Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

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The welfare of decapod crustaceans, the group with the most farmed animals on the planet, is becoming an increasingly important issue for researchers and society, and this debate will soon reach shrimp labs and farms. This article presents protocols specifically designed to measure the welfare of Penaeus vannamei at all stages of their production cycle, from reproduction through larval rearing and postlarval transport to juvenile rearing in earthen ponds.

The shrimp farming production chain is considered one of the world’s most controversial agri-food systems for animal protein production. The evolution of shrimp farming practices is currently taking place on several fronts.

For example, there is a trend towards intensification of production systems for better utilization of resources; the pursuit of certifications and regulations to adapt shrimp production to the new demands of the market and society in general; genetic improvement of animals; improvement of shrimp feeding and nutrition; and increased efforts towards hygienic-sanitary controls and biosecurity in shrimp farms, to name a few.

“This scenario of change, based on the scientific and technological development of the sector, in turn helps to understand why the global production of a single species, the white-leg shrimp Penaeus vannamei, has increased by almost 53% in 5 years.”

However, it is human nature that, despite all this progress, it is often a temptation to cling to traditional production methods and concepts that seemed to work satisfactorily in the past, even though they certainly no longer work in the same way or are no longer acceptable under present and future conditions.

Perhaps this is a challenge to overcome regarding welfare in shrimp farming.

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

The welfare of an organism is inseparable from the degree of suffering and the positive states that this individual experiences at a certain point in time. Sentience, thus, refers to the ability of an animal to consciously perceive what is happening to it and what surrounds it, consciously perceive through the senses, and consciously feel or subjectively

The lack of studies specifically aimed at assessing the sentience of decapod crustaceans should, therefore, not be confused with the absence of sentience in these organisms.

“Even if the question of sentience of the Penaeidea has not yet been settled among researchers, it is a fact that it is no longer possible to treat shrimps as simple “production machines”—they are not.”

Whether due to scientific findings or ethical reasons, several countries have already started to enact regulations for the species-appropriate and humane slaughter of crustaceans.

This article presents a paper that proposes protocols consisting of the indicators, respective references values and scores for assessing the welfare of P. vannamei in the phases of reproduction, larval rearing, transport, and growth in earthen ponds, and discusses, based on a literature review, the processes and perspectives related to the development and
application of shrimp welfare protocols.

Materials and Methods

The indicators selected to assess the welfare of P. vannamei at the different stages of the production process (reproduction, larval rearing, transport, and grow-out) in earthen ponds (Figure 1) were established following the same logic already used for farmed fish species such as Atlantic salmon, Nile tilapia, and grass carp.

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

These indicators were grouped according to four of the five domains: (1) environmental, (2) sanitary, (3) nutritional, and (4) behavioral. The indicators related to psychological freedom were not considered a separate category, as the other proposed indicators assessed this freedom indirectly.

The environmental, health, nutritional, and behavioral domains associated with P. vannamei and the indicators and their respective reference values during the reproductive, larval rearing, transport, and growout phases were identified based on a literature search using Google Scholar as the research platform.

“Books, technical and scientific articles, case studies, manuals, and handouts developed by international institutions, theses, and dissertations were sought. The search period covered 1976 to 2023.”

Based on the information available in the literature, three scores were assigned (1, 2, and 3). Score 1 can be interpreted as covering the ideal variation limits for the target species. Score 2 refers to variations within the limits that animals usually tolerate.

Score 3 refers to reference levels that affect the animals’ physiological, health, and behavioral status to an unacceptable degree, so their welfare and survival are at risk.


Reproduction Stage

The reproductive stage ranges from the selection of animals for the formation of breeding banks to their care (in tanks or earthen ponds) to mating and spawning.

Eleven environmental indicators were selected to assess the welfare of shrimp-farmed breeders. In addition to the parameters commonly used to determine water quality in a farm (temperature, pH, alkalinity, ammonia, nitrite, and salinity), photoperiod (when this variable is controlled), absence of predators (terrestrial or aquatic), and stocking density were considered.

