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Marine Life & Conservation

Do Fish Feel Pain?

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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 is the Editor-at-Large for Scubaverse.com with responsibility for conservation and underwater videography. Jeff is an award-winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker who lives in Cornwall, UK. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

Marine Life & Conservation

Ghost Fishing UK land the prize catch at the Fishing News Awards

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The charity Ghost Fishing UK was stunned to win the Sustainability Award.

The winners were selected by a panel of industry judges and the award recognises innovation and achievement in improving sustainability and environmental responsibility within the UK or Irish fishing industries in 2021.

Nominees must have demonstrated a unique and innovative response to an environmental sustainability issue within the UK or Irish industry, demonstrating that the project has gone above and beyond standard practice, and provided evidence of its impact. The judges look particularly for projects that have influenced a significant change in behaviour and/or that have inspired broader awareness and/or engagement.

Ghost Fishing UK originated in 2015, training voluntary scuba divers to survey and recover lost fishing gear, with the aim to either return it to the fishing industry or recycle it. The charity is run entirely by volunteers and has gone from strength to strength, only last year winning the Best Plastic Campaign at the Plastic Free Awards.

Now, the charity has also been recognised at seemingly the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a unique achievement as trustee Christine Grosart explains;

We have always held the belief that working with the fishing industry is far more productive than being against it, in terms of achieving our goals to reduce and remove lost fishing gear.

The positive response to our fisheries reporting system that we received from both the fishing industry and the marine environment sector, was evidence that working together delivers results.

The feedback we got from the awards evening and the two-day Scottish Skipper Expo where we had an exhibit the following day, was that the fishing industry despises lost fishing gear as much as we do and the fishers here are very rarely at fault. It is costly to them to lose gear and they will make every effort to get it back, but sometimes they can’t. That is where we come in, to try to help. Everyone wins, most of all the environment. You can’t ask for much more.”

Following the awards, Ghost Fishing UK held an exhibit at the Scottish Skipper expo at the new P&J Live exhibition centre in Aberdeen.

This gave us a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people in the fishing industry, all of whom were highly supportive of our work and wanted to help us in any way they could. This has opened so many opportunities for the charity and our wish list which has been on the slow burner for the last 7 years, was exceeded in just 3 days. We came away from the events exhausted, elated, humbled, grateful and most of all, excited.”

Trustee and Operations Officer, Fred Nunn, is in charge of the diving logistics such as arranging boats and organising the divers, who the charity trains in house, to give up their free time to volunteer.

He drove from Cornwall to attend the awards and the exhibition: “What a crazy and amazing few days up in Scotland! It was awesome to meet such a variety of different people throughout the industry, who are all looking at different ways of improving the sustainability and reduction of the environmental impact of the fishing industry.

It was exciting to have so many people from the fishing industry approaching us to find out more about what we do, but also what they could offer. Fishermen came to us with reports and offers of help, using their vessels and other exhibitors tried to find ways that their product or service could assist in our mission.”

  • Ghost Fishing UK uses hard boat charters from Cornwall to Scotland for the diving projects, paying it forward to the diving community.
  • The charity relies on reports of lost fishing gear from the diving and fishing community and to date has received well over 200 reports, culminating on over 150 survey and ghost gear recovery dives, amounting to over 1000 individual dives and diver hours by the volunteer team members.
  • You can find more information at ghostfishing.co.uk
  • If you are a fisher who knows of any lost fishing gear, you can report it to the charity here: ghostfishing.co.uk/fishermans-reporting
  • The charity is heading to Shetland for a week-long project in the summer of 2023. If you would like to support this project, please contact them at: info@ghostfishing.co.uk

Chair of Ghost Fishing UK and professional technical diving instructor Dr Richard Walker was immensely proud of the team’s achievements;

I’ve been a scuba diver since 1991 and have met thousands of divers in that time. I’d be hard pushed to think of one of them that wasn’t concerned about conservation of our marine environment. To be recognised by the fishing industry for our efforts in sustainability is a huge honour for us, and has encouraged our team to work even harder to find, survey and remove lost fishing gear from the seas. The fact that the fishing industry recognises our efforts, and appreciates our stance as a group that wants to work alongside them is one of the highlights of our charity’s history, and we look forward to building the relationship further.

