Fish constitute the greatest source of confused thinking and inconsistency on earth at the moment with respect to pain. You will get people very excited about dolphins because they are mammals, and about horses and dogs, if they are not treated properly. At the same time you will have fishing competitions on the River Murray at which thousands of people snare fish with hooks and allow them to asphyxiate on the banks, which is a fairly uncomfortable and miserable death ~ Prof. Bill Runciman –Professor of Anaesthesia & Intensive Care Adelaide University
Noting how fish are extracted from the ocean and killed (most often asphyxiated) there are obvious ethical concerns. Much of the defense of these practices by the industry and those that consume fish have focused on whether fish can experience pain. Many recent scientific studies support the conclusion that fish feel and experience pain1,2.
The problem for fish is they are so different to humans. They live underwater, are cold blooded, and they cannot scream in pain at least in a way that resonates with people who choose to kill them for food/pleasure. As a result, with a lack of any real scientific studies (up until recently) many simply chose to believe fish don’t feel pain. This was always a very poor assumption given that a successfully evolved animal would need to be able to feel pain and remember it or they would have never have survived. Read more on how fish feel pain here.
The first studies were done on trout in 2003 by scientists in Edinburgh. These studies identified pain receptors in their brains that were almost identical to the pain receptors in the human brain. That is, these fish had a complete neuro-apparatus and the wiring necessary to feel pain. These studies also found the fish showed a range of reactions to pain inputs such as increased heart-rate and gill beating. Further, many showed abnormal reactions after being exposed to the pain such as rocking and refusing to feed. These appear to be post traumatic reactions very similar to those seen in humans. It was also found that the fish would return to normal after being administered a pain killer (morphine)1. To read more about the new evidence that fish feel pain click here. These first results have been supported by more recent studies, for example the report called “Underwater Suffering” published in 2009 in the journal Scientific American2. Also biologist, Victoria Braithwaite in her book, Do fish feel pain?3 says there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer, as there is for birds and mammals.
Associate Professor Culum Brown of Macquarie University in Australia found that fish have very good memories and live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another4. He believes it would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain4. Dr. Donald Broom, animal welfare advisor to the British government said that anatomically, physiologically, and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals5. Read more about how fish feel pain here.
Mans appetite for fish and seafood and disregard to the ethics and environmental consequences has created a potential catastrophe for the oceans. This and other facts about modern fishing make for very sobering reading. The following information is obtained from Seashepherd and WWF:
- There are no legal requirements for the humane slaughter of fish.
- In the last 55 years, humans have wiped out 90% of the oceans top predators (sharks, Blue fin tuna, swordfish, marlin, king mackerel).
- In 2006 a study of catch data predicted complete collapse of fisheries by the middle of this century. Many thousands of fisheries have already collapsed.
- More than half of the worlds catch is from industrial fishing fleets that can decimate entire areas in a matter of minutes.
- Fishing practices usually entail evisceration, starvation and asphyxiation of the fish.
- 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die each year after becoming entangled in fishing equipment.
- According to WWF, 90% of the world’s large fish have already been fished out.
- Aquaculture or fish farming does not solve the problem. Most farmed fish require wild fish as food, (more than their own weight). For example every kg of farmed salmon requires 6kg of wildfish.
Links & Resources
 Schiermeier , Q, 2003. New evidence that fish feel pain. Nature, [Online]. Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/2003/030430/full/news030428-9.html
 Black, H, 2009. Underwater Suffering: Do Fish Feel Pain?. Scientific American, [Online] Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/underwater-suffering-do-fish-feel-pain/
 Braithwaite, V, 2010. Do Fish feel pain?. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press.
 Brown, C, 2014. Not so fast – our fishy friends can also feel pain. Macquarie University, [Online] Available at: http://www.mq.edu.au/newsroom/2014/06/19/not-so-fast-our-fishy-friends-can-also-feel-pain/
 Broom, D, 2007. Fish farming, silent screams. SAAW International, [Online] Available at: http://www.saawinternational.org/fishfarming.htm