Do fish feel pain?

As someone who spends quite a bit of time working with fish, I’m asked certain questions with some frequency. These range from the whimsical, “have you ever seen one of those Nemo fish?,” to the enlightened, “is all seafood marketed as ‘sustainably caught’ actually sustainable?,” to the practical, “is it safe to eat canned tuna more than a couple of times a week?” One of these many questions that I always fail to answer succinctly or adequately has some serious moral implications for scientists and fishermen alike- do fish feel pain? Although every researcher that works with fish assumes they can (and acts accordingly), there is little agreement in the scientific community as to whether or not they do. However, two recent publications, one a book aimed at the general public and the other a review article published in a peer-reviewed journal, provide helpful and easily accessible overviews of where research on fish suffering now stands.

Do fish feel pain?1 is an attempt by author Dr. Victoria Braithwaite to bring this debate into the public sphere. The Pennsylvania State University Professor of Fisheries and Biology offers an overview of the question posed in the title of her book and a review of the research that’s been conducted in the search for a definitive answer. Although the book provides a largely unbiased review of the literature to date, Dr. Braithwaite’s published research makes it clear she has reached the conclusion that fish do experience pain and suffering in some form, if not in the same way we do2,3. Dr. Braithwaite does not, however, see the need for drastic changes to the way we interact with fish as food sources, recreational resources, and subjects of ecological and biological study. Despite this, and perhaps unavoidably due to its popularity, this book has been cited as evidence for a range of positions not supported by the author- e.g. the elimination of catch-and-release fishing4.

Partially in response to Dr. Braithwaite’s book and the sometimes exaggerated claims it was used to support, a number of scientists that conducted some of the studies referenced in Do Fish Feel Pain? published their own review of research on fish suffering in the peer-reviewed journal Fish and Fisheries (“Can fish really feel pain?”5). The University of Wyoming’s Dr. James Rose and his co-authors present the case that fish do not experience pain and explain how claims that they do may be causing harm to research efforts, people, and, ultimately, fish themselves. Taken together, Dr. Braithwaite’s book and Dr. Rose et al.’s review article provide informative discussions of the biological basis of reacting to negative stimuli and the resulting behavioral consequences, the evolutionary history of pain sensing, appropriate experimental designs for studying pain and suffering in animals, and both the price of failing to recognize suffering in animals that may feel pain and the cost of inappropriately ascribing feelings and emotions to animals incapable of experiencing them. Less convincing are the authors’ attempts to determine whether fish are self-aware and conscious. That the authors of these works reach different conclusions on the ultimate question only adds to the comprehensive coverage these works offer when considered together.

So, what about the original question? The difficulty in determining an answer may be exemplified by the most telling departure between the book and the article- their respective definitions of pain. Dr. Braithwaite introduces pain as, “a negative, unpleasant sensation we try to avoid.”1 Although it would be unfair to leave the impression that Dr. Braithwaite defines pain so simply- indeed ideas of suffering immediately follow this definition and she makes the case for fish consciousness- she does not explicitly include what the International Association for the Study of Pain describes as the “emotional experience” associated with pain6. In contrast Dr. Rose et al. make a clear distinction between nociception (i.e. “the neural process of encoding noxious stimuli”6) and pain, emphasizing not just the physical reaction to a particular negative stimulus, but the psychological and subjective nature of suffering. And this difference seems to represent the state of pain research in fish- responses to negative stimuli, pathways active in nociception, and learning based on negative responses have been established in a range of fish taxa; the biggest point of contention remaining seems to be whether fish have the psychological and emotional ability to truly suffer when exposed to harm, in other words are fish conscious. As Dr. John G. Nickum put it in his review of Do Fish Feel Pain? for the journal Fisheries, “perhaps the real question is: do humans think that fish feel pain?”7 Ultimately, philosophers might be better equipped than biologists to answer a question like that.

1 Braithwaite, V. A. Do Fish Feel Pain? ,  (Oxford University Press, 2010).

2 Braithwaite, V. A. & Huntingford, F. A. Fish and welfare: do fish have the capacity for pain perception and suffering? Animal Welfare 13, 87-92 (2004).

3 Braithwaite, V. A. Cognitive ability in fish. Fish Physiology 24, 1-37 (2005).

4 Bekoff, M. Fish do feel pain: yes they do, science tells us. Psychology Today (2010). <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201004/fish-do-feel-pain-yes-they-do-science-tells-us>.

5 Rose, J. D. et al. Can fish really feel pain? Fish & Fisheries, 1-37, doi:10.1111/faf.12010 (2012).

6 IASP. IASP Taxonomy, <http://www.iasp-pain.org/Content/NavigationMenu/GeneralResourceLinks/PainDefinitions/default.htm> (2012).

7 Nickum, J. G. A review of “Do Fish Feel Pain?”. Fisheries 20, 181-182 (2012).

pain in fish, animal testing, fish consciousness

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