Of all the animals on earth, with the exception perhaps of insects arachnids and other tiny creatures colloquially referred to as creepy crawlies, fish it seems are the least valued or considered as sentient beings.
Fish are intelligent animals who lead complex lives that rival those of your dog and other mammals.
The forgotten fish: a new look at our underwater friends
“Fish are one of the most misunderstood species of the animal kingdom. Long believed to be unfeeling, primitive creatures, scientists are now discovering that fish feel pain and are sensitive social beings.”
Dolphins and whales are accepted without doubt as intelligent creatures, sensitive, aware, conscious: sentient. But what about other aquatic creatures – the myriad species of fish, 2,7000 in all, which is more than all vertebrate species combined – are they sentient? Approximately three new species of fish are discovered each week! And even more vast are the huge numbers of species of other marine creatures, invertebrates such as molluscs – octopuses, squids, snails, slugs. Do they possess sentience? The ocean is a vast habitat teeming with life, astronomical in number and diversity, creatures dwell even in the most inhospitable of environments.
Here I will focus my attention on fish as it is these creatures who are mostly exploited as food, however in the catching of fish many other aquatic animals suffer and die as a consequence and you can read why by clicking here:
Animal Rights: Aquatic Animals.
The reason that this article will only focus on fish however does not imply that other aquatic creatures lack sentience, in my opinion most animals are sentient.
What are the indicators that fish are sentient.
It is often considered that fish are primitive life forms, however as the oldest vertebrate group of animals they have been evolving for 400 million years, they have had time to evolve complex and diverse behaviours. Because of their amazing diversity fish are said to be the most successful of all vertebrates.
One good indicator of sentience is a creature’s ability to express emotion, but how is emotion expressed in fish? How do we know that a fish feels distress or fear, how do we know if he or she feels pain or joy or experiences pleasure? Another good indicator of sentience is intelligence, are fish intelligent? Many people think not, but research is proving otherwise.
Pain is the most basic indicator of sentience, but do fish experience pain? The excuse of anglers when catching fish with hooks that pierce their mouths is that this area is numb and they do not feel pain. As you will see later on this is one of the most erroneous misconceptions of all the incorrect ideas many people have concerning fish, it is as unfounded as the notion that cows keep producing milk.
Of all animals exploited for food, fish are thought to be the least sentient and sadly this is due to a number of misconceptions, most notably their lack of facial expression which many people think equals a lack of feeling and conscious awareness, in other words sentience, and are consequently not capable of feeling pain or emotion. This is an incorrect assumption. Consider dolphins and Whales who similarly lack expression, at least in comparison with how we show feelings, yet few would deny that dolphins or whales are sentient, intelligent and that they feel pain.
In her article ‘What Fish Feel’ researcher Stephanie Yue of the University of Guelph in Canada explains the findings of her team and discusses the ethical implications. The following are extracts concerning the findings of research into the sentience of fish, which among other points of relevance demonstrates that rainbow trout not only have the ability to learn but also to recall what they have learnt.
Expressing her concern about the increase in the consumption of fish and the use of them in medical research, Ms.Yue considers that the problem is that most people experience an emotional distance from fish and consequently do not consider them as sentient, as creatures who feel pain or experience emotion. She says;
This may be because our present knowledge of assessing suffering in fish is inadequate— in part because fish do not typically display traditional and obvious signs we are familiar with in other animals. They are not capable of facial expression, nor can most species of fish vocalize; given their general anatomical structure, changes in body posture are extremely limited.
However, recent anatomical, physiological, neuropharmacological and behavioral studies suggest fish can suffer in ways similar to “higher” vertebrate animals.
From our studies on highly domesticated rainbow trout, we have seen these fish show behavior that is much more flexible and complex than was previously acknowledged. We have found that trout have some cognitive capacity that rivals that of mammalian laboratory animals, like rats. They not only show the ability to learn, but they also have memory of the things they learned—so they can anticipate events and adjust their behavior accordingly. This means some of their behavioral repertoire is “purposeful” and lends evidence toward “conscious” behavior.
What Fish Feel a report by Stephanie Yue
In addition to the above there is and has been considerable research into the sentience and intelligence of fish.
The fact is fish are conscious creatures, they are sentient, research demonstrates that they are far from the automatons we have been led to believe.