“The controlled presence of terrestrial predators means that the predators are physically present in the environment but do not have direct access to the shrimp. This is the case, for example, when protective fencing prevents birds from accessing ponds.”

In these cases, however, even indirect contact with the predator could be detrimental to the welfare of the shrimp, e.g., as a carrier of infectious diseases.

Health indicators of P. vannamei breeding animals can be primarily measured by direct visual observation of the anatomical features of the animals. Luminescence, on the other hand, when observed in animals in dark environments, either in rearing facilities or in the laboratory, is indicative of the presence of bacteria of the genus Vibrio.

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

Sexual maturity refers to the characteristics of animals that have already been selected for reproduction and spawning in the laboratory. Invasive procedures (especially removal of the eyestalk in females) are considered the most critical point in shrimp welfare at this stage of the production process and should be avoided.

Mortality rates must be assessed cumulatively (from the beginning of this stage to the time of analysis or at the end of the reproductive process). Genetic selection means the application or non-application of properly standardized protocols used by the laboratory in the selection and husbandry of farmed animals.

Nutritional indicators of P. vannamei breeders include, in addition to a direct indicator (the filling of the digestive tract with food), some essential aspects of the feeding routine, such as the composition and type of feed offered, the proportion of crude protein in the breeders’ artificial diet, the amount fed (as a percentage of shrimp biomass), and the feeding frequency.

Behavioral indicators refer to shrimp swimming, feeding behavior during management, and outcomes related to the use of stunning methods when invasive procedures are performed on the animals.

Larvae Rearing Phase

The environmental Indicators adopted for the larval rearing stage here are essentially those already used for livestock rearing, except for the presence of predators, which are unlikely to be present in the ponds used for larval rearing. The reference values are adjusted accordingly for this life stage of the shrimp.

The health indicators for the larvae and postlarvae of P. vannamei are pretty specific and concern issues related to the laboratory itself, the conditions in the larval rearing tanks (questions directly related to the health status of the larvae at the time of assessment, uniformity of larval stages present in the tank, presence of poorly formed larvae, presence of epibionts, muscle necrosis or melanization of the exoskeleton, presence of lipid droplets and staining of the hepatopancreas of the postlarvae); and finally, the observed cumulative mortality rate concerning the batch analyzed.

Postlarvae Transport

Although it is known that in some cases, transport of nauplii takes place (sold between laboratories doing reproduction and larval culture and others doing larval culture only), only transport of postlarvae (which takes place between laboratories and farms) was considered here.

It is proposed to use 12 indicators for assessing the welfare of P. vannamei postlarvae to be evaluated when the postlarvae arrive at the farm, including six environmental, two health, two nutritional, and two behavioral indicators.

Grow-Out Stage

The growth phase begins with the transfer of postlarvae to nurseries (in the case of biphasic rearing) or grow-out facilities (in the case of monophasic rearing) and ends with the selection of animals for breeding banks or slaughter for marketing and consumption.

The indicators proposed here and their respective reference values have been established based on rearing in earthen ponds and do not necessarily apply to other rearing systems such as bioflocs or raceways.

“The environmental indicators are practically the same as those already described for the breeders, except for the photoperiod, because since the cultures are carried out in earthen ponds, the photoperiod is always the natural one.”

However, water transparency was included here, an indirect indicator of the number of planktonic organisms in the water. It can be observed that the reference values for parameters such as temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity, and stocking density also differ between juveniles and breeders.

The welfare degree of the young can be assessed by anatomical indicators that can be analyzed without invasive methods (Table 1). Mortality rates can be assessed through daily monitoring, removal, and counting of dead shrimp from the pond, assessment of feed intake, and accurate quantitative surveys after harvest.

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

The nutritional indicators used to assess the welfare of the juvenile are essentially indirect, except for the visual assessment of the filling of the digestive tract (Table 2). The aim is to ensure adequate feeding conditions and, thus, good nutrition for the animals.

