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October 24, 2022
December 30, 2022
At Anima International, we recently decided to suspend our campaign against live fish sales in Poland indefinitely. After a few years of running the campaign, we are now concerned about the effects of our efforts, specifically the possibility of a net negative result for the lives of animals. We believe that by writing about it openly we can help foster a culture of intellectual honesty, information sharing and accountability. Ideally, our case can serve as a good example on reflecting on potential unintended consequences of advocacy interventions.
Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) is a domesticated freshwater fish. It’s the third largest fish farmed in the world’s aquaculture production. Poland is the European Union’s largest producer and top importer.
What is especially bizarre about Poland and other similar countries in Central and Eastern Europe is the relatively recent custom of buying live carps during the Christmas period. The tradition developed around 70 years ago due to a combination of factors:
Due to this strong tradition¹ 90% of Polish domestic production is sold around Christmas and ~25% of the population reports buying the carp alive.² There is an intense public debate around this subject in Poland at this time of year.
Carps are farmed in small ponds. As omnivores, they feed on small invertebrates and later transition to special grain-based feed. There are 3,000 farms in Poland with an additional 1,000 businesses engaged in carp aquaculture. According to 2020 reports, Polish carp aquaculture was the biggest in the European Union, making up 36% of freshwater fish production in Poland.
While the Polish carp industry seems to be gaining momentum in Europe, it appears that popular demand and changing trends in consumption may be leading to stagnation. As economic models emerge, they point to aesthetics and the difficulty of preparation rather than price driving the stagnation, especially among young adults. From our anecdotal experience, this seems intuitive, as carp hasn’t been marketed well by the industry. We have seen experts pushing the industry to market carp better to fit the new trends.
It’s worth mentioning here that fish numbers are reported in tonnes, so we can only use rough estimates. FAO FishStatJ Database states that 23,020,000 kg of carp were produced in aquaculture in Poland in 2019.³
While we know the volume of carp production, it’s not easy to obtain reliable data on live carps sold each year. The best estimates that we currently use come from the Polish Association of Fish Processors. They estimate that approximately 4,000,000 kg of live carps are sold each year in the country.⁴
The average carp sold in markets and shops is 3 years old and weighs between 1.2 kg to 2.5 kg. For simplicity’s sake, we assume that on average a carp weighs 2 kg when sold. This translates to around 2 million live carps sold each year in Poland. While it’s an enormous number of individual animals, it’s relatively low in comparison to animals like broilers, of which around 1 billion are killed in Poland every year.
It’s worth noting that factory farming optimizes output per resource used. While it may seem counterintuitive that farmers would be fine with high mortality rates, in principle what matters is not how many animals die, but how much profit is gained. As a consequence, for each animal killed and delivered as the final product we have to consider how many more of them die in the process.
According to Animal Charity Evaluators’ report appendix (table 4) the combined survival rate in farmed common carp equals approximately 20.6%. Therefore, we estimate that approximately one in five carp survives until slaughter.
Carps are transported in very poor conditions resulting from the disregard of any welfare concerns and the fish being ill-adapted to endure such treatment. At first, they are taken out of ponds, moved to special tanks, deprived of food and prepared to be transported alive. Then the fish are loaded onto trucks and shipped to retailers. They are often transported without water and in overcrowded conditions. This level of negligence induces high levels of stress, resulting in serious injury or death.
Carps are usually held in overcrowded water containers, often in dirty, bloodied and inadequately oxygenated water. Shops and staff engage in the sale of live animals only over a few weeks of the year and are therefore not experienced in handling these animals, especially when it comes to slaughter.
Footage of the conditions in shops is very graphic and generates a lot of attention in the media.
People usually take the fish home in a container or plastic bag filled with water. Sadly, sometimes carps are transported in bags or containers without water, which under Polish law should be considered animal cruelty and thus illegal. Carps are then kept until Christmas Eve, when they are killed. Needless to say, most people are untrained in killing animals, which frequently results in an unnecessarily painful death, usually without any kind of stunning. Polish law states that it’s illegal for an untrained individual to kill an animal, but in this private context, laws against such violations are very unlikely to be enforced.
The horrific and visible cruelty toward carps in Poland made it an obvious target for animal advocacy campaigns. Activists used various tools to help animals. Nowadays every major animal advocacy organization in Poland has a campaign about live carp sales (Viva!, Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Compassion and Anima International - known in Poland under Otwarte Klatki brand).
From the standpoint of campaigning for carps one of the most important outcomes was pushing seven key supermarket chains in 2019 to stop selling live fish that resulted in obtaining their public commitments.
A key legal milestone was the victory of animal activist and lawyer Karolina Kuszlewicz to prosecute staff in one of the supermarkets (E.Leclerc) for mistreatment of carps. After 10 years of legal struggle, the case finally reached The Supreme Court of Poland which overturned previous instances and ruled in favor of fish, finding staff guilty of cruelty. The court pointed to the shop manager as directly responsible for mistreatment. This created an important precedent⁵ for every court and prosecutor in Poland and sent a message to the public – especially businesses – that they should not think that cruelty toward fish will go unpunished.
