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 🙂
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: https://animalstudiesrepository.org/animsent/vol1/iss3/14/ [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].
Rose, J. (n.d.). Do Fish Feel Pain?. [online] Anglingmatters. Available at: http://www.anglingmatters.com/DrRoseReport.pdf [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].
RSPCA. (2016). Do fish feel pain? – RSPCA Australia knowledgebase. [online] Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/do-fish-feel-pain_447.html [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].
Varner, G., 2011. Do Fish Feel Pain?. Environmental Ethics, 33(2), pp.219-222.