Live export of decapod crustaceans is a major UK industry that poses considerable welfare risks for the animals being transported.

Government statistics show that in 2021, crustaceans accounted for about 16.5% of UK seafood exports with a total value of £238.5 million.

Globally, seafood importexport activity remains high, supporting a large live transport industry for shellfish, including decapod crustaceans. While the seafood economy continues to grapple headwinds, live transport poses profound challenges to animal welfare. 

Live transport is a popular choice for suppliers seeking to prolong freshness. However, any advantage live transport offers can only be realised when animals are properly and humanely transported using methods that minimise negative welfare impacts. While stock species demonstrate varied resilience to live transport, all decapod species are prone to harmful stressors experienced during live handling and transport. For this reason, every species requires honest and proactive consideration of their welfare needs throughout the transporting process. Practices that may have been in use for many years need to be reevaluated through a welfare lens, not just the protection of product quality. 

Decapod crustaceans were recognised as sentient in UK law in 2022, which means it has been legally accepted that these animals experience pain, pleasure and fear. Due to the range and degree of stressors experienced during live transport, this sector of the crustacean industry needs to address evidence-based reform as a matter of urgency. 

What does decapod sentience mean for live exporters and transporters?

Exporters and live transport operators should work with their clients and trade partners to address the following key sources of poor crustacean welfare practice: 

  • During live transportation, decapods face many significant welfare challenges that can lead to stress, injury, muscle depletion, physiological and immunological disturbances, morbidity and mortality. Without holding and storage methods and facilities that are specifically adapted to each species’ unique biological and behavioural needs, decapods will suffer the negative effects of exposure to inappropriate temperatures and poor water quality, overcrowding, mixing with other species and rough handling. All these welfare impacts are exacerbated by long journey durations and/or multiple transfer procedures.
  • When transporting live decapods, overcrowding and inappropriate mixing of species are particular welfare concerns. These scenarios can lead to aggression and cannabilism, so in order to avoid damage to the animals, decapods are often subjected to claw nicking and claw banding. Claw nicking is a painful, inhumane practice that leaves decapods susceptible to disease and unable to demonstrate natural behaviours, while claw banding causes muscle atrophy if used over long periods of time and inhibits natural behaviours. 
  • As a general rule, immersion pre-transport is recommended. Purging, especially for prolonged periods, can lead to welfare concerns and may only be advisable if transport containers lack effective water flow systems capable of removing nitrogenous waste in transit. 
  • Existing knowledge of the biological needs of each transported species must be  applied when developing and using equipment and on-board operating systems. This is to ensure that they are demonstrably capable of providing, monitoring and maintaining throughout transportation the most suitable water quality, environmental parameters and welfare standards for the species being transported
  • The seafood industry is urged to develop transport methods and supply chain logistics that encourage post-slaughter transport over live transport. 

Keeping aquatic animals alive and healthy while they endure long-distance transportation presents considerable welfare challenges that not only threaten survival rates and product quality. As retailers in the UK and abroad face growing pressure from consumers to ensure the humane treatment of all decapods in their supply chains, live exporters and importers will need to demonstrate a commitment to eliminating inhumane practices. This hub features information on the science behind decapod welfare requirements, news about the latest research in this area and guidance on how to minimise some negative welfare impacts during the sea to plate journey.