Lets start with the most popular criterion which many people adhere to as indicative of sentience: intelligence. As before it is important to bear in mind that intelligence or lack thereof does not imply a lack of sentience, but if we can demonstrate that a creature is intelligent it does go a long way towards establishing sentience. But we should perhaps bear in mind that animal intelligence is not comparable to our own, even though when the presence of intelligence is researched in animals it does seem as though we try to prove animals have similar intelligence rather than demonstrate that animals have perhaps a different kind of intelligence. A degree of intelligence of some type does of course demonstrate sentience, but is nonetheless not a prerequisite.
A number of research projects have demonstrated that despite having small brains fish have cognitive abilities in advance of some mammals. These studies also reveal that fish are fast learners, they can retain what they have learned and they can make mental maps. The following is an extract from The Telegraph concerning research into the intelligence of fish:
“Tests on fish in aquaria at Oxford University have shown that despite their tiny brains, they possess cognitive abilities outstripping those of some small mammals.
Dr Theresa Burt de Perera made the discovery using blind Mexican cave fish, which rely on subtle changes in pressure to detect the presence of objects around them.
“In experiments, Dr Burt de Perera found that the fish did more than merely avoid bumping into objects in their tank. They built a detailed map of their surroundings, memorising the obstacles in them within a few hours. Once stored in their brains, the fish used their “mental map” to spot changes in the obstacles around them – a feat that defeats hamsters.
In one test, involving obstacles arranged in a specific order, the fish proved capable of memorising the order and quickly spotted when Dr Burt de Perera swapped obstacles around.”
To finish reading the article:
Fast-learning fish have memories that put their owners to shame
Moreover concerning the amazing ability that fish have to make mental maps, it has been shown that fish retain this memory for about 40 days. In his book Pleasurable Kingdoms Jonathan Balcombe describes the incredible memory of the frillfin goby which lives in rook tide-pools when the tide is high:
“If a rock pool begins to dry up these fish leap to an adjacent pool. Obviously, a missed leap might be fatal, and the accuracy must be great in both terms of distance and direction. How do frillfin gobies do this being as they cannot see the adjacent pool? They memorise the topography of the rocks during high tide. Captive fish showed a marked improvement in orientation after an overnight opportunity to swim over the pools during an artificial high tide. Removing the gobies from their home tide pools for various periods of time before retesting their jumping ability showed that their memory of familiar pools lasted about 40 days. Thanks to these mental capacities, gobies caught in a shallow depression avoid having to make a pure leap of faith.”
Fish have the ability to learn by observing other fish:
“Did you know that fish can learn to avoid nets by watching other fish in their group and that they can recognize individual “shoal mates”? Some fish gather information by eavesdropping on others, and some—such as the South African fish who lay eggs on leaves so that they can carry them to a safe place—even use tools.”
Even more amazing:
“Australian crimson spotted rainbow fish, which learnt to escape from a net in their tank, remembered how they did it 11 months later. This is equivalent to a human recalling a lesson learnt 40 years ago.”
Culum Brown University of Edinburgh
Fish communicate with each other:
“Researchers from universities across America have published research showing that some fish use sound to communicate distress when nets are dipped into their tanks or they are otherwise threatened. In a separate study, researcher William Tavolga found that fish grunted when they received an electric shock. In addition, the fish began to grunt as soon as they saw the electrode, clearly in anticipation of the torment that Tavolga was inflicting on them.
Fish talk to each other with squeaks, squeals, and other low-frequency sounds that humans can hear only with special instruments.
Some fish woo potential partners by singing to them, but male sand gobies, tiny fish who live along the European coast, play “Mr. Mom,” building and guarding nests and fanning the eggs with their fins to create a current of fresh, oxygenated water.”
Extracts from The Hidden Lives Of Fish.
Fish have friends:
Porcupine Fish Won’t Leave Stuck Friend’s Side | This little fish’s friend was stuck in a net — so she stayed right by her side till she was finally free
Can fish use tools? Maybe not in the sense we would use tools but consider the following:
One species of wrasse, has been filmed engaging in a marine version of tool use.
“While diving off the Micronesian archipelago of Pulau, evolutionary biologist Giacomo Bernardi witnessed something unusual and was lucky enough to capture it on film. An orange-dotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) uncovered a clam buried in the sand by blowing water at it, picked up the mollusk in its mouth and carried it to a large rock 30 yards away. Then, using several rapid head flicks and well-timed releases, the fish eventually cracked open the clam against the rock. In the ensuing 20 minutes, the tuskfish ate three clams, using the same sequence of behaviors to smash them.”
