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
Are Fish Sentient?
It was once a widely held view that animals do not feel pain and this belief has endured even longer for fish. Many scientific studies provide compelling evidence that fish are sentient and feel pain 1,2. The following is a summary of the findings:
- Logically it makes sense that a successfully evolved animal would almost certainly need to be able to feel pain and remember it or they would have never have survived. Read more here.
- The first pain studies were done on trout in 2003 by scientists in Edinburgh. These 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. The 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. The observation was that this appeared 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. Read more about the evidence that fish feel pain from Nature magazine here.
- More recent studies support the Edinburgh findings. For example the report called “Underwater Suffering” published in 2009 in the journal Scientific American – Link to report here2.
- 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.
- The work by 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. Professor Culum believes it would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviourally 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 here.
The act of fishing involves the fish being extracted from the ocean and killed (mostly asphyxiated). The clear proof that fish experience pain similar to all sentient animals, raises obvious ethical questions.
Modern Fishing and the future
Decades of fishing has been devastating for the oceans. The following are facts obtained from work by Seashepherd:
- 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, and 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 offer a solution. Most farmed fish require wild fish as food, (much more than their own weight). For example every kg of farmed salmon requires 6kg of wildfish.
- Most wild-caught fish are likely to die from being crushed in nets or from suffocation, freezing or live dissection after landing. This process will probably take many minutes, or even hours. Most of the world’s farmed fish are also killed slowly. Read more here.
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