It's Time to Stop Pretending Fishes Don't Feel Pain

Solid research shows fishes are sentient, feel pain, and have emotional lives.

Posted Jan 07, 2018

Oh no, it's those darned sentient fishes once again

 "I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals — and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." (Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain?, page 153)

“Those who define ‘us’ by our ability to introspect give a distorted view of what is important to and about human beings and ignore the fact that many creatures are like us in more significant ways in that we all share the vulnerability, the pains, the fears, and the joys that are the life of social animals.” (Lynne Sharpe, Creatures Like Us)

A recent essay by Ferris Jabr called "Fish Feel Pain. Now What?" caught my attention and a few people wrote to me and asked what I thought about it. Mr. Jabr's essay is an easy read and is available online so here are some thoughts on the evolution of sentience and emotions in fishes. For more discussion on this topic please see Dr. Victoria Braithwaite's excellent book called Do Fish Feel Pain? and "Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain," a summary of the ground-breaking research of Dr. Culum Brown and his review article called "Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics."

Mr. Jabr's piece focuses on Dr. Brown's and others' research that show fishes do feel pain. It's not all that surprising that the skeptics represent such organizations as the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and people who like to go fishing. In response to those who still doubt what solid science shows about the presence of sentience in fishes, Mr. Jabr writes, "In truth, that level of ambiguity and disagreement no longer exists in the scientific community." Concerning those who claim fishes don't have enough cerebral complexity to feel pain, he notes, "Moreover, the notion that fish do not have the cerebral complexity to feel pain is decidedly antiquated. Scientists agree that most, if not all, vertebrates (as well as some invertebrates) are conscious and that a cerebral cortex as swollen as our own is not a prerequisite for a subjective experience of the world."

"The number of fish killed each year far exceeds the number of people who have ever existed on Earth."

While there is some progressive countrywide legislation that is increasingly protecting fishes, much more is needed. The number of fishes who are killed is unimaginably staggering. Mr. Jabr writes, "Annually, about 70 billion land animals are killed for food around the world. That number includes chickens, other poultry, and all forms of livestock. In contrast, an estimated 10 to 100 billion farmed fish are killed globally every year, and about another one to three trillion fish are caught from the wild. The number of fish killed each year far exceeds the number of people who have ever existed on Earth." 

Fish Feel Pain: Let's Get Over it and Do Something About It

All in all, Mr. Jabr's essay is a very good summary of the state of affairs concerned with sentience in fishes, but I was surprised that there was no mention of Dr. Jonathan Balcombe's excellent summary of research on the cognitive and emotional lives of fishes called What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. For more discussion on both sides of the question of whether fishes are sentient beings, please click here. In their essays in the journal Animal Sentienceresearchers and other scholars predominantly support the idea that fishes do feel pain.

For an essay I wrote for New Scientist magazine called "Animals are conscious and should be treated as such" about The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, there is a wonderful cartoon of animals, including a fish, sitting around a table discussing these issues (reprinted here with permission of the artist, Andrezj Krauze). The print copy was called "Welcome to our world" and it's about time we did so with open hearts.

Courtesy of Andrezj Krauze
Source: Courtesy of Andrezj Krauze

In his response to an essay published in Animal Sentience by Brian Key called "Why fish do not feel pain," Dr. Brown correctly notes that fish pain is an inconvenient truth and writes, "The primary message from these commentaries is that Key’s argument is fundamentally flawed from an evolutionary perspective. He argues (although later denies it) that human brain architecture is required to feel pain." Along these lines, in their essay called "Pain and other feelings in animals," world renowned neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio write, "In conclusion, we do not see any evidence in favor of the idea that the engendering of feelings in humans would be confined to the cerebral cortex. On the contrary, based on anatomical and physiological evidence, subcortical structures and even the peripheral and enteric nervous systems appear to make important contributions to the experience of feelings." Others argue about the strong evidence that fish feel pain from ethological, neuroscientific, and philosophical perspectives. 

Mr. Jabr ends his thoughtful essay discussing a culinary tradition known as ikizukuri (roughly translated as "prepared alive") in which people eat the raw flesh of living fishes. It's doesn't make for easy reading, so you can stop reading at the end of the penultimate paragraph and realize that the vast majority of researchers and others accept that fishes are sentient beings and we need to stop pretending they're not. 

The precautionary principle shows clearly that the important question is why pain in fishes has evolved, not if it has evolved

Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve.” (Elisabeth Costello, in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals)

An objective reading of essays by people who essentially comprise a who's who of researchers who study fishes and other animals is that there is compelling evidence that fishes do in fact feel pain and we need to ask why pain in fishes has evolved, not if it has evolved. Robert Jones of the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Chico, notes in his essay called "Fish sentience and the precautionary principle," that Dr. Key's argument contains a logical flaw" and "Surely, by any moral calculus, applying the precautionary principle regarding fish welfare is reasonable and prudential, if not obligatory." (For more discussion of the application of the precautionary principle to animal sentience, please see Dr. Jonathan Birch's essay called "Animal sentience and the precautionary principle" and accompanying commentaries.)

I find the evidence for fish sentience to be credible and irrefutable. It borders on the certainty with which an overwhelming number of researchers, citizen scientists, and others argue, for example, that dogs and other animals enjoy playing with their friends, or that laboratory nonhuman primates and rodents don't like being wantonly abused in highly invasive research. These sentient nonhumans are not behaving "as if" they're having fun or in deep pain, for the data strongly support a compelling argument that they are indeed having fun or suffering from deep pain. 

As I wrote in an essay called "A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending," following up on the signing of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, evidence of animal sentience is everywhere. There's no reason to embellish other animals, because science is showing just how fascinating and feeling they truly are.

Available evidence surely mandates that fishes should be included as full members of the nonhuman animal sentience club and deserve significantly more protection than they're currently granted from being harmed and killed "in the name of humans." I shudder when I think of the number of fishes who are killed for unneeded meals and other reasons. 

I look forward to more research on the fascinating and rich cognitive and emotional lives of fishes and also studies of fish personalities (for more discussion please see "Fishes Show Individual Personalities in Response to Stress"). We owe it to them and to all other individuals to protect them from pain, suffering, and death in an increasingly human-dominated world.1


1) For further discussion of the science of animal well-being and its focus on the lives of individual animals, please see The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.

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