“In May 2014 a study highlighted an example of innovative tool use by Atlantic cods being held in captivity for aquaculture research. Each fish wore a colored tag affixed to its back near the dorsal fin, which allowed the researchers to identify each individual fish. The holding tank had a self-feeder activated by a string with a loop at the end, and the fish soon learned they could release a morsel of food by grabbing the loop in their mouth and pulling on it.
Apparently, some of the cods discovered they could activate the feeder by hooking the loop onto their tag and swimming a short distance away. These clever cods honed their technique through hundreds of “tests”—and it became a finely tuned series of goal-directed, coordinated movements. It also demonstrated true refinement because the innovators were able to grab the pellet a fraction of a second faster than by using their mouth to get the food. That fishes are routinely expected to interact with a foreign device to feed themselves is impressive enough but that some devised a new way of using their tag, in this case, shows a fish’s capacity for flexibility and originality.”
Tusk Fish using rock to crack clam!
Multitasking? Yes indeed fish are very adept at this, an ability the eludes me.
“First came news that fish feel pain, then research showed they’re smarter than you might think …. now a new study shows they’re good at multi-tasking too. University of Edinburgh biologists have found that when fish are vulnerable to attack, they become more adept at concentrating on tasks simultaneously. Experiments with a species of fish similar to guppies have shown that fish from high-risk environments identified predators with their left eyes and shoal mates with their right eyes. The research is significant because it appears to explain why humans have developed the ability to use different sides of the brain for specific tasks. The findings, which succeed earlier Edinburgh research on fish pain and intelligence, are published online today (21 July) in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters.”
“Dr Culum Brown, of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology, said: “Our study suggests that lateralisation allows fish to concentrate on shoal mates and predators simultaneously. Put another way, you could say that fish are very good at multi-tasking. In fish, all information received by the left eye is transmitted to the right side of the brain, and vice versa. Lateralisation is rather like having two computers to process information in different parts of the brain simultaneously, rather than just one.”
To finish reading the article:
Scientific study shows fish make great multi-taskers
Fish are individuals
Many people perceive fish as all being the same both in appearance and behaviour, creatures of habit, automatons with no distinguishing characteristics. In my view this is yet another inaccurate observation and one which scientists are in the process of disproving as research validates that fish are individuals with their own personalities and behaviours. Below is an extract from a Times on-line article, which unfortunately is now not available without registration, by Mark Henderson, Smart School of Fish Expose Stupidity of a Popular Myth, which features a study led by Lynne Sneddon of the University of Liverpool conducting research into the intelligence of fish. The finding of which not only demonstrate that fish are smarter than we think but they have good memories and are individuals .
“The study… found that individual trout display very different characters — some are bold and inquisitive; others are shy and passive.”
“Rainbow trout certainly have contrasting personalities. Some are bold and some are shy. The bold fish take risks, they are quick to learn, more aggressive and active. Shy fish are cautious and timid, and spend more time under cover.
“They also learn from their experiences: they adjust their behaviour according to what they pick up from others.”
In the study, which is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, Dr Sneddon’s team first watched rainbow trout as they were exposed to new and unfamiliar stimuli in the form of shapes made of Lego dropped into their tanks. Fish were then categorised as bold or shy, depending on how quickly they investigated the objects, and how closely they approached them.”
Smart school of fish expose stupidity of a popular myth
Fish have the capacity to feel pleasure.
Sentient beings are capable of experiencing pleasure. Most people would not equate fish as creatures with the ability to enjoy themselves and experience pleasure, again another misconception. Here are some examples of the ways that fish experience pleasure.
All animals like to be stroked, cat and dog owners know the pleasure their animals derive from being stroked and indeed the pleasure we derive from stroking them. Fish it seems also enjoy the sensation of being stroked. Contrary to popular belief fish are highly sensitive to touch, equipped with sensory organs they can detect pressure changes in the water and minute electrical fields.
Grooming by such creatures as cleaner shrimp and cleaner fish is likely undertaken for the pleasure of the tactile sensations involved in addition to the benefits of grooming.
The use of cleaning stations, a place where fish and other aquatic animals gather to be cleaned by fish of several species and other creatures, is a widespread phenomenon. The cleaner fish or other creatures nibble parasites such as fish lice, fungal growth, loose skin and other irritations from the skin.
