Baby, don't hurt me

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Baby, don't hurt me...

How fish really feel and why it's important

I was reading a book recently about the aboriginal history of North Head in Sydney when I read a sentence that really caught my attention. It read something like,

"...they mostly ate fish, as well as vegetables and animals."

Not fish and other animals, but fish and animals, as if there two were mutually exclusive (here's a hint: they're not). We are probably all guilty of making this separation, whether it was a conscious decision or not. Maybe you've had a pescetarian phase like me where eating fish was an 'ethical compromise' on your journey to becoming fully vegetarian, or maybe you've had a pet fish whose tank you didn't get around to cleaning for 6 months, or maybe you've been fishing for fun where you were totally ok with hooking a fish in the cheek with a metal hook, pulling it by this hook out of the water where it can't breathe, handling it, pulling the hook from its mouth before releasing it back into the water without a second thought.

But you accidentally step on your dogs foot and next minute your on the ground apologising profusely for hurting them or you watch a nature documentary where a lion takes down a gazelle and you feel sadness and sympathy for that gazelle.

Why don't we feel like that when we go fishing?

Pain in non-human animals

Back in the 17th century, French pilosopher, René Descartes, argued that animals don't experience pain and suffering because they lack consciousness.

Fast forward to 1975, and in his book - Animal Liberation - bioethicist Peter Singer argues that by that logic that animals are less conscious and therefore have smaller brains, we must also then believe than newborn babies and people with degenerative brain diseases must experience less pain than we do, which we know not to be true. He suggests instead that consciousness may not be what's necessary in order to feel pain.

In 2012 Gary Varner, an American philosopher, reviewed research into pain in animals and concluded that in order for an animal to experience pain, it needed to:

  • Have nociceptors;
  • Have a brain;
  • Nociceptors and brain linked;
  • Have endogenous opioids; and
  • Evidence that analgesics affect responses.

As a result, he concluded that all vertebrates, including fish, probably experience pain, but invertebrates (with the exception of cephalopods) probably do not.

Since the turn of the century, it has become widely accepted that mammals and birds experience pain similarly to how we do. It is also become more accepted that reptiles and amphibians also likely feel pain the way we do. But why not fish?

Pain in fish

The ability of fish to feel pain and ultimately suffering is a hotly debated topic; however, it has been shown that fish not only fit the criteria listed above, but also fit the more comprehensive physiological and behaviour criteria listed below which was suggested in 2014:

  • Pathways to central nervous system
  • Central processing in brain
  • Receptors for analgesic drugs
  • Physiological responses
  • Movement away from noxious stimuli
  • Behavioural changes from norm
  • Protective behaviour
  • Self-administration of analgesia
  • Responses with high priority over other stimuli
  • Pay cost to access analgesia
  • Altered behavioural choices/preferences
  • Relief learning
  • Rubbing, limping or guarding
  • Paying a cost to avoid stimulus
  • Tradeoffs with other requirements

But for some reason, society hasn't caught up. In fact, in the US, the legislation protecting animals for scientific research only includes "warm-blooded" animals, excluding fish*.

*with the exception of the opah!

Fun fact: opah are the only warm-blooded fish species known to science!

The inconvenience of animal sentience

If the world was to accept that fish have the capacity to feel pain, then this would have incredible implications throughout society and the world.

  • Recreational, commercial and sporting fisheries:
    • injury during capture and trawling;
    • physical exhaustion and stress during capture and slaughter;
    • use of live bait.
  • Aquaculture:
    • tagging/fin clipping for stock assessment;
    • high density stocking causing increased aggression and stress;
    • food deprivation and medicines used for disease treatment or before harvesting;
    • removal from water for husbandry;
    • pain and stress during slaughter.
  • Ornamental fish for the aquarium industry:
    • capture by sub-lethal poisoning (i.e. cyanide poisoning);
    • permanent adverse physical states due to selective breeding;
    • improper housing (i.e. low enrichment,  high density stocking; improper tank-mates increasing stress and aggression);
    • removal from water for husbandry;
    • food deprivation and medicines used for disease treatment or before harvesting.
  • scientific research
    • genetic-modification;
    • deliberate adverse physical, physiological and behavioural states;
    • tagging, fin clipping and marking;
    • handling;
    • improper housing.
  • Exposure to pollutants
    • runoff and dumping in ocean, rivers and lakes

It is these implications and the effects they will have on peoples way of lives that hinders the acceptance that fish feel pain. In other words, it is inconvenient to acknowledge fish sentience.

So what should we do? In his 2015 article, Culum Brown, a world-leader in fish cognition and welfare research, probably puts it best: "the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate."

I'd have to agree.

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Joni Pini-Fitzsimmons