Finally, public support for the live fish ban is high.⁶
In Anima International, teams are quite autonomous. Some teams consist to varying degrees of volunteers managed by the teams higher in the hierarchy. Our fish team was one of the minor teams as we focus mostly on other campaigns, like hens or broilers. Nevertheless, in 2018 we increased our resources in this area, because we spotted an opportunity to get companies to commit to stop selling live fish.
We focused mostly on:
We successfully recorded footage from carp farms, which wasn’t available in Poland before, and managed to get major retailers to commit to stop selling live fish. This was an enormous victory after years of campaigning for fish in Poland.
While planning the strategy for the team in 2021 the new manager of the campaign, Weronika Żurek, stumbled upon more news about people in Poland switching to other fish species during Christmas, one of them being salmon. Carp is an omnivorous fish fed predominantly grain and soy, whereas salmon is a carnivorous fish, which in turn uses more animals in farming. The potential effect of that made us worried. We decided to reduce our actions around Christmas 2021 until we could investigate this further.
Carnivorous species like salmon or tuna must be fed with almost exclusively animal-derived feed, such as fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) which are made up of so-called feed fishes. Most species of farmed fish, such as rainbow trout, are fed with a mix of plant- and animal-derived food.
As mentioned, common carp is not considered a high-quality product and people buy it live for Christmas only because it is a tradition. It also has a reputation of not being tasty in comparison to other species, such as salmon, which is considered to be a high-quality delicacy. Furthermore, salmon prices began slowly declining in Poland which made it easier for consumers to buy it.
Taking these factors into account, we started to worry that our work may cause more animals to be farmed than spared. This would be true in an unlikely scenario that people in Poland would switch to salmon just because they cannot participate in the tradition of buying live carp, with only frozen carp being available to them. For animal activists it was somewhat unintuitive why a lack of live animals for sale would make people switch to other frozen animal species rather than to the same frozen species.
To verify our model we commissioned a representative poll. Firstly, we asked how many are planning to buy live carps – 25.5% reported doing so. From these we asked respondents what they would choose for Christmas Eve if live carp was not available. While almost half (47.1%) said they would just buy frozen versions of carp, to our surprise 23.9% said they would switch to salmon and 21.2% to trout (followed by herring and pollock).
In a follow-up, people pointed out that they are more likely to switch to salmon because the price fell in recent years.⁷ Furthermore, we asked Aquatic Life Institute to research the relation between live carp sales and fish-derived feed products usage to supplement our research.
The data we obtained didn’t look good for the campaign and pushed us to further consider how effective our work is.
Our poll suggests a trend to replace live carp with salmon. Salmon is a carnivorous fish which means that choosing salmon instead of live carp could cause more animals to die. Yet, we are skeptical of how much it can for sure be attributed to our campaign rather than other socio-economic factors and how much we should trust self-reported data.
Nevertheless, because of the stakes of animal suffering we wanted to be meticulous. We modeled a very conservative scenario where we assumed that due to Anima International’s campaign efforts just 1% of Polish people who usually buy live carp for their Christmas Eve meal switch to buying the same amount of salmon (non-live).
We assumed that this 1% of consumers will buy the same weight of salmon as they would of carp. If 4,000,000 kg of live carps are sold annually in Poland, it would mean 40,000 kg of carp replaced by salmon.
The average slaughter weight of salmon is around 4 kg and that of live carp – 2 kg. This roughly translates to 20,000 carps being replaced by 10,000 salmon.
We need to understand how many animals are killed in order to produce one animal that is sold. There is some disagreement on how many fish a salmon would need to eat to reach slaughter weight (for example, Compassion in World Farming places the number at around 350 animals), but even if we take the smaller numbers from the Global Reporting Programme, one Atlantic salmon consumes approximately 147 other fish before it is slaughtered. For comparison, one common carp requires only one feed fish.
We also needed to take the mortality in fish farms into consideration. For common carps the survival rate equals ~20.6% while the survival rate in salmon is about ~65%. To make calculations clear, we assumed that 1 in 5 carp and 2 in 3 salmon survive until slaughter. We furthermore assumed that fish that die prematurely eat only half of the feed.⁸
Calculations for animals used to produce a single fish look as follows:
In this model we want to assess how replacing 40,000 kg of product compares:
It means that it takes around 1,870,000 fish deaths to produce the amount of Atlantic salmon equivalent to 1% of the amount of carp sold alive in Poland each year. It takes approximately 160,000 fish deaths in total to produce 1% of the carps that are sold alive in Poland.