Yes most certainly fish like to be touched, they have been observed to rub against one another. Fish even enjoy the sensations of touch by humans and fish who are used to divers often allow themselves to be stroked by them. There appears to be no advantage here, such as food or other benefit, other than pleasure from the sensory sensation.
Do fish seek out pleasure, do they play?
Quite likely the answer is yes. Again in his book pleasurable Kingdom, Jonathan Balcombe writing about fish and their capacity for play describes Zoologist E Meder observations of elephantine fish in an aquarium :
“After witnessing surprising things going on in his aquarium the Zoologist E Meder moved it to his desk so that he could keep a closer eye on his lone elephantine fish. One day to his astonishment, Meder watched the fish balancing a small aquatic snail on his or her nose. (Meder never determined or divulged the fishes’ sex). Small nylon balls added to the tank were treated similarly. When these began to accumulate in the filter, Meder suspended one on a string, and the fish would bat balance and retrieve the ball. That this fish was kept alone suggests that the play-like behaviour may have been driven in part by boredom.”
Surgeonfish in at a zoo in the USA were observed to gulp in air at the surface of their tank, swim to the bottom release the air and chase the bubbles to the surface. There is admittedly not a lot of evidence that fish play other than anecdotal, but there are numerous indications that they do. Most of us have seen fish repeatedly leaping out of the water, we may conjecturally imply that this is some form of play as it serves no other perceivable purpose.
Curiosity? Are fish curious?
A curious creature is aware is he not, it is his awareness, his consciousness that sparks his curiosity. Curiosity is a sign that a creature is sentient. But are fish curious? Fish are known to investigate unusual objects in their environment. Children paddling in fresh water often experience first hand the curiosity of little fish who nibble at their legs.
Watch the following as this little fish follows this person’s finger, curiosity surely.
Capacity to feel pain?
Last but most certainly not least: fish feel pain. As with all animals the most basic indication of sentience is the ability to feel pain and fish like all animals are capable of experiencing pain.
Without sentience there can be no pain, pain is felt, it is experienced by a creature who is aware, the animal has to be aware, conscious in order to feel the painful sensation and to recognise it as painful and thereafter to avoid a recurrence of the painful stimuli. So if we can establish that fish feel pain we are well on the way to validating the concept that fish are sentient.
Every creature feels pain, without pain no creature would survive for very long, pain is a basic survival mechanism. To my mind it is common sense that fish like all animals feel pain. Fish have the ability to feel pain just the way that your cat or dog does or indeed you yourself.
“The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals.”
Dr. Donald Broom
Fish have a nervous system, this is a fact long known by neurobiologists; they like us have a brain and nerves that sense pain in much the same way as we do. The brains and nervous systems of fish are very like our own. In fact fish have endorphin like neurotransmitters, opiate like painkillers, which act just as they do in humans and other animals, and that is to relieve pain. This is their only function, they are natures pain killers, they exist in fish as they do in ourselves in order to relieve pain. Scientists have mapped pain receptors all over thier bodies including thier mouths, the obvious conclusion is fish feel pain. Yes anglers, even in their mouths, a hook in this sensitive area is rather like having your teeth drilled in exposed areas without an anaesthetic!
Below is an article of which the angler should take special note before catching a fish on a barbed hook.
Research challenges the myth among anglers that fish can’t feel pain from barbed hooks.
by Victoria Braithwaite
“Every year, sportsmen around the world drag millions of fish to shore on barbed hooks. It’s something people have always done, and with little enough conscience. Fish are … well, fish. They’re not dogs, who yelp when you accidentally step on their feet. Fish don’t cry out or look sad or respond in a particularly recognizable way. So we feel free to treat them in a way that we would not treat mammals or even birds.
But is there really any biological justification for exempting fish from the standards nowadays accorded to so-called higher animals? Do we really know whether fish feel pain or whether they suffer — or whether, in fact, our gut sense that they are dumb, unfeeling animals is accurate?
Determining whether any type of animal really suffers is difficult. A good starting place might be to consider how people feel pain. When a sharp object pierces the human body, specialized nerve endings called nociceptors alert us to the damage. Incredibly, no one ever seems to have asked before whether fish have nociceptors around their mouths. My colleagues and I in Edinburgh, Scotland, recently looked in trout and found that they do. If you look at thin sections of the trigeminal nerve, the main nerve for the face for all vertