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A Tribute to Dr. Victoria Braithwaite and Sentient Fishes

Dr. Braithwaite's book "Do Fish Feel Pain?" was, and remains, a game changer.

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

"The collective evidence is now robust enough that biologists and veterinarians increasingly accept fish pain as a reality." —Ferris Jabr, It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain

"...there is ample evidence to demonstrate that it is highly likely that fish experience pain and that pain-related behavioural changes are conserved across vertebrates." —Lynne U. Sneddon

Dr. Victoria Braithwaite, a leader in the study of pain in fishes, passed away on September 30, 2019. In this memoir by Catherine Offord, we read, "Her book Do Fish Feel Pain? This presented her findings for a lay audience, was published in 2010. Reviewing the work for The Quarterly Review of Biology, Gil Rosenthal of Texas A&M University wrote that 'Braithwaite is at her best when conveying the sophistication of fish behavior, and that sophistication alone should give pause to anyone who derives joy from dragging a live animal around by a hook through the mouth.'” Dr. Braithwaite's book, Do Fish Feel Pain? is a classic to which I constantly return.

Dr. Braithwaite also is quoted in Ms. Offord's essay as saying, "Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.” I couldn't agree more, and so too do many researchers and non-researchers, many of whom know a lot about the cognitive and emotional lives of a wide variety of fishes. Of course, not everyone is convinced that fishes feel pain. However, a good deal of research conducted before and after the publication of her landmark book clearly shows that fishes do, in fact, feel pain.1,2,3,4

In an essay called Fish pain: An inconvenient truth, fish expert, Macquarie University's Dr. Culum Brown, writes, "The broad consensus from the scientific community is that fish most likely feel pain and it is time governments display courage enough to act."3 Dr. Brown's essay is a response to Queensland University's Dr. Brian Key's piece titled, "Why fish do not feel pain."

In another response to Dr. Key's essay called Anthropomorphic denial of fish pain, Dr. Lynne Sneddon, one of the world's experts on pain in fishes, and Dr. Matthew C. Leach write, "We suggest that Key's interpretations are illogical, do not reflect the published empirical evidence for pain in fish, and are out of touch with current thinking on brain evolution." They go on to note that hile more data are needed, what we now know does not lead us to infer that fishes don't feel pain. It turns out that only three of 34 responses to Dr. Key's essay support his position.

It's important to recognize the incredible importance of Dr. Braithwaite's research because, in many ways, her book was just what many people were eagerly waiting for, namely, a summary of facts showing fish do, indeed, feel pain. Do Fish Feel Pain? isn't a manifesto criticizing people who are responsible for causing untold pain and suffering to trillions of fishes a year. Rather, it is a levelheaded and game-changing treatise based on solid research on the neurophysiology and behavior of these remarkable and diverse sentient beings. It motivated an urgently needed paradigm shift, and clearly made people on all sides of the issues centering on pain in fishes think deeply about these vertebrates as sentient nonhumans and also to reconsider how they're far too often brutally mistreated as unfeeling "streams of protein." Clearly, they're not.

Dr. Braithwaite's work made a huge difference in how fishes are perceived, and we must use what we know on their behalf. Ignoring research fishes' capacity to feel pain in anti-science. Indeed, as Jeremy Bentham, wrote, "...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?" There's ample research showing fishes are intelligent, however, it's what they're feeling that really matters.5

Slaughtering sentience by the trillions

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 new University of Liverpool study has concluded that the anglers' myth 'that fish don't feel pain' can be dispelled: fish do indeed feel pain, with a similarity to that experienced by mammals including humans." —Fish experience pain with 'striking similarity' to mammals

It's high time to stop pretending fishes don't feel pain and putting an end to practices that cause pain to trillions of sentient beings each and every year. This includes hooking them in their mouths and throwing them back into the water, usually called catch-and-release. Some people feel good about engaging in this practice so they can get out into nature, however, it's inane to think that the fishes don't suffer from having their mouths torn apart. Recently, someone told me they drove six hours to do just this, and I wondered, "Why in the world would someone do this?" I still haven't gotten an answer that is marginally reasonable.

Dr. Braithwaite's conclusions and the quotation with which I began is worth repeating: "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." This strong statement is based on data, rather than wishful thinking.

Stay tuned for further discussions on the emotional and cognitive lives of fishes and other nonhumans who are all too frequently severely mistreated because they're written off as being dumb and insentient. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a rapidly growing number of people know this and are doing something about changing the ways in which fishes are treated.



1) For numerous research and other essays about pain in fishes, click here and see below.

2) For discussions on the emotional lives of fishes, click here and see below.

3) For more on Dr. Brown's research, click here.

4) For more on Dr. Sneddon's research, click here.

5) For information on intelligence in fishes, click here and see below.

Balcombe, Jonathan. What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015.

Bekoff, Marc. Fish Are Sentient and Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain.

_____. Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions.

_____. Do fishes feel pain? Yes they do, science tells us.

_____. "Do fish feel pain?" redux: An interview with the author who shows of course they do.

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

_____. Fishes Show Individual Personalities in Response to Stress.

_____. Fishes Know, Feel, and Care: A Humane Revolution in Progress.

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

_____. Fish Smarts: Why Fish Are More Than Just Streams of Protein.

_____. Fish Don't Like Being Hooked.

Braithwaite, Victoria. Do fish feel pain and why does it matter?, Sydney Environment Institute (A lecture)

Dean, Cornelia. Victoria Braithwaite, Researcher Who Said Fish Feel Pain, Dies at 52. New York Times, November 1, 2019.

Johnston, Ian. Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience 'positive emotions', landmark study suggests. Independent, March 31, 2017.

Scott-Reid, Jessica. We Now Know Fish Feel Pain. Why Continue Harming Them In The Billions? Sentient Media, November 7, 2019.

Sneddon Lynne. U. Evolution of nociception and pain: evidence from fish models. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2019.

Walters, Edgar T. and de C. Williams, Amanda C. Evolution of mechanisms and behaviour important for pain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2019. A comprehensive review of pain in crustaceans, insects, leeches, gastropod and cephalopod molluscs, fish and mammals (primarily rodents and humans).

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