Aquatic Animal Welfare

Australian Aquatic Animal Welfare in Perspective

The Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS) was an agreed blueprint for animal welfare in Australia that commenced in 2005 and aimed to enhance welfare outcomes for all animals. This strategy continued until the withdrawal of operational funding by the incoming government in 2013.

Six broad working groups were established as part of the strategy, including the Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group. A summary of the Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group  process and findings ('Aquatic Animal Welfare in Perspective') can be found on the Aquatic Animal Welfare Research page.

The Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group (AAWWG) identified four sectors under the ‘aquatic’ heading:

  • Commercial fishing
  • Recreational fishing
  • Aquaculture
  • Ornamental / Aquarium

Nominees from each sector national peak body joined with representatives from Animals Australia, RSPCA, state governments and independent animal health science to make up the Working Group.


About the Aquatics Working Group

Aquatic animals encompass all animals that live fully or partially in fresh or salt water habitats. They include fresh and salt water fish, sharks, crustaceans (e.g. lobsters and yabbies), mammals (e.g. dugongs, seals, whales, dolphins and platypus), and amphibian reptiles (e.g. crocodiles, tortoises, turtles and frogs).

Particular species of birds (e.g. penguins, pelicans) can also be considered aquatic animals given their habitats are always near water, usually coastal, and they have a natural ability to wade, swim or dive for their food.

Many aquatic animals are valuable sources of nutrition for humans and other animals and contribute significantly to Australia’s primary industry in both domestic and international trade. Other aquatic animals have cultural and economic importance to our tourism and recreational industries. Aquatic animals, like all animals, play an important role in maintaining a healthy environment.

Animal welfare principles have emerged mainly with respect to terrestrial animals and have captured greater community awareness than aquatic animal welfare. Although not formally acknowledged, there are some general practices of animal welfare within quality assurance requirements of commercial aquatic industries that are designed to ensure food safety and quality end product.

There is general acceptance by both commercial and recreational sectors that careful and controlled capture procedures should be welfare oriented, thereby contributing to a healthier environment and stable aquatic ecosystems.

The Aquatic Animals Working Group provided an animal welfare framework to meet the challenges faced by those managing aquatic systems or using them for commerce or recreation. The sector is comprised of four main fish industries: farmed fish, fish captured commercially (‘wild capture’), fish captured recreationally, and ornamental fish (commercial and retail).


The challenges to improving the welfare of aquatic animals include:

  • the need to provide formal acknowledgement that animal welfare issues are relevant to all aquatic animals
  • the need to review existing state and territory legislative arrangements pertaining to aquatic animal welfare, and to address the lack of or variations in the definition of fish as animals

Aquatic Animal Welfare – Overarching Principles

THE AAWWG establised a set of Overarching Principles for animal welfare against which the various sectors could assess and review existing specififc best practice guidlines practiced by their respective sector stakeholders.

In the context of Aquatic Sector of the Aquatic Animal Welfare Working Group under the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS), only vertebrate finfish are considered Aquatic Animals; other aquatic vertebrates are considered under other Sectors of AAWS. (Note 1)

The approach taken with animal welfare to date within the Aquatic Animal sector has been to establish overarching Principles against which sub-sectors can build their specific best practice guidelines to achieve animal welfare. (Note 2)

The overall aim of the aquatic sector (fish that are farmed, being transported, kept in aquaria, captured from the wild both commercial and recreational, or in aquaria in restaurants) should be to minimise suffering within the constraint of practices inherent to that sub-sector. (Note 3)

Specific measures include:

1. For fish held in captivity, the key parameters (temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, & metabolites) of the aquatic environment in which fish are maintained should be within the species’ natural range of tolerance.

2. For fish held in captivity, the holding unit in which they are normally housed should provide

  • safety from predators,
  • refuge from environmental extremes beyond their natural range of tolerance,
  • appropriate space,
  • appropriate space and/or water flow to avoid chronic degradation of water quality parameters referred to in point 1 above. (Note 4)

3. For fish held in captivity the feed supplied should meet known nutritional requirements, and be distributed in a manner and frequency which avoids starvation for periods longer than the species natural range of tolerance.

4. For fish held in captivity, any visibly damaged or sick fish should be assessed and either treated appropriately or promptly removed for killing by humane means suitable for the species.

5. During any handling of live fish,

  • care should be taken to avoid any damage to the fish
  • for prolonged handling of fish out of water (e.g. health checks, vet treatment, artificial reproduction, etc), an anaesthetic appropriate for the species and frequent irrigation of skin and gills is essential
  • fish intended to remain alive should be returned to the water promptly.

6. Any fish selected for harvest should be killed as rapidly as possible, by humane means suitable for the species

7. For fish harvested from the wild timely handling from capture to death is essential to minimise suffering. (Note 5)

8. Capture methods should be designed to minimise the capture of unwanted fish.

Explanatory Notes

Note 1: The duty of care principles are couched within the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy under which these specific aquatic animal principles will be applied.
Note 2: As a code there is no legislative basis. Words such as ‘must’ hold no relevance. Animal Welfare legislation is the place for definitives and the code assists operators to meet those definitives through words such as ‘should’.
Note 3: Suffering is inclusive of pain and other issues of animal welfare.
Note 4: This principle when read with principle 1 covers all aspects. The detail of parameters such as water flow, stocking density, behavioural aspects and space will be in the sub-sector code themselves depending on operational method and species.
Note 5: ‘Capture’ as defined in sub-sector codes.


Research Program and Publications 

The AAWS Aquatic Animals Working Group has supported a number of projects which have delivered tangible improvements to animal welfare in Australia.

All research projects can be found on the Aquatic Animal Welfare Research Page 

Research included benchmarking harvest methodologies in the Australian barramundi aquaculture industry – impacts on stress, product quality and fish welfare, Iki Jimi project and a range of materials for download, Commercial fishing guidelines for each of rod & line, trawl, mesh nets, beach seine, purse seine, pots & traps that can be downloaded


Project Number
Aquatic animal welfare – a review of guidance documents and legislation
Identifying and mitigating obstacles to uptake and adoption of aquatic animal welfare practices by the Australian Fishing Industry
AAW - Research