Two women choosing salmon in a supermarket

Making sense of salmon labels.

How much do labels really tell you about how salmon killed for their meat are treated?

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated June 20, 2023

For most people, the idea of factory farming generally evokes images of big sheds packed with chickens or pigs. Many consumers will be surprised to learn that millions of fish who are eaten each year in Australia, are also factory farmed — in big cages in the ocean called ‘sea pens’.

A significant number of these fish are salmon. Over 58,000 tonnes of Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) have been farmed annually in Tasmania over recent years — that’s more than 11.5 million individual fish.

Whether farmed animals — including fish — experience ‘a life worth living’ has become a key consideration in consumer purchasing decisions. Importantly, there are no legally enforceable definitions for salmon farming systems in Australia. As a result, the words ‘sustainably sourced’ and ‘responsibly farmed’ frequently feature on the packaging of salmon products. To understand what the three salmon farming companies in Tasmania consider ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’, we have to check their websites — where they each list accreditation with 1-2 certification schemes. In the table below, we have attempted to show how those certification schemes relate to salmon welfare.

Standards and certification systems included in the table:

  • The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)
  • Best Aquaculture Practice (BAP)
  • RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme
  • Global G.A.P., which stands for ‘Good Agricultural Practices’, and is frequently cited by Australian retailers though it does not cover any Tasmanian salmon farms.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)

Best Aquaculture Practice (BAP)

RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme

Global G.A.P.

[1] Average farm stocking density shall not normally exceed 25kg/m3 but may be allowed to rise higher for up to 5 percent of the production cycle if the fish show other indicators of good welfare

[2] RSPCA Approved, Global G.A.P. and BAP certification schemes require recording of deaths and welfare issues at death, and may require investigation of the cause when mortality rate exceeds certain thresholds

[3] ASC – allows a maximum viral disease-related mortality on farm during the most recent production cycle of ≤10%, and the maximum explained mortality rate from each of the previous two production cycles for farms with total mortality >6% is ≤40% of total mortalities.

[4] BAP – Farms shall comply with current national or regional rulings on sea lice to minimise parasite reproduction and optimise control. These may include setting limits for maximum levels of sea lice of different stages

[5] Sensitive nerves extend into a fish’s adipose fin, which sits in front of the tail, and this fin also appears to assist fish when swimming in turbulent water – making its removal both painful and detrimental to behaviour. Fin clipping is done to some young salmon at hatcheries, to identify them as ‘neo-males’ who will be later used for breeding with female fish.

[6] GAP – The removal or alteration of skin or tissue, and physical branding or marking are prohibited.

[7] Salmon producers apply thermal or pressure shocks to fertilised salmon eggs, causing them to have three sets of chromosomes (as opposed to the normal two sets). The fish therefore do not mature sexually and are infertile — so markets can be supplied year-round and salmon who escape their cages cannot breed in the wild. Triploid salmon are more susceptible to deformities and amoebic gill disease when kept in seawater, and are also more easily stressed, more sensitive to warmer sea temperatures and low oxygen concentrations.

[8] In the wild, Atlantic Salmon mainly eat invertebrates while they are young and living in freshwater river systems, and adults (smolts) in the ocean eat shrimp, krill and fish. On intensive fish farms, almost all nutrition provided to salmon is in the form of processed pellets, often containing chicken and plant-based proteins like soy.

[9] GAP – Though not mandatory, it has the only Standard that mentions feed ingredients (e.g., use of feeds that source soy from certified non-deforested regions).

[10] All certification systems acknowledge that wildlife may need to be killed after becoming entangled in nets and require that wildlife be destroyed ‘humanely’ and within the constraints of legislation. The certification systems differ in whether they allow harmful deterrent methods to be used against predators – for example bean bag bullets and acoustic harassment devices.

[11] Escape events are a serious animal welfare concern because it has been shown that Atlantic Salmon do not feed on fish in Tasmanian oceans, so they will slowly die from starvation or succumb to predation.

Making sense of terms and labels.

These are the logos and terms behind the certification schemes outlined in the above table.

‘RSPCA Approved’

The RSPCA Approved farming system accredits salmon farms to RSPCA standards. Salmon in these farms have somewhat higher welfare requirements than in other systems. To date, just one company has been accredited under the scheme — Huon — with 90% of their operations meeting the RSPCA standards.

RSPCA Approved

‘ASC Certified’

The ASC is an international certification program with a third-party verification system for farmed ‘seafood’ that primarily aims to cover the impacts of aquaculture on the surrounding environment and communities. The ASC certification scheme has Salmon farming standards. The scheme began in the early 2000s through dialogue between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and aquaculture industry.

ASC Certified

‘BAP Certified’

Best Aquaculture Practices is part of the Global Aquaculture Alliance — the voice of the aquaculture industry. It is another international certification program with third-party verification for farmed seafood, and also offers membership. The BAP certification scheme has Salmon farming standards.