For the purpose of the model, replacement means that carps are not produced and are spared the suffering of living in farmed conditions, so we need to subtract the number of animals killed in carp production from the number of animals used in salmon production: 1,870,000 - 160,000 = 1,710,000. This then represents 1,710,000 additional fish deaths which would not have happened if the switch had not been made.
Our calculations suggest that buying one Atlantic salmon requires around 11 times more fish deaths than buying the same (weight) amount of common carp.
To restate it – assuming that 1% of people would switch to salmon because of Anima International’s work, this would lead to an 11-fold increase in the number of animals killed.
It’s also worth highlighting again that these calculations are only rough estimates as reliable data regarding live fish sold in Poland is hard to obtain and that we used the most conservative data on how many fish a salmon would consume.
Death is not the only moment a fish suffers and it’s clear that a carp sold alive and killed later may suffer more than a salmon which is slaughtered earlier in the farming process. At the same time, feed fish which are consumed by salmon are typically killed in extremely unethical ways (usually live freezing in ice slurry, asphyxiation or getting crushed by the weight of other fish) and their agony often lasts a few hours.
Because of this and the differences in farming methods, fishes may suffer more or less during their lives, making it difficult to precisely calculate the levels of suffering for the two species discussed in this post. For the purpose of this model we ignored these differences as we used an already low estimate of 1% of consumers in the hope that a very conservative approach would offset any welfare differences.
Speaking only about animals’ lives, the case of the live fish campaign being negative for animals seemed clear. However, it wasn’t clear how the model should impact our strategy – for example, whether we should discontinue the campaign altogether.
For brevity’s sake, this is a rough overview of considerations that our team flagged during the evaluation of the campaign. Some are more tangible, some are less, some may seem organization-centered rather than mission oriented, but for the sake of transparency we want to include them. As a general note, it’s hard to have high credence in thinking about indirect effects – as thinking about the next-order effects of our work is very speculative.
In Anima International we strive to advocate for animals in the most effective ways possible. Sometimes that means admitting that we’ve made mistakes, that a campaign isn’t working or that our interventions are not having the effect they should. The real mistake, of course, would be to never investigate our impact in the first place.
When summing up the reevaluation, we were not strongly convinced by the mere weight of the calculations. It seems to us that the effects of switching to carnivorous fishes, especially salmon, could be mitigated by incorporating proper tools into campaigning. The difference in intuitions between experts was the strongest evidence that made us especially cautious not to take the estimations at face value. Yet the data and our reasoning heavily reduced our confidence in the cost-effectiveness of the campaign.
There are also plausible arguments in favor of important long-term effects for fish, despite the negative short-term outlook. However, in the real world, this would mean accepting the likelihood of vastly increasing fish suffering in the short term to reduce it in the long term. This somewhat resembles the “greater good” argument which we think has a very negative track-record and seems to enable fallacious reasoning, therefore we leaned toward discarding it.
Naturally, the most unnerving scenario for us, as animal advocates, is that the campaign we have been running for several years may in fact have had the exact opposite effect to what we expected, increasing animal suffering. Nevertheless, at the risk of motivated reasoning, we consider the value of information and intellectual honesty as conducive to successful animal liberation.
In the end, the expected (negative) value and reduction in our confidence in the overall campaign’s effectiveness made us decide not to invest our resources further. We have indefinitely paused any major campaign actions and disbanded the whole team that managed it, redirecting resources elsewhere.
It is important to note that this doesn’t change anything in Anima International’s commitment to work for aquatic animals, such as our work in regards to octopus farming. We are currently taking time to reassess how we can best have an impact for fish in Poland reasoning from the first principles.
We welcome feedback on this post and on our reasoning, especially critical feedback. If you have any thoughts on how we can improve our reasoning, we encourage you to write to [email protected].
We expect the news of closing this campaign to somewhat reduce public and donor support for our organization (perhaps this has already happened). If you appreciate our work for animals, please consider donating to Anima International to help us work effectively to abolish animal suffering. Any support helps.
The main person behind research and strategy reevaluation is Weronika Żurek.
This post was based heavily on expertise and an input from Anna Iżyńska-Tymoniuk, Kirsty Henderson, Anna Kozłowska, Paweł Rawicki, Keyvan Mostafavi, Bogna Wiltowska, and Andrew Skowron.
Special thanks to Aquatic Life Institute for additional information. If you care about fish, who are particularly neglected animals, please consider donating to ALI.
As always, we remind you about our Resource Library. If your work aims to help animals, you can use any of our materials as you wish (without crediting it). Visit https://animainternational.org/resources for large amounts of investigative footage, including fish, as well as other resources.
Jakub Stencel has been involved in the animal advocacy movement for over 10 years. Currently holds the position of Director of Development in Polish animal protection organization - Otwarte Klatki, and Director of Global Development in Anima International, which he co-founded. On a day-to-day basis, Jakub is responsible for strategic planning, data-driven development, and organizational growth.