Factoring In That Fish Feel Pain


There are many varied reasons that people steer their food choices a certain way, and when considering going plant-based - and especially if we are not going plant-based - one concept we must ponder on is the ability of other beings to feel. We may take this to feel joy, fear, anger or pain – or all of these feelings and many more. We are, however, not another species, so we can only gage on the range of emotions we experience.

Animals, of course, may experience these same emotions in different ways, less or more and certainly, express them in alternative methods to us, to other species, and even to others in their own species. Just as you and I may experience sadness but show it in totally different ways.

That is what makes the living world so stunningly unique and interesting. If we were all the same, would that be life? 

So why would we think so small to believe that if an animal doesn’t show something in the same way as us that they don’t feel it at all?

Anyone who lives with a dog or cat knows without a doubt they can experience joy and suffer. I am sure, as many scientists who are not vegan also believe, that animals can feel an array of emotions but at a bare minimum we as a species need to firstly acknowledge that other species feel pain, and then empathize with them and factor that into our decision making in how we use/ treat them (or better, coexist with them.) 

For many people they have been able to empathize that land animals feel pain, for perhaps that are more like us or at least like our companion pets, then those who live underwater; the ones we cannot hear when they scream. 

This belief system is becoming less prevalent, especially in the last year due to much new research being published, but if it was accepted unanimously, then would it not be acceptable as it is now, to gloat on social media with photos of the latest “kill” from Sunday’s fishing outing? We get angry when we see the hunter posing with the lion, yet the next day pose with our own personal slaughter from the sea, unaware of the similarities somehow.

If we all agreed that fish could suffer and feel pain, surely we would not be allowing the 2.7 trillion wild fish caught worldwide every year; a third of which are ground into feed for farm animals and other fish in farms, as well as these 10 billion farmed-fished, to be raised or captured and killed in the pain-inducing manners that they are currently. 

Aquaculture – factory fish farms, likely to be supplying 60% of the world’s seafood in the next decade – forces fish to live in unnatural, overcrowded and filthy living conditions; causing them pain. 

Hundreds of millions of fish are silently suffering in vast underwater factory farms across the world.

Modern day wild fishing methods, such as the nets used by trawlers that dump tonnes of fish on board ships only to allow them to suffocate or the long-line fishing, that uses hundreds of hooks on a single line that may be 50-100km long, keeping the fish that take the bait caught for many hours before the line is hauled in; causing them pain. 

Yes, fish are in pain as they are suffocating for several minutes before dying. It hurts them when they are impaled by sharp hooks through their flesh. Research even shows when fish are being thrown into ice buckets it is rendering them to stillness but not senseless and draws out the pain they feel before they finally die. 

However, maybe even knowing that fish feel pain we would still do everything the same considering how we treat their land counterparts. Annually over 7 billion land farm animals are raised and killed inhumanly, and we know without a doubtthat they feel pain and can suffer but this has not stopped the majority of the population from supporting the animal agricultural industry by eating meat.

Yet there is the difference still that social media is not littered with photos of Mum, Dad and their three children out knifing cows, or watching a lamb slowly suffocate for the fun of it. Yes, they may be eating meat and therefor supporting the pain and killing of farm animals, but generally it is done still in such a segregated perhaps non-conscious manner. 

 Would we still take these actions if we knew?

1.  That these animals – the cows, the sheep and the fish and all their seafood cousins – indisputably feel pain and can suffer.

2.  That we have the power through our actions to either be part of directly causing this pain or to not.

Many humans still choose to support the pain and death of animals even knowing the above for numerous reasons ranging from greed, enjoyment of taste, personal ideas of what we need to eat for health. Yet we also know that with the growth of information of the emotional range of animals and the truth of the way they are being mistreated combined with science showing the possibility we can be healthy on plants, that millions of people are starting to choose a different way. To not take actions that cause suffering to animals and to go vegetarian or vegan.  This covers respecting and honouring both land and marine animals. Some people still get stuck with removing fish from their diet, perhaps because of the old belief system that they cannot feel pain.  

