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Fishes experience pain

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Associate Professor Culum Brown, from Macquarie University, one of the editors of the book Fish Cognition and Behaviour (now in its second edition), has just published a review of pain and fish called Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. 

People’s perception of animal intelligence correlates with their perception that the particular animal will be able to feel pain. Fish are low on the intelligence scale according to people’s perceptions; hence they also believe that they do not feel pain. This, of course, flies in the face of reality, one neurosurgeon likening such beliefs to flat earth adherents.  

One section in the review has a focus on the fish senses of vision, taste, hearing and smell, highlighting how fishes interact in the world. This complex use and interplay of senses to interact also highlights how intelligent they are - which should also place them higher on the scale of feeling and responding to pain. Ironically, the human senses were developed from fish ancestry so it is not surprising they feel pain. In fact scientists working on fish are required to use the same standard of ethics as if working on other animals. While some scientists are against such a code, (often from fisheries-based research areas and aquaculture) such researchers are finding it harder to have research approved because they don’t meet the ethical standards required.  

Across the world, industrial agriculture has seen moves to incorporate animal welfare with many arguing for more measures like free range animals. Fish on the other hand are never in those debates. Activities like housing fish, handling fish, moving fish and ultimately killing fish to eat should be guided by the same rules and regulations as any other animal in an agricultural setting. The aquaculture industry in the UK is slowly introducing changes but there is a long way to go before the fish industry can be branded as ethically sound.

The review has met with great success internationally and when the publishers decided to make it freely available in the internet, there were so many “likes” on Facebook and Twitter that the university server crashed. Oddly, that worldwide success has not been mirrored in Australia, even though it was an instant success in New Zealand. It also made the front page of Reddit, which is essentially the internet’s front page. 

There are things that ordinary people can do to help make commercial fishing more ethical. Fish raised by aquaculture have a reasonable chance of being reared pain-free but some of their killing methods need to be revisited. It is important to realise that most fish caught in the wild will have suffered pain so an ethical decision has to be made about such a purchase. Those who do go fishing should kill the catch as quickly as possible although given that fishing is like a lucky dip, there is always the possibility of collateral damage - what should be done with an unwanted catch that has endured the struggle to the surface often from considerable depths, and has barbed hooks in its jaws.

This is similar to the whole 'sport' of catch and release fishing.
 There are many recreational fishers in Australia with substantial political clout. Currently fisheries promote a policy of catch and release for some species. While this may make that species more sustainable Culum Brown argues that it is unethical. Why catch a living animal, causing stress and pain, only to release it? One man cited catching a cod which had 15 hooks stuck in it as a sign of stupidity, not recognising that hunger and possible starvation are powerful drivers for any wild animal.

Part of the problem is that hunting fish is not equated with hunting land based animals. Certainly, the behaviour of people fishing (ie hunting fishes) to the way the prey is played, captured and either released (although injured) or killed, would not be condoned if their prey were a terrestrial wild animal 

When looked at from an ethical viewpoint, there is a catch about fishing. 

Spontaneous tool use by Cod        Play  cod tool use.mp4  
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The video clip shows cod who had been trained to use their mouths to trigger the activator for a self feeder unit. However over time, it was discovered that some of the cod had hit upon using the identifier tag on their dorsal fin to trigger the device, leaving their mouths free to gain the food more readily.


Associate Professor Culum Brown was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Image and video clip from Culum Brown. Summary text by Victor Barry, July 2014.

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