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Science concensus: Fish feel pain

May 30, 2018 GMT

Fish feel pain.

Read that sentence again: Fish feel pain.

The idea that fish suffer runs counter to almost everything Americans have been taught about fish — that their brains are not complex enough to experience pain. That their behaviors when stressed — such as wriggling violently on a hook — are just unconscious reactions, disconnected from the suffering of sentient beings. That they’re, more or less, unfeeling little meat sticks that don’t deserve animal welfare protections.

Greg Abrams, a longtime commercial fisherman in Florida, perhaps best sums up the classic American attitude about fish and their potential to suffer: “God put these animals on the earth for us to survive on,” he says. “Whoever’s coming out with ‘fish are tortured’ or ‘fish feel pain,’ they’re not playing with a full deck. I don’t want to be rude.”

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Yet, in recent years, scientists, researchers and biologists — all presumably with their decks intact — have been pushing back on our old ideas about fish pain. One professor has argued that the brains of certain ray-finned fishes are “sufficiently complex to support sentience.” Other academics wrote — in a paper confronting fish-pain skeptics, no less — that fish and other aquatic species “meet [the] criteria for sentience, including the ability to experience positive and negative emotions.”

Then there’s Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology at Penn State University. She co-authored a groundbreaking study in 2003 that suggested fish anatomy was complex enough to experience pain and discomfort. She later wrote the book, “Do Fish Feel Pain?,” which includes this striking line: “I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals — and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies.”

The scientific consensus, Braithwaite tells The Post, is that fish do feel pain. “Whatever that means for the fish,” she adds. “It’s not that they experience the pain that we do, which is more sophisticated.”

The accumulated research on fish pain has recently hit the public with the impact of a blunt object. In January, Hakai magazine published a comprehensive feature under the headline, “Fish Feel Pain. Now What?,” which Smithsonian magazine republished under the more provocative title, “It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain.” This month, the storytelling studio Topic ran a deeply reported story “How to Kill A Fish,” in which author Cat Ferguson argues that the Japanese technique called ike jime is not only more humane than other forms of slaughter but also produces superior-tasting fish.

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So why is the public only now interested in a subject that researchers have been covering for two decades? Is it another manifestation of a food culture that demands only the finest ingredients? Or maybe Americans — or some at least — are now ready to face the consequences of a world that acknowledges fish pain? What would it mean for the commercial fishing industry? For regulators? For recreational anglers?

For starters, the U.S. government might have to amend the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, both of which exclude fish. Weekend anglers might have to kill their fish first before throwing them in a cooler. Fish farms might have to adopt new methods of slaughter. Commercial trawlers, the boats that roam the world’s oceans, might have to upgrade their equipment to kill fish humanely.

But perhaps most problematic, companies that export seafood to the United States might have to adopt humane methods for slaughter before shipping fish to America. According to NOAA Fisheries, more than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, though a large portion of it is caught by U.S. fishermen and sent overseas for processing before returning to American shores.

In other words, there would be a lot of resistance to changing the way fish are caught, transported and killed. It might be possible for fish farms and weekend anglers to change their ways, says David Krebs, founder of Ariel Seafoods in Destin, Fla., but it would be impossible for commercial boats, which can net a million or more fish at one time.

“You have a [catch] come on board with two million creatures, and you’re going to take each one of them and say, ‘Let’s change how you’re dying.’ It’s impossible,” Krebs says. “You’re not changing the way that the Russians are trawling or the way that the Japanese are trawling.”