Improving fish welfare, as if by magic

An intern explores ways to help fish recover from long-haul travels

Welfare and Behaviour

You are taught as a child to not shake the goldfish in the bag. Transporting your new pet fish can often be a stressful, and very slow, car ride home. Trying desperately to keep the water still as your new companion bobs around helplessly. What you may not realise however, is your pet has already survived a greater journey against all odds. Sometimes up to 80% of ornamental fish die during transit; it is clear these practices need to be changed.

Jason McNeill, mature student from the University of the West of Scotland, former restaurant head-chef and accomplished magician, has been diving in to his summer internship with The Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI). Researching the welfare of small Orandas (Carassius auratus), which are very similar to the common goldfish, transported within the pet industry.

Fish welfare research tends to focus on commercial aquaculture, where improvements in diet and husbandry directly improve product quality for human consumption. When it comes to companion animals, however, we know comparatively little about their welfare needs. Fish are in fact the third most popular pet in the UK, found in nearly 10% of households. One home aquarium can potentially contain many fish, so they are also by far the most numerous companion animals held in captivity; 20-25 million compared to 9 million dogs and 8 million cats.

Jason’s internship, supported by Pets at Home and WALTHAM, tracked the arrival of pet fish into the UK from farms in Singapore. The project looked at how fish behave, as a tool to monitor welfare. This could help the team better understand how the set-up of a tank on arrival at the pet shop could affect recovery from a journey. Almost twenty hours of video recordings were made. Using these, Jason hopes to determine if post-travel recovery is altered depending on whether fish are housed alone, or with other settled Orandas. Jason’s co-researchers on the project are PhD Student Myriam Vanderzwalmen and Dr Kath Sloman.

The opportunity has changed Jason’s perceptions of academic and scientific research. “Learning and performing a variety of lab techniques and procedures has been hugely beneficial to me as a student. Although I have learnt academia and scientific research is full of challenges and obstacles, overcoming these is part of the job. I think that has been my biggest learning: determination is the key to success. One such obstacle was the day the dry ice delivery failed to show. We had to think quickly to prevent degradation of our water samples before they made it back to the lab. Luckily we were able to use a cold storage solution successfully- otherwise it would have meant repeating a whole day’s work”

“My plan for the future is not yet defined, though increasingly I think I would like to pursue a career in animal behaviour. This internship has given me an eye opening introduction in to the work that can be done, and the impact we can have on animals’ lives. I hope that once the analysis of my data is complete in 2018, we will be able to identify certain tank set-ups which reduce stress behaviours, such as high ventilation rates, and high biting and chasing behaviours. My hope is this research will then be used to advise pet shops in how to house fish, post-transport, to improve their welfare.”