Do Fish Feel Pain?

do-fish-feel-pain.jpg

Since I was a child and watched images on TV of millions of fish being crushed and suffocated in giant nets and then dumped unceremoniously onto the deck of a boat, I have always been uncomfortable with the notion that those fish felt no pain or fear. My elders and betters always said that the fish had no real feelings as we know it and so there was no problem. I believed this right up to my late teens as it was easier to accept this rather than the cruel and thoughtless alternative of just turning a blind eye. We are expert at justifying our cruelty to other species, but surely we have advanced far enough now as a civilization to consider the true consequences of our actions.

As I began my career as an underwater wildlife cameraman/filmmaker I began to see marine creatures in an entirely different light. One of the absolutes of making good wildlife films is to study closely animal behaviour and try to capture it on camera.  I began to watch individual fish as well as crustaceans, soon discovering that each animal had its own personality. Individual fish reacting differently to others of the same species to the same circumstances. I have seen fish show traits of thought and fear. I have also seen many species struggle and suffer with pain.

I have been told by learned people that this is just fancy. Fish and certainly crustaceans have no physiology to register pain and any reactions are simply reflex. I could never decide if this was just self denial for the countless billions of marine animals we have made to suffer in the past or total arrogance in the belief that we know everything, and because there was no scientific proof that fish suffer pain, so it could not be happening.

One of the problems here is that fish make no recognisable noise to us. We can’t hear any screams. It is the same with other marine animals. We don’t hear crustaceans cry in terror and pain when they are dropped into boiling water. We even hide the frantic scrabbling of them trying to escape by putting the lid on the pot.

I always equate an animal’s ability to feel pain and fear by its efforts to fight for life. Its panic to get away, its struggle to defend itself. Surely this is an indication that the creature is experiencing something that terrifies it. If I see a fish on the end of a spear, shaking in its death throes while trying to escape, I have to say to myself that it is feeling pain. My entire body and mind tell me this is so. An octopus writhing on a kitchen chopping board screams out to me that it is afraid and feeling untold pain as the knife removes its arms. I am sure that many animals deal with pain in different ways and far better than we do, many species being able to overcome loss of limbs by regeneration. This does not make the loss any less painful.

We are discovering new things every day, aspects of life we never imagined possible only a few generations ago. The mapping of the human genome has recently revolutionised biology even though the genes were always there. Yet we still cling defiantly to the notion that things only exist when science proves it to be so.

I have had heated discussions with people from many walks of life about this and I am always amazed at how often we hide our cruelty to animals behind the wall of limited scientific knowledge. It was during one of my video courses in the Red Sea this year that the topic came up again with a few people. One was a nurse and she explained very carefully how fish in particular had no biology for feeling or registering pain. Well, in fact they do, but I didn’t know this for sure until a few days ago when I finally decided to do some new research and discovered a book written in 2010 Dr Victoria Braithwaite entitled ‘Do Fish Feel Pain?’. To my relief the answer was yes they do and the science was right there in black and white. Victoria Braithwaite is Professor of Fisheries and Biology at Penn State University, USA and a Visiting Professor of Biology, University of Bergen, Norway.

Dr Victoria Braithwaite makes the science behind the debate around pain in fish accessible to non-scientists. She describes the many different pieces of evidence that together build up a picture of fish as animals that, she concludes, “have the mental capacity to feel pain”: if we accept that birds and mammals can feel pain and suffer, then there is now sufficient evidence that fish can too.

The excerpts below are taken from http://fishcount.org.uk/fish-welfare-in-commercial-fishing/fish-sentience/do-fish-feel-pain

Recent scientific research has found evidence of a limbic system in the fish brain. The limbic system in the human brain is believed to be responsible for emotions. Scientists have shown that the brain is active when fish (goldfish, trout, salmon) experience painful stimuli.

Dr Victoria Braithwaite gives a surprising example of fish behaviour, involving cooperation between groupers and eels, which suggests that fish also have self-consciousness. In this context, self-consciousness means the ability to think about your own actions, to consider different possible scenarios, and to modify your decisions on how to act as necessary. Think of all the examples you know of animals that hunt together. With the exception of those involving humans, they are all between animals of the same species. Dr Victoria Braithwaite gives an example of cooperative hunting between two different species of fish, groupers and eels. This is remarkable.

http://fishcount.org.uk/fish-welfare-in-commercial-fishing/summary sum the issues up very well and I quote from them:

Commercial fishing is a major animal welfare issue. The suffering caused to a wild-caught fish is likely to be high, both in severity and duration. The number of animals affected is also very high. It is estimated that in the order of a trillion fish are caught each year.

The sentience of fish has huge ethical implications for the way they are caught and killed in fisheries.

Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

There is increasing acceptance that fish are able to feel fear, pain and distress. The methods by which wild fish are caught and die are likely to cause considerable suffering.

The greatest suffering caused may be that experienced by small fish used as “live bait”. These fish are thrown live to tuna, or worse still, impaled on hooks. This practice is common in long line fishing. Live fish should not be used as bait. Other modifications to fishing practice can also help reduce the stress and injury caused to fish during capture. Such measures can help improve the survival chances of released bycatch too. Suffering could be substantially reduced by shorter time intervals between setting and retrieving nets and lines (shorter capture durations).

Most commercially-caught wild fish, that are alive when landed, die either from being left to suffocate in air, or by a combination of suffocation and live dissection. Fish treated in this way may take several hours to lose consciousness. Sometimes fish are put onto ice as they suffocate, or into iced water which may both increase and prolong their suffering.

There are two traditional methods for killing fish that have the potential to be humane, namely percussive stunning and spiking. These methods kill fish individually, and so may not be practical for larger fishing operations with large numbers of smaller fish. For these cases, humane slaughter technology used on fish farms needs to be adapted for use on fishing vessels. More humane capture and killing are likely to result in improved eating quality.

Suffering could be reduced by strategies to catch fewer fish. This could be achieved by fishing at more sustainable levels; reducing bycatch and reducing the numbers of fish caught to make fishmeal. A substantial proportion of fish caught are caught to feed to farm animals. Catching fewer fish, and catching them at a larger size, reduces the suffering for the same amount of food.

Various stakeholders (animal welfare scientists, animal protection NGO’s, environmental NGO’s, government and inter-government bodies, supermarkets and retailers, animal welfare certification schemes) have worked to address the welfare of farmed fish. A similar approach is needed to address the welfare of wild-caught fish.

I remember Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd saying to me once ‘We spend so much time, money and effort trying to communicate with animals. I only wonder what it is we would want to say to them…. Sorry?’

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

scroll to top