To find out more about Ghost Fishing UK visit their website here.


All images: Ghost Fishing UK

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Marine Life & Conservation

Komodo National Park found to be Manta Hotspot

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Through a collaborative effort between citizen divers, scientists from the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), and Murdoch University, a new study reports a large number of manta rays in the waters of Komodo National Park, Indonesian, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suggesting the area may hold the key to regional recovery of the threatened species.

Reef mantas (Mobula alfredi), which grow up to 5m, tend to reside and feed in shallow, coastal habitats. They also visit ‘cleaning stations’ on coral reefs to have parasites, or dead skin picked off by small fish. Courtship ‘trains’ are also observed adjacent to cleaning stations. In Komodo National Park, manta rays are present year-round, challenging the famous Komodo dragon as the most sought-after megafauna for visitors.

Scientists teamed up with the dive operator community to source identification photographs of manta rays visiting the parks’ waters and submit them to MantaMatcher.org – a crowdsourced online database for mantas and other rays. Most of the photographs came from just four locations from over 20 commonly visited by tourism boats.

I was amazed by how receptive the local dive community was in helping collect much-needed data on these threatened animals,” said lead author Dr. Elitza Germanov. “With their support, we were able to identify over 1,000 individual manta rays from over 4,000 photographs.

People love manta rays—they are one of the most iconic animals in our oceans. The rise of the number of people engaging in SCUBA diving, snorkeling, and the advent of affordable underwater cameras meant that photos and videos taken by the public during their holidays could be used to quickly and affordably scale data collection,” said MMF co-founder and study co-author Dr. Andrea Marshall.

The photographs’ accompanying time and location data is used to construct sighting histories of individual manta rays, which can then be analyzed with statistical movement models. These models predict the likelihood that manta rays are inhabiting or traveling in between specific sites. The study’s results showed that some manta rays moved around the park and others as far as the Nusa Penida MPA (>450 km to the west), but overall, manta rays showed individual preferences for specific sites within the Park.

I found it very interesting how some manta rays appear to prefer spending their time in some sites more than others, even when sites are 5 km apart, which are short distances for manta rays,” said Dr. Elitza Germanov. “This means that manta rays which prefer sites where fishing activities continue to occur or that are more popular with tourism will endure greater impacts.”

Fishing activities have been prohibited in many coastal areas within Komodo NP since 1984, offering some protection to manta rays prior to the 2014 nationwide protection. However, due to illegal fishing activity and manta ray movements into heavily fished waters, manta rays continue to face a number of threats from fisheries. About 5% of Komodo’s manta rays have permanent injuries that are likely the result of encounters with fishing gear.

The popularity of tourism to these sites grew by 34% during the course of the study. An increase in human activity can negatively impact manta rays and their habitats. In 2019, the Komodo National Park Authority introduced limits on the number of boats and people that visit one of the most famous manta sites.

This study shows that the places where tourists commonly observe manta rays are important for the animals to feed, clean, and mate. This means that the Komodo National Park should create measures to limit the disturbance at these sites,” said Mr. Ande Kefi, an employee of the Komodo National Park involved with this study. “I hope that this study will encourage tourism operators to understand the need for the regulations already imposed and increase compliance.”

Despite Indonesia’s history with intensive manta ray fisheries, Komodo National Park still retains large manta ray aggregations that with careful ongoing management and threat reduction will benefit regional manta ray populations. The study highlights that marine protected areas that are large enough to host important manta ray habitats are a beneficial tool for manta ray conservation.

For more information about MMF visit their website here.

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