If I were asked the question “do fish feel pain” twenty years ago I would have said absolutely not. I fished avidly and genuinely believed that they do not feel pain or fear.
I was raised in a family who fished and it was something I had done since I was a very young girl. I have always loved animals so it seems an odd thing to do, and I have since learned that it is due to something called “cognitive dissonance”.
Cognitive dissonance is a funny thing, it refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
So in order for me to continue harming fish without that feeling of mental discomfort, I convinced myself they were not like us and therefore not capable of suffering. Also, Kurt Cobain said fish don’t have feelings, and why not take the word of a highly unstable music star with a debilitating drug addiction? (For reference he sang the words, “It’s ok to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings” in the Nirvana song, Something in the Way.
“It’s ok to eat fish cause they don’t have any feelings”Kurt Cobain – ‘Something in the way’
This is not a blog about psychology so if you would like to learn more about cognitive dissonance you can read more here.
What changed my mind?
I underwent a big life change in my 20’s and moved thousands of miles away from friends and family and began to discover myself. I didn’t have to play the role of daughter or sister or best friend, and I started finding out who I really was.
It was during this time that I began to question my lifelong belief that there was no way fish feel pain. I had long since stopped fishing or even eating fish, but still held that belief.
Before I researched any studies I spent many evenings thinking about why I believed they were not capable of suffering and realised being told by an uncle wasn’t sufficient evidence.
I recalled a situation where I had caught a shy shark while fishing with my brother. We put him in a net in the water and carried on fishing. Within minutes the net was surrounded by other shy sharks and at the time I remember finding it interesting.
I wondered if the other fish sensed his distress, or if he made a cry for help that wasn’t audible to us. I still don’t know the answer but as the name suggests they are shy animals and I had never seen one at the water’s surface before, never mind about a dozen!
They prefer to be close to the bottom where they can hide, there is no doubt in my mind they came to his aid and that indicates sentience to me. A vegetable has never gone to the rescue of another vegetable. We freed him and they all disappeared.
Sadly cognitive dissonance is very powerful and my belief that fish did not feel pain held. I made excuses for their unusual behaviour and continued to fish for some time after the event.
Vets believe fish feel pain too
According to Veterinary Clinics of North America Exotic Animal Practice: “Fish, amphibians, and reptiles have appropriate neurologic components and display the appropriate behavioral responses to a painful stimulus”.
There is an argument to be had that vets say this so they can charge more for pain medication when treating fish, but there is far too much science out there that proves that fish do feel pain.
Science argues that fish feel pain
In a study published by the US National Library of Medicine, scientists administered 1% acetic acid, a noxious substance, to the lips of rainbow trout.
The trout exhibited agitated behaviour and stopped eating for a prolonged period of time.
Although cruel, this test proves that at the very least, this caused discomfort in the trout.
It also proves that something that people who enjoy fishing have contested fiercely, fish have sensitive lips and having a hook pushed through them causes distress at best, but likely causes extreme pain and suffering.
If a mammal were treated this way the perpetrator would likely face a long prison sentence. Unfortunately, fish are not offered these protections.
Pain is essential for survival
Pain has a very important function, if we do something that hurts us, we are unlikely to repeat that action. This is to keep us safe.
The ability to detect dangerous, damaging stimuli is essential for survival, so it is intuitive that non human animals, including fish, evolved to have this early warning system.
If you are interested in the science behind this, I highly recommend this very long, but very interesting article in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
How are fish killed?
Aside from laws ruling on things like the size of fish you can legally kill, I am not aware of any law that prevents you from killing fish in a particular way. Which means they are essentially not afforded any protection in law, so despite the fact that fish feel pain we can, and do, kill them any way we choose.
The most common way is suffocation, especially on commercial fishing boats. Fish are pulled out the water and left to slowly die among their struggling companions.
Some people smash their heads repeatedly against the ground until they are dead, others stab them. There is no set rule.
In one culture some fish are kept alive while their bodies are cooked and they are eaten while still alive. Given that we now know fish feel pain this is unimaginably cruel.
There is advice on how to humanely kill fish, however when dealing with the huge number of fish killed it is impossible to do this without causing suffering. It is also impossible to humanely kill someone who doesn’t want to die.
Fish are the most exploited animals on the planet, it is estimated between 1 and 3 TRILLION fish are killed by humans annually. There is no escape for them, our pursuit of them by hook or net is relentless and it is heartbreaking.
Why people fish
From my own experience, I fished for food but I also fished for fun, there was something so exhilarating about catching a fish, a creature who lived in the mysterious world under the water.
That feeling of reeling them in not knowing what it was that I had caught, the anticipation was electric. And it was unimaginably selfish. I was harming animals for pleasure, and I will forever be ashamed of my actions.
Fishing is socially acceptable, seen as a wholesome pastime for all the family to enjoy. We are accustomed to seeing fish getting caught and disposed of in a way we would not accept with other animals.
There would be outrage if someone was drowning kittens, something which used to be common practice.
I wonder if things would be different if we understood the fear behind their struggles to get free of the hook? If their screams weren’t silent but we could hear their desperation, their pain and their fear?
Instead families laugh amongst each other while an animal is dangling, helplessly in agony, at the end of a hook.
I can’t change what I have done, all I can do now is speak out on their behalf and educate people about how fish feel pain in the hope that their minds will change and they can break free of the cognitive dissonance that holds them so tightly.