The welfare of aquarium fish is a topic that is rarely discussed in books, magazines, fish shops or veterinary clinics, yet it is a topic that urgently needs to be addressed. With the increased availability of quality aquarium products and fish, the hobby of keeping aquariums has grown astronomically in the last fifty years. It has become a very serious hobby and even a livelihood for many people. Many dedicated aquarists maintain clean, healthy, environmentally correct tanks and give the utmost care to their fish. These hobbyists take great pains to provide proper water conditions, nutrition, housing, and natural environments for their fish. They treat sick fish and do not accept a fish dying as a normal aquarium occurrence. These dedicated aquarists are to be commended, but unfortunately, for every one of them, there are many that do not provide adequate care for their fish.

A dedicated and caring aquarium owner does not have to have a thousand-dollar tank filled with exotic species. Even the simplest, properly maintained tanks can house healthy, well-cared-for fish. While there are cases of fish neglect and poor care with an experienced aquarist, the majority of the problems arise in the beginner’s tank.

Fish are pets, too

To put the fish welfare problem into perspective, let us compare it to a pet owner that purchases a puppy or kitten. If the new puppy owner took the puppy home and confined her to a small cage, sporadically fed her vegetables, failed to treat her when she became sick so eventually the puppy died, and the owner went back and got another puppy and did the same thing all over again, what would we think? Of course there would be a huge public outcry. It would be very obvious that the welfare of these animals had been violated every step along the way. Yet the same thing happens every day in the tropical fish industry, only instead of a puppy, the victim is a fish.

In another situation, let us ponder what the public would say if wild canines were being captured out of the wild. Let us take wolves, for example. These animals would be captured from the wild, caged, and transported to a retail market for sale as caged pets. During the transport, the stress and handling of the animals would result in a 50% death loss. Of the wolves that survived, another half of these would die soon after placement in their new homes from disease and improper nutrition. Few of these wolves would breed or live a normal life expectancy. We could argue that the ones that did survive would be free of the dangers of predation in the wild, and furthermore, the industry responsible for providing these animals provided much needed income for the indigenous people that gathered them. Of course we would not agree with this. We would not think that this was a humane or justifiable action, nor would we feel that the welfare or ecological community of the wolves was even remotely considered. Yet in the harvesting of some wild tropical and marine fish, this is exactly what happens.

Fish are not dogs, nor are they wolves, birds, or turtles, yet the welfare of animals, particularly domestic or captive animals kept as pets, should not discriminate across species lines. In fact, when we take an animal into our care, we are even more obligated to look out for the welfare of that animal, and fish are no exception. Some people that speak against animal welfare argue that it is anthropomorphic to compare our feelings with that of animals, but the argument for improved welfare of fish is not comparing them to humans, it is comparing them to the way we treat other pets.

Why is fish welfare neglected?

Despite the lack of concern over the welfare of fish, I do not feel that it is done out of cruelty, but merely out of ignorance. Fish and aquariums are very complicated. While it is easy to fill a tank full of water and put some fish in it, any experienced aquarist will tell you that the proper maintenance and care of an aquarium is extremely challenging and complicated. People that provide proper care for their fish have educated themselves and work very hard to understand the specific biological needs of their fish, and then meet those needs. An experienced aquarist does not tolerate sick or dying fish. If a fish dies, something is drastically wrong. The answer is not to just go out and purchase another fish, but to find the exact cause of the death or illness and correct it.

Many fish owners do not realize what is involved in setting up a tank. They do not know the pH level, water hardness, temperature, substrate preference, or nutritional needs their fish require. Without understanding these basics and how all of these affect the health of the fish, they cannot even begin to have a healthy tank. That is not the fault of the fish, but the owner.

I still hear the argument that fish do not feel pain like animals do. Despite the repeated scientific studies that have shown otherwise, this outdated argument still shows up as an excuse for ignoring the fish’s welfare. Interestingly enough, the same argument that animals do not feel pain was taught for years in veterinary schools and used as an argument against providing pain relief during procedures on cats and dogs. While we may find this hard to believe, it was not that long ago, and the same argument is still being used about fish today. Despite exhaustive evidence showing pain and stress responses in fish and no studies to refute this, some people continue to cling to this argument.

The welfare of aquarium fish is often neglected for a multitude of unique reasons:

* We generally do not touch or feel the fish.

* Fish do not respond to people except during feeding or out of fear.

* We cannot hear or communicate with fish.

* Fish cannot cry out in pain, bark to draw attention to their needs, or purr to show affection.

* In a sense, fish are very easy to ignore if we choose.

* In addition, they are cold-blooded and are ‘different’ than mammals.

All of these things make it easy for us to rationalize that their needs do not require the same consideration that other more vocal, easy to touch, warm-blooded species do. When you combine this with the fact that we have been taught that it is okay to ignore the welfare of fish and that the solution to a dead fish is to ‘just buy a new one, it is easy to see why we have the problem that we do.

What can be done?

None of this, however, absolves us from our responsibility as a fish or pet owner. It is the responsibility of every fish owner to provide the best possible care for his or her fish. Collectively, as a group of aquarium owners, it is also our duty to educate beginning aquarists, so that they have the knowledge and tools to provide the best in fish care and promotion of fish welfare. If private aquarium and fish store owners took a hard stance against companies that sell and display unhealthy and poorly-cared-for fish, they would soon go out of business. At the same time, if the same people insisted on humane captive-rearing methods and lowered mortality in production, these trades would drastically improve, or cease to exist. The welfare of fish affects every single aquarium owner and is something that drastically needs improvement. It is an issue that we should all be concerned with and work hard to improve.