Do Fish Feel Pain When Hooked? The Big Debate

Okay, so I wanted to write a post telling people about how they shouldn’t’ think that just because a fish does not have many…if any… facial expressions, does not mean they cannot feel pain or suffer.

It is very common for people to be pescetarian or for people to question why Vegans or Vegetarians choose not to eat fish, and it is due to this common misconception that people believe fish do not feel pain.

So why is it with fish where we just don’t feel as much empathy as with other animals like dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and sheep?

I assumed it was because they do not do much, make any noise, or do not show expression.. that type of thing!

So when I started researching this topic I discovered that this topic sparks a lot of debate.

Victoria Braith Waite wrote a famous book called, ‘Do Feel Fish Pain?’, she is mutual on the issue and provides a lot of information for and against the studies of whether fish feel pain.

In this book, many of the studies had the ideology that if fish can feel, they can feel pain, and consequently, that feeling pain IS an emotional experience. This is how we deal with pain and there is a great amount of evidence showing this with images taken from our brains as we experience pain and it reveals a great deal of activity in the areas associated with emotion.

The forebrain of the fish works very much like our limbic system (the limbic system supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction), which affects how fish learn about processes that have an emotional bias such as fear. It took so long for researches to come to this conclusion because they didn’t know what the fish forebrain did, it looks similar to other vertebrate’s forebrains but as researchers began to explore it deeper, it became clear that its organization was different.  This made it harder to predict where the limbic was in a fish and so consequently, this confusion was and is partly why other researchers have disagreements about whether fish feel pain.

Fish have a simple system in regards to the numbers and connections seen within the brain and this might limit the kinds of information they process so showing that fish have an area specialized to process negative, fear-related stimuli is a major finding. Therefore, just because fish have a simple brain, does not mean they do not feel any pain.


Two Types of Pain

What I found very interesting was the two areas scientists needed to address with this question. Marian Dawkins, a British biologist who is a professor of ethology at the University of Oxford stated that there is a need to look into two areas of this fish being able to experience pain question:

(1) Objective form: could be described as the body being in an emotional state such as frustration, when the body is awkward, but it achieves this state without consciously thinking about or analyzing the frustration.

(2) Subjective emotion: could be described as is feeling what it is like to feel something – interpreting and being consciously aware of the frustration

These are two areas that need to be looked into before science can 100% confirm that fish can feel pain and suffering. There is clear evidence that fish feel an objective form of emotion but to say there is sufficient evidence of a subjective form, well that is less certain.

This is due to the limbic-like area in the fish forebrain (which controls body temperature, reproductive functions, eating, sleeping, and any display of emotions) where studies show that fish can view and avoid an aversive situation such as avoiding electric shocks. This experiment certainly seems to suggest fish have the capacity to feel subjective pain.

To be entirely sure, however, there is no design test to provide solid evidence for subjective pain, but in saying that, there is no evidence to test this on ANY non-human. They would even struggle to do this with a human if we could not understand our language.

On the other side of the argument, there are other professors such as Dr. James Rose, a professor of Zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, who have stated that the difference between humans feeling pain and a fish feeling pain is due to the fish brain lacking a frontal lobe (which is a part of the limbic system).

For example, when humans get hurt or react to harmful stimuli, they experience feelings of pain. So the same could be said for animals and their reactions to harmful stimuli. However, Dr. Rose is stating that reactions to harmful stimuli are protective responses that can happen to any form of life that is not able to perceive pain, such as fish. All animals have this common characteristic to be able to detect and respond to harmful stimuli

He states that because fish do not have a frontal lobe they do not have the neurological capacity to experience the unpleasant psychological aspect of pain. This point is apparently important because he believes that because many people believe fish experience pain because some of the lower, subcortical nervous system pathways important for nociception (harmful stimuli) are present in fish. Dr. Rose argues that this argument has no validity because, without the special frontal lobe regions that are essential for pain experiences, lower pathways alone can’t produce this experience.

So we have these two views and both are interesting and have their merits.

However, the majority of the science is pointing to the evidence that fish do indeed experience pain and suffer even without the frontal lobe and instead use their forebrain which acts like our limbic-like area.

Countries around the world have legally recognized fish as beings that experience pain and suffering, such as in the UK and Australia.

The RSPCA, (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Australia answers the question “Do fish feel pain’ with this statement:

“The answer is yes. Scientific evidence that fish are sentient animals capable of experiencing pain and suffering has been building for some years. It has now reached a point where the sentience of fish is acknowledged and recognized by leading scientists across the world.”

what Does This Mean For Recreational Fishing?

So what does this mean for us if we deem fish as beings that can feel pain and suffer? It makes us think about our ethical obligations to them, how we treat them in recreational fishing, fish sports, and aquaculture.

It may impact the moral concerns of those that participate in recreational and sports fishing because if fish suffer and are subjected to pain then the use of fish anglers and other methods of fishing need to be looked at and asked, is this moral, is this causing serious harm?

If fish can feel pain, then special considerations in the fishing industry need to be taken place that might not have even been considered before.


Take Home Message

Overall, there is increasing neurophysiological and behavioral evidence, evolutionary considerations and emerging Bayesian brain theories which suggest that if fish can feel, they can feel pain.

As well as, if we are not entirely sure or where there is doubt, we need to accommodate the possibility that fish can feel pain and practice our obligations to minimize our harm to them. Because the latter, if deemed wrong down the track, would have brought harmful behavior to innocent and vulnerable beings.

Thank you for reading and I hope you learned a thing or two!

Please feel free to comment your thoughts on this debate, I would love to hear them 🙂



Yours Truly,


Danielle Packer

The Earth Co.




