Fish do feel pain

My lack of empathy for fish stems from the various myths surrounding species of fish.

Derek Keats 'The bottom of the trap, no hope for these fish' - FlickrCommons

Last week, I had the pleasure of volunteering for SEI as part of their ‘Fish, Labour and Environment Week’, which I found to be surprising, informative and eye-opening.

Prior to last week, I rarely thought about fish welfare or their experiences of exploitation. I consider myself to be an animal rights advocate, but after listening to Professor Victoria Braithwaite’s lecture, I quickly learnt that fish are never on my radar. Most of my advocacy effort has been for land-based animals, bred for mass production and the meat and dairy industries. I found this to be a shocking revelation.

I now see my lack of empathy or understanding of the experiences of fish stems from the various myths surrounding species of fish. As discussed by Prof. Braithwaite, her research has found that fish do feel pain which is contrary to popular representations. In addition to feeling pain, I learnt that fish remember their experiences of pain.

The acknowledgement that fish feel pain also requires an acknowledgement that many of the current methods used to capture and slaughter fish are inhumane, as these methods are linked to the notion that fish cannot feel. However, Prof. Braithwaite points out that establishing more humane forms of farming, capture and slaughter is difficult in the industry as it is an under-regulated and there is a reluctance to see change. If the inhumane slaughter of fish is to be addressed, we need to understand how and why we don’t value fish as a species or consider them to be sentient creatures who feel pain just like us, however, not the same way as us.

Despite research which proves that fish do feel pain, it surprised me to hear that these findings are not always well received by other researchers in the field who strongly argue against the notion that fish are sentient creatures that feel pain. In addition, it was made clear that there is a failure in the fishing industry to recognise fish as sentient creatures meaning that the fishing industry does not put fish welfare at the forefront of its practices to ensure more humane standards of fishing practices. This opens up questions to the current industry standards surrounding the capture and slaughter of fish for food consumption and other commercial interests, and in addition fishing for sport as both types of fishing practices are reluctant to acknowledge evidence that fish feel pain and adapt practices to minimise suffering.

There is also an acknowledgement that this requires a change at a consumer level, as to ensure humane farming and capture of fish the consumer has to be willing to pay more for an ethical product, and of course, this will not work everywhere.

All in all, this week proved to be incredibly informative and gave me a lot to think about on a personal level and also as an animal rights activist.