Do Fish Feel Pain? by Victoria BraithwaiteEach year millions of fish are caught on barbed hooks or left to die by suffocation on the decks of fishing boats. But while there has been increasing interest in recent years in the welfare of mammals, fish are thought to be too different--too dim-witted, too cold-blooded, too simple--to merit our concern.
Here, biologist Victoria Braithwaite explores the question of fish pain and fish suffering, explaining what science can now tell us about fish behavior, and examining the related ethical questions about how we should treat these animals. Fish have in the past been portrayed as slow, cold automata with a very simple brain that generates stereotyped behavior. But Braithwaite presents new scientific evidence that seriously challenges this view. Indeed, there is a growing body of science demonstrating that fish are far smarter and more cognitively competent than we have previously suspected. Several fish species are surprisingly intelligent and research has shown that they can have both accurate and long lasting memories, which in some cases, such as migrating salmon, can span years. Moreover, the author demonstrates that fish have more in common with other vertebrates than we think. Their overall physiology, for instance, shares many similarities with other vertebrates--even ourselves. The way that they respond to stressful situations, the so-called stress response, is strikingly similar. After experiencing a stressful event, our bodies release cortisol into the blood, and the same is true in fish.
Victoria Braithwaite is one of the key scientists working on fish pain and she is also actively involved with both the fishing industry and the angling world, helping them sort through the implications of these findings. Though far from anti-fishing, she concludes that scientific evidence suggests that we should widen to fish the protection currently given to birds and animals.
Do fish feel pain?
The realization that mammals and birds are capable of experiencing pain and distress has had a profound influence on our relationship with them. The knowledge of this pain capacity has inspired a substantial number of laws, ordinances, regulations, and policies that dictate how mammals and birds can and should be treated when used for food and fiber production, in research, as companion animals, in zoological displays, and in many other situations. Although there is much work still to be done in improving the lives of these animals, no one should question that mammals and birds need to be protected from unnecessary pain and distress. But what about fish? Fish are hooked for recreation and food. Commercial fisheries capture and kill millions of fish every day.
Years ago I was surfcasting on an ocean beach and caught a big, beautiful striped bass. My daughter and son, who were 8 and 10, respectively, were nearby. I held the fish up and yelled, Look kids, I caught dinner! Skye, my daughter, burst into tears and pleaded with me to let the fish go. I tried to josh her out of her mood, in vain. Skye was unconvinced. Dumb move!
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When Culum Brown was a young boy, he and his grandmother frequented a park near her home in Melbourne, Australia. Brown would walk the perimeter of the pond, peering into the translucent shallows to gaze at the fish. One day, he and his grandmother arrived at the park and discovered that the pond had been drained—something the parks department apparently did every few years. Heaps of fish flapped upon the exposed bed, suffocating in the sun. Brown raced from one trash can to another, searching through them and collecting whatever discarded containers he could find—mostly plastic soda bottles. He filled the bottles at drinking fountains and corralled several fish into each one. He pushed other stranded fish toward regions of the pond where some water remained.