To change the greater population’s view on how we are treating the fish of the oceans and rivers, the question of ethics may depend on science confirming with research what fish do or do not experience. It won’t be the only factor – because morals and values, as we see with the land farm animal issues – are often over-ridden by peoples conceived beliefs or their desire for a taste they enjoy. Yet it is an important aspect to the argument and movement.

 Bentham wrote, the most important question is not, “Can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?” 

Science is now showing evidence what for many of us seems instinctual.

Yes, fish can.

And yes, fish do. 

Lynne Sneddon, a director and biologist at Liverpool University, confirmed via scientific experiments (experiments that can be cruel but are changing the belief of many) that fish possess nerves that convey pain. Sneddon showed that pinching and pricking fish activates these nerve fibres and receptors and through her research she concludes that fish have a very similar neuronal system to mammals and that they experience not just reflexes, but pain responses, removing a debate that has allowed many to argue that they didn’t suffer. It has been an important distinction in the scientific world whether fish feel pain or not. Not only do fish have pain receptors, they also produce the same opioids as mammals, which are the body’s natural painkillers, and when they are injured their brain activates in the same manner. 

In another on of Sneddon’s tests, she gave zebrafish the choice between two aquariums: one completely barren, the other containing gravel, a plant, and a view of other fish. They consistently chose to spend time in the decorated chamber. When some fish were injected with acid (yes, cruel) and the bleak aquarium was flooded with pain-numbing lidocaine, they changed their preference, abandoning the more interesting tank to move to the painkiller filled tank.

 Sneddon repeated this study with one change: instead of putting the pain killer into the barren tank she injected it straight into the fish’s bodies. The fish remained among the originally preferred tank with gravel and greenery. 

Yes, they feel pain.

Yes, they choose to not suffer from the pain given the choice – which they are intelligent enough to make. 

Putting the evidence that fish have both the neurotransmitters and receptors and watching behaviour in many of the other experiments created strong evidence what many of us know anyway; that fish do feel pain. 

 When Sneddon’s team administered drugs such as aspirin, lidocaine and morphine, the drugs made the pain symptoms induced in the experiments disappear. “If fish did not experience pain,” Sneddon pointed out, “then analgesic drugs would have no effect.”

Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology at Penn State University is another person whose work, such as her ground-breaking study in 2003 and 2010 book, 'Do Fish Feel Pain? suggests strongly that fish anatomy is complex enough to experience pain and discomfort. She is not a vegan promoting this belief from a compassionate direction – she is a professor of fisheries that documented it via science-based evidence. 

Sneddon, Braithwaite and other fish biologists around the world have now produced substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain. Why does it matter that we now are gathering this practical evidence that fish can feel pain? Because generally as human beings, we value being kind. We value being gentle. We pride ourselves on being peaceful people - not violent. We tend to not want to cause pain to other living creatures. Now obviously we show in many areas that we are not living by these values; but the first step to moving towards them and creating a reality where we live by these morals is to understand where we currently are not. With the manner in which we are treating fish – we can now have the clarity that we are not. They can feel pain and we are causing them to suffer. To change this seems daunting with the size of the industry, but all social justice movements face the same sizemec hills to get over… we have to start somewhere. The commercial industry must be moved by consumers demands and the scientific community. 

On a personal scale, we can cut fishing out of our leisurely activities if we understand it is an activity that is torturing another living being. If that seems extreme to some, they could at the very least start with killing the fish instantly rather than letting it die slowly or freezing them, therefor lengthening the process. And certainly, we can question whether this activity is something we want to boast about with ‘selfies’. 

After all, fish have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Longer than us. They may not be able to scream but they demonstrate when they want to avoid experiencing something. They can communicate and certainly are not memoryless like we painted them for a long time as that suited our desires. Research has shown that various fish show long-term memory, social bonding, learned traditions and tool use. 

Divers and marine biologists have long documented particular individual fish interacting with them; some of them acting shy, others defensive and others friendly and inquisitive and wanting to be stroked – recognising particular divers again and again. Fish are incredibly amazing in different ways to us, in different ways to land animals. Different does not mean less. They may show their suffering in ways we originally didn’t understand, but now we know that they can, what matters is what we choose to do with this information. 

*This article is an exert of one I wrote for The Australian Vegan Magazine that you can purchase online or news agencies.