University Park, Pa. – Do fish feel pain? The question is so troubling that many wish it were not even asked in a serious way, let alone answered.
But ask it Penn State professor of fisheries and biology Victoria Braithwaite does in her recently published book, "Do Fish Feel Pain?" Her conclusions are thought provoking, to say the least. After decades of relevant research on the subject, she examines whether fish are capable of experiencing pain, whether humans cause them to suffer and whether it even matters.
Although her research and the book have caused a firestorm of controversy among both devotees and opponents of angling, Braithwaite’s approach is dispassionate, balanced and matter-of-fact -- and she is quick to point out that she is not against sport fishing.
The faculty member in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, who also is associate director of the Penn State Institute of the Neurosciences, recalls that she initially was drawn to the question by fish-farming concerns rather than angling-ethics considerations.
But now she can’t escape them.
"I definitely think that we need to look at the welfare of fish," she said. "By 2030, half of all fish that humans eat will come from fish farms. It seemed logical to me to care about fish, because agriculture in general is confronting animal-welfare issues. If we are concerned about animal welfare, we should be concerned about fish welfare."
Through exhaustive experiments with fish, explained in meticulous detail in her book, Braithwaite builds a compelling case that fish have the same kinds of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli, tissue damage and pain. And she explores the contentious concepts of whether fish are sentient beings and whether an organism must possess "awareness" to experience pain.
"We now know that fish actually are cognitively more competent than we thought before -- some species of fish have very sophisticated forms of cognition," she said. "In our experiments we showed that if we hurt fish, they react, and then if we give them pain relief, they change their behavior, strongly indicating that they feel pain."
But Braithwaite contends that when results from her earlier work were publicized in 2003, they were sensationalized. "Words were put into my mouth," she said. "I never said, ’Fish feel pain, so anglers are being very cruel.’
"I wasn’t saying anything about angling -- that was sort of a knock-on consequence," she added. "I was very frustrated, and that was my motivation for writing this book, to put the facts out there and then people can make up their own minds. I eat fish, I don’t object to fishing, I am not an angler, but my friends, colleagues and family members are."
Braithwaite chafes at suggestions that she is a "tree hugger" or an animal-rights extremist. "I am not biased -- my book gives a balanced account of the issue," she said. "I recognize how valuable the efforts of anglers have been historically for conservation -- many fishermen are staunch stewards of the aquatic environment, guarding our waterways against pollution and degradation. We would not want to be without them or their efforts.
"In terms of an impact, perhaps my book will influence people to be more humane when sport fishing, persuading them to make quicker kills and use barbless hooks and not keep fish out of the water long if they are practicing catch and release"
The United States, Braithwaite estimates, is 10 years behind Europe right now in its thinking about the way it keeps and kills animals in agriculture. Those concerns are just now starting to be extended to aquaculture. In fish farming, she pointed out, producers are searching for more humane ways to kill fish.
"Electrical stunning may change the way we harvest fish at sea," she said. "We have a responsibility, I think, to make clean and quick kills of fish we eat. Certainly, most of us are not comfortable with piles of fish slowly suffocating on the decks of fishing trawlers at sea and in port. People are rightly asking, ’Isn’t there a better way?’"
We may, indeed, be troubled by the prospect of fish feeling pain, Braithwaite conceded, but she said we should not let our discomfort with the subject keep us from confronting the issue, because the latest scientific evidence suggests that the protections currently given to birds and mammals should be widened to include fish.
"There is a perception that fish have simple brains and are incapable of feelings, and this has somehow made them different from birds and mammals when it comes to our concerns for their welfare," she said. "But we now have strong evidence that suggests fish are more intelligent than previously thought and their behavior more complex.
"So we should have debate over how the fishing and angling industries may respond to improve the treatment of fish."
"Do Fish Feel Pain?" is published by Oxford University Press and is widely available at bookstores and from online book sellers.