At present there is no legal requirement to take the welfare needs of decapod crustaceans into account, with live crabs and lobsters on occasions being found in supermarkets wrapped in plastic shrink wrap, or being boiled in restaurant kitchens
Campaigners are currently fighting for protection over decapod crustaceans, saving them from unnecessary suffering.
Crustacean Compassion, a new animal welfare group, wants the UK government to recognise lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans as animals - entitled to the same protection afforded to other creatures.
Their first step towards achieving their goal comes in the form of a petition to protect crabs and lobsters from pain under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The petition to Defra Minister George Eustice highlights the fact that currently there is no legal requirement to take the welfare needs of decapod crustaceans into account, with live crabs and lobsters on occasions being found in supermarkets wrapped in plastic shrink wrap, or being boiled in restaurant kitchens and taking three minutes to die. Some are just ripped apart, with claws or tails hacked off with knives.
Some supermarkets and restaurants do stun crustaceans before they are slaughtered, in response to public concerns, however animal welfare laws do not currently apply to decapod crustaceans in the UK. A number of creatures come under the umbrella of the decapod family, including crayfish, crabs, lobsters, prawns, and shrimp.
Evidence has shown that these water dwellers do indeed feel pain and that the inhumane way in which they are often stored, handled and slaughtered causes them suffering. One piece of research by Robert Elwood and Laura Adams of Queen's University involved 40 European shore crabs. A percentage of the crabs were administered a 10-volt, 180-hertz shock for 200 milliseconds every 10 seconds for two minutes. Crabs that were not shocked served as the controls. The crabs were then measured for their lactate levels, which indicates a stress response, and those that had been shocked showed a far higher level of lactate.
In New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland, decisions have been made to include decapod crustaceans in their animal welfare legislation. In Australia, a Sydney fishmonger became the first business to be convicted of animal cruelty when it pleaded guilty to breaching the New South Wales Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in February this year, for dismembering lobsters with a band saw.
Investigators from the RSCPA watched workers at Nicholas Seafoods separating lobsters' tails from their bodies while they were still alive. The process was believed to cause the lobsters immense pain.
But as decapods are not legally classed as "animals" in the UK, any crustaceans handled here can come under extreme stress and suffering without anyone being held to account.
Crustacean Compassion's Campaign Director, Maisie Tomlinson said: "We believe that it is unfair, unscientific and legally inconsistent that the Animal Welfare Act excludes decapod crustaceans, given what is now known about their ability to feel pain. The Act explicitly states that invertebrate animals can be included under the definition of ‘animal' if there is sufficient evidence of pain and suffering.
"We urge George Eustice to amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to include these sentient, sensitive creatures under its protections so that responsible food businesses can do the right thing."
Crustacean Compassion was formed after its founders read about live crabs being packaged in supermarkets. In November 2015, a Korean supermarket in Surrey was found to be selling live crabs pre-packaged in cling film. They were slowly suffocating and completely immobilised. The RSPCA was powerless to take legal action because the animals weren't covered by the Animal Welfare Act.
For the Government to take action crustaceans must first be recognised as sentient, pain-feeling creatures. They must be seen to be animals. Seen as such, they would have to be kept, stored and slaughtered in a humane way.
Although there are no set rules for how to slaughter crustaceans, international guidelines do exist, with particularly comprehensive advice from RSPCA Australia. They recommend stunning before slaughter, and the next best method would be chilling first.
Crustacean Compassion believes that UK legislation to protect lobsters and crabs from unnecessary suffering is overdue, and its petition calls for an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales) to include decapod crustaceans in its definition of 'animal' which would give them legal protection from cruelty.
This would ensure that anyone farming them, storing them or slaughtering them would have to abide by basic animal welfare principles: enough food, a suitable environment, and protection from unnecessary pain and suffering at slaughter.
The campaign group put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed Defra had carried out no assessments on the welfare needs of decapod crustaceans since research showed their ability to feel pain. That's no change since 2005 when it was decided decapods wouldn't be included in the Animal Welfare Bill.
At this time however, they included a caveat stating that invertebrates could be included under the Act's protections if scientific evidence of their ability to feel pain became satisfactory.
If you would like for decapod crustaceans to be recognised under UK law as animals, you can join the many signatures already collected by Crustacean Compassion and sign their Petition
Laura Briggs is the Ecologist's UK-based news reporter