell, senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “Given the number of fish harvested in UK aquaculture each year, the government should provide specific legislative protections for the welfare of farmed finfish at slaughter.
“We also recommend UK governments should include the stunning of farmed fish alongside general welfare protections at slaughter in UK Welfare of Animals and the Time of Killing regulations, to bring it in line with other livestock species and to ensure a humane death, minimising avoidable pain, distress, fear and suffering.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was considering “detailed protections for the welfare of farmed fish”.
The Scottish government said it had asked the UK Animal & Plant Health Agency to inspect farmed salmon slaughter facilities and this would start “in the near future”.
It added: “We will then assess the need for future planned inspections. We will also carefully consider any recommendations made by the UK Animal Welfare Committee working group that is currently reviewing the welfare of fish at slaughter.”
Salmon Scotland, an industry body, said all salmon farmed in Scotland were stunned before slaughter and its members were “constantly looking to refine and improve the process”.