Non-Invasive Methods for Assessing the Welfare of Farmed White-Leg Shrimp (Penaeus vannamei)

Therefore, the reference values and corresponding scores for some of the indicators (size of feed, amount of initial feed, frequency of feeding in the ponds, percent-age of crude protein in the feed, and apparent feed conversion ratio) were established based on four size classes in the production process: for shrimp below 0.9 g, for juveniles from 1 to 3.9 g, and in two size classes where they can already be marketed for consumption, from 4 to 8.9 g and from 9 to 15 g.

The other three indicators are independent of the size of the animals. Two scenarios were considered for the distribution of the feed: the distribution of the feed over the pond surface and the use of feeding trays. The behavioral indicators are specific to the different stages of the production process on a shrimp farm.

“The more restless the animals become, the more they jump (escape behavior) and become stressed. The ecological and biological variables are so dynamic and interactive that it is impossible to think of standardized management techniques or control environmental variables in ponds and hatcheries for shrimp farming.”

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible, for example, to establish acceptable ranges of variation in environmental parameters, to ensure the supply of natural food to the animals, to offer pre- and probiotics as part of the shrimp diet; to stimulate the growth of beneficial microbial communities, to carry out regular tests on the health status of the farmed animals and to promote their stunning before slaughter.

The presented protocols aim to help measure the impact of all these practices on the welfare of farmed P. vannamei.


This paper is the first attempt to propose indicators that encompass all stages of the production process of a shrimp species and, in this case, an essential shrimp species for global aquaculture. However, it is foreseeable that technologies for monitoring the welfare of farmed shrimp and those specifically targeting GAP will increasingly converge from now

This development will typically take place through so-called “precision aquaculture” (Samocha et al., 2002), which will include technologies such as the use of biosensors, data loggers, and early warning systems (Albalat et al., 2022); computer vision for animal monitoring, sensor networks (wireless and long range), robotics, and decision support tools, such as algorithms, the Internet of Things, and decision support systems (Antonucci, 2020; Hung, 2016).

“Such technologies will, in turn, provide shrimp farmers with important information to manage feed supply with minimum waste and maximum feed efficiency; assess organic waste accumulation in ponds to optimize the water quality available to shrimp; improve management decisions related to animal health; and increasingly use animal behavioral signals as indicators of their welfare and the efficiency of management practices applied.”

Most likely, these non-invasive methods of measuring shrimp welfare will soon become routine in farms and laboratories, and it will become increasingly challenging to produce shrimp without taking into account the welfare of the organisms that are farmed, slaughtered, and offered to consumers, whether due to scientific advances in decapod sensitivity, consumer market demand, or changes in international regulations governing shrimp production and marketing—or all of these factors combined.

The best evidence that this is entirely plausible is that remote water quality monitoring technologies are already a reality in several places worldwide (Simbeye, 2014; Capelo, 2021). Further evidence shows that large companies are already incorporating issues such as sustainability certification, organic farming, and animal welfare into their social responsibility programs (Alfnes et al., 2018; Alfnes et al., 2017).

Although the possible technological revolution has the potential to facilitate the assessment of welfare indicators is, it will not render the use of these indicators is superfluous. On the contrary, as is already the case with remote water quality monitoring, there is a tendency to integrate it with this and other technological tools.

However, until this happens, any shrimp farmer can already measure the welfare of P. vannamei during the different stages and breeding processes.

This is a summarized version developed by the editorial team of Aquaculture Magazine based on the review article titled “NON-INVASIVE METHODS FOR ASSESSING THE WELFARE OF FARMED WHITE-LEG SHRIMP (PENAEUS VANNAMEI)” developed by: Ana Silvia Pedrazzani -Wai Ora; Nathieli Cozer – Wai Ora, Federal University of Paraná; Murilo Henrique Quintiliano – FAI Farms; Camila Prestes dos Santos Tavares – Wai Ora, Federal University of Paraná; Ubiratã de Assis Teixeira da Silva – Federal University of Paraná and Antonio Ostrensky -Wai Ora, Federal University of Paraná.
The original article, including tables and figures, was published on FEBRUARY, 2023, through ANIMALS.
The full version can be accessed online through this link:

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