Braithwaite, V., 2010. Do fish feel pain?. OUP Oxford.

Key, B. (2015). Why fish pain cannot and should not be ruled out. Animal Sentinence, [online] (3). Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Rose, J. (n.d.). Do Fish Feel Pain?. [online] Anglingmatters. Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

RSPCA. (2016). Do fish feel pain? – RSPCA Australia knowledgebase. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Varner, G., 2011. Do Fish Feel Pain?. Environmental Ethics, 33(2), pp.219-222.

16 thoughts on “Do Fish Feel Pain When Hooked? The Big Debate

  1. Fantastic article. I had read sometime ago that fish do feel pain. I really don’t think It’s going to stop recreation fishing. It’s still also a debate whether they do or don’t feel pain. I think it would be long years to come before any sort of restriction were put on recreation fishing.

    1. Thanks for commenting, David! Yes, it does seem that most of the evidence is pointing to agree with the theory that fish indeed feel pain. However, you are likely to correct in saying that this proof may not stop recreational fishing, but maybe fewer people will contribute I am sure and maybe those that do, will do so in a humane matter, knowing that the fish do feel pain.

  2. This was fascinating to read! You brought forward some valid points from both sides of the argument. To me, it seems very likely that fish do feel pain. I agree that it’s always best to use caution when there is even a chance of hurting another sentient being. We as humans tend to pay less regard to creatures like fish that look and act differently than we do. But science reveals more and more that all animals experience the world in their own way. I hope this will lead to increasingly more people broadening their circle of empathy to all earthlings.

    1. Thank you , Bailey! I appreciate your comment and love the way you worded that, they really do experience the world in their own way, and us humans need to broaden our empathy circle, which you so delicately put.

  3. Thanks for all this awesome information! What a great read and I learned a lot! Both my brother and father a recreational fishermen and I now have a new perspective. While I’m not anti-fishing, it does make me consider it more from the fish’s perspective and their experience if they are feeling pain in “catch and release” situations. Very interesting, thanks for a well researched article!

    1. Thanks, Christina! I am glad you found it a great read and learned a lot! So glad you have a new perspective and can look after fish accordingly especially in catch and release practices.

  4. This is a crazy read! I never knew or would have thought that fish could feel pain. This is something that is not taught in schools. I amazed by the research and information that you have compiled for this article. You have done a great job educating readers. I just think that people are truly animals, and what I mean by that is survival of the fittest mentality. Great article!


    1. Thanks for commenting and expressing your views Jaywhon! It is true, not many people think about if fish can feel pain, I am glad you found it a good read 🙂

  5. This is a very empathetic and thought provoking article. I agree that fish probably do feel pain. It’s dangerous to use a subjective experience of pain as a determinant of whether an animal experiences pain – you’re absolutely right that we can never know this unless the creature can clearly communicate, so it’s an unhelpful test! I suppose this is yet more evidence that vegan is the most responsible choice. I have to admit that I’m not there yet, but am trying to make more responsible changes to my diet!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Amy! I love how empathetic you are, and that you are interested in this topic! And yes it is very true that a simple test may not be able to tell us if fish really do feel pain subjectively, but if there is doubt we should look after them as if they do.

  6. Wow, I’ve never heard of this argument before. I think you brought some very convincing arguments to the table. I guess a lot of this actually stems from the debate of whether an animal has a soul or not. If they are simply organisms with instincts or behaviors, then the simple answer would be that any pain they feel is irrelevant.

    If they do have souls however, and they cognitively and emotionally respond to pain, then there is the moral dilemma eh?

    I’m curious what fisherman think about this issue. I’m curious to see how far this viewpoint would extend though. If the logical conclusion is to stop the killing of fish, does this extend to all animals then? And if fish really are creatures with identities, does that mean people who kill fish are murderers?

    1. Thank you, Jacob, for commenting on your thoughts! Yes, acknowledging if they have souls is similar to having a consciousness, and consciously acknowledging they are feeling pain. I do not know enough to comment on this thought process but all I can do is wonder with you! Like I said at the end of the article is that if we do not 100% know, we should accept that they do, because the latter would be hurting animals profusely and they would be conscious of it.
      Majority of the evidence, however, points out that they do feel pain, so that is a good place to start, especially for fisherman’s practice of ‘catch and release’.

  7. I figured this was the case. That is why I stopped eating fish, meat, and dairy. I wonder why people don’t have a problem with taking another life just so that they can live? Maybe that’s just the way the world is. Some people debate whether plants feel pain or not. Some say it’s worse to eat raw fruits and vegetables because technically there is still life in them. Some people will still not care that fish feel pain because they are more interested in their own well being. Thanks for the article, I found it quite interesting.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Staci! Yes, it is a tough debate! But all we can do is try our best to find the truth, and if not, do our best to look after all sentient beings the best way we can.

  8. Wow, this article has really opened my eyes. I’ve been a fisherman ever since my dad took me fishing as a kid, so it’s been ingrained into my brain as an activity that is both fun and morally ok. Unfortunately, (as much as I LOVE to fish) I couldn’t help but feel somewhat emotional while reading this. I kept thinking about all of the fish that I have hooked in the past while fishing and what pain they must have been going through. Sometimes I keep the fish and eat them, and in this case I feel ok about hooking them because it serves a purpose, however; I don’t think I can stomach recreational angling after reading this post.

    Thank you for opening my eyes!

    1. Hey Kaleb! I am so happy that you had an epiphany while reading this article, it is interesting how we can change our perspective on things when given information that we may not have even considered before! I am glad I could help you in this way 🙂 You clearly have a caring heart.

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