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The COPEWELL project ended 31 December 2015 and has now delivered its final reports.

The project that has run for 54 months involving 17 partners from 10 countries has achieved it’s main objective: To construct a knowledge base for a new integrative framework for the study of fish welfare based on the concepts of allostasis, appraisal, and coping styles.  The knowledge generated can already be found in 26 published papers so far, and we expect at least 20 more to come in 2016.  The COPEWELL web page will be continuously updated.

In WP1 COPING STYLES, we have developed and validated methods to characterize stress coping styles in Gilthead seabream, European seabass and Atlantic salmon. Robust behavioural and physiological correlates have been identified and we have highlighted both common and species-specific screening methods for diverse traits. Further, the identification of molecular biomarkers for stress coping styles in each species and across all 3 species has been a landmark. Molecular analyses of risk-taking behaviour across species has led to the identification of a genetic framework for this behaviour conserved through evolutionary time. Finally, we have built neuroanatomical maps with histological and neurotransmitter markers. We have shown for the first time that fish with differing coping styles have clear differences in forebrain area activation. These results confirm our hypothesis that structural mechanisms and neural plasticity are essential to contrasting stress coping styles and underpin the analysis of cognitive functions.

In WP2 APPRAISAL we have tested the occurrence of cognitive appraisal in teleost fish. Using the zebrafish as a model we have shown that what triggers a physiological and genomic response to environmental stimuli is the subjects’ assessment of the stimulus, rather than the intrinsic characteristics of the stimulus per se. How individuals of the three target species evaluate both aversive and appetitive stimuli were characterized, and the role of predictability and controllability as modulators of appraisal was evaluated. As predicted, both predictability and controllability affected the way fish perceive the same stimulus. Our results show that appraisal, a cognitive ability classically considered as complex, is also present in a fish and that relies on particular neural circuits.

Within WP3 ALLOSTASIS,  knowledge on fish stress physiology within the context of allostasis has been significantly advanced. Key components of the allostasis concept including the effect of predictability on the outcome of the stress response were evaluated showing how fish to reset and fine-tune their internal set points and equilibria. Furthermore for the first time (non-REM) sleep was demonstrated by EEG-analysis in seabass and seabream. Although fundamental in nature, the knowledge provided provides novel physiological insights to further develop hypotheses and concepts with respect to stress physiology and animal welfare as well as aquaculture industries to develop new protocols that can promote animal welfare.

In WP4 ONTOGENY the ontogeny of neuroendocrine and physiological processes mediating allostasis was characterised and the long-term effects of chronic stressors at early developmental stages on the functions of allostatic mediators, coping styles, and performance later in life the ontogeny evaluated.  Seabass and seabream are able to respond to noxius stimuli as early as around first feeding, and HPI axis is fully mature around flexion. Stress exposure at early ontogeny affects the whole transcriptome, brain architecture and performance traits at subsequent stages of development.  Moreover salmon parr with highly reduced growth rates caused by a chronic stress phase show growth compensation after stress, differences in brain monoaminergic levels, and a downregulated stress response. Our results interestingly indicate that stress exposure during early life may prepare individuals to perform better in aquaculture.

In summary the COPEWELL project has given us a deeper understanding of how individual fish cope with their environment and the importance of the brain and the individual’s interpretation of stressors and sensory signals. The results indicate that we can improve both selection, stress tolerance and performance of farmed fish by implementing hardening or training methods at the hatchery stage. This knowledge, fundamental in nature, provides both the research community and aquaculture industry with an integrative framework that will be highly valuable as we move forward toward understanding fish welfare from a biological, operational and ethical perspective. The work accomplished throughout this project has significantly enhanced our understanding of fish welfare, put EU-funded animal welfare research at the forefront and will serve as a robust foundation to meet the challenges of developing a sustainable aquaculture industry that contributes to EU food security

The COPEwell Project:

COPEWELL – A new integrative framework for the study of fish welfare based on the concepts of allostasis, appraisal and coping styles

Project period: 2011-2015

COPEwell leaflet (PDF)


Tore S. Kristiansen 
Project coordinator
Animal welfare