BAP Certified

‘Global G.A.P. Certified’

‘G.A.P.’ stands for Good Agricultural Practices — and Global G.A.P. certification is an international scheme that covers crops, farmed land animals and farmed seafood. The Global G.A.P. aquaculture standards are not Salmon-specific.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Dying salmon in a salmon farm
Fish in fish farms have been called the 'battery hens' of the sea. And just like animals in factory farms on land, fish in fish farms can suffer from a range of diseases exacerbated by unhygienic and cramped conditions.
Image credit: Compassion in World Farming

Ethical concerns in all Atlantic salmon farms.

Scientific research over the last 20 years has shown fishes experience pain and are much more intelligent than many people may realise1. Despite this, fish are not protected by most state-based animal cruelty laws and there isn’t even a legally enforceable Code of Practice for fish farming and killing.

Salmon are bred and kept in barren freshwater tanks on land for 10-16 months before being transported to cages in the ocean, where they live for up to 18 more months. The transportation process – including crowding and handling – is unavoidable in salmon farming systems and is known to cause the salmon great distress2Farming also clearly denies salmon their basic instinct and desire to migrate over thousands of kilometres during their lives. It should come as no surprise to learn that farmed salmon are often depressed and stressed.

Tasmanian oceans expose Atlantic Salmon to new sicknesses — including parasites that cause amoebic gill disease (AGD), and an orthomyxo-like virus (POMV) that they catch from wild Pilchards who are small enough to fit through marine cage nets. AGD makes it difficult for salmon to breathe and they have to be ‘bathed’ several times in fresh water to kill the parasites — or else the salmon will eventually die – and this involves extremely stressful handling procedures. POMV has caused mass mortalities in Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon farms, including the deaths of over 1.35 million individuals in 20173. There is no vaccine or cure for the disease POMV causes in salmon.

All farmed salmon will ultimately face a stressful fate — slaughter. In one method, salmon are put in a water tank saturated with carbon dioxide, which makes it acidic and hypoxic, eventually causing narcosis and a depressed level of consciousness prior to bleeding. It is well established that salmon in these ‘stunning’ tanks show stress and escape behaviours — vigorously thrashing their heads and tails for anywhere from 30 seconds to 9 minutes. In another method, salmon swim through a passage or pipe into automated killing machines that stun them with a blow to the head before cutting their gill arches to bleed out. These machines kill fish at astounding speeds and rely on precise calibration to cause unconsciousness. Salmon may also be asphyxiated in the air or by immersing them in a slurry mixture of ice and water.

Despite science long confirming that fish feel pain, the suffering inflicted on salmon during slaughter is entirely legal.

What about wild-caught salmon?

When people hear of the suffering inherent in fish farming, many understandably wonder whether sourcing wild-caught fish is a more humane and sustainable option. But the reality is, it’s all part of the same problem.

Australia imports several species of Pacific Salmon who are caught when returning from the ocean to freshwater rivers in Alaska where they were born. In Alaska, salmon are often caught by drift and set gillnets, which are designed to entangle fish by their gills, fins and spines. Fishes can be snagged in a gillnet for many hours before hauling, leaving them injured, stressed and unable to escape predators. Another commonly utilised method is purse seining, whereby a large net encloses a group of fish. The net can be set from the shore (beach seining), stretching across the opening of a river where it meets the sea. It is well-known that both methods — gillnets and seining — frequently catch other, non-targeted marine creatures.

The global consumer demand for salmon products is so high that naturally-breeding populations have to be ‘enhanced’ by hatchery-produced salmon. Tens of millions of salmon — primarily Pink Salmon and Chum Salmon — are raised in freshwater hatcheries and released into the ocean each year so that they can later be harvested. In 2018, 43 million hatchery-produced salmon were captured, representing 30% of Alaska’s total commercial salmon harvest4.

What’s the alternative?

Current demand for salmon by Australian consumers can only be met by factory farming. And the devastating effects of this industry extend to the wider ocean, and its inhabitants. Prominent fish scientists have argued:

It is the high-intensity, high-output farms that have the greatest environmental and human rights concerns… and cause the most suffering to fishes, particularly through overcrowding, handling, transport, starvation, and slaughter. Culum & Brown (2019)

There are plenty of reasons to leave sea animals living naturally in the sea. And with delicious plant-based recipes and products for every ‘seafood’ dish you could imagine, it’s never been easier to take these marine animals into our hearts, and off our plates.


[1] C. Brown & C. Dorey (2019). Pain and Emotion in Fishes — Fish Welfare Implications for Fisheries and Aquaculture. Animal Studies Journal, 8(2): article 12

[2] Santurtun et al. (2018). A review of factors affecting the welfare of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Animal Welfare, 27: 193-204.

[3] S. Galea, E. Street & J. Dunlevie, ‘Macquarie Harbour salmon: 1.35 million fish deaths prompt call to ’empty’ waterway of farms’ (29 May 2018) ABC News.

[4] Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial Fisheries (March 2019), ‘Alaska Salmon Fisheries Enhancement Annual Report 2018’ (Regional Information Report No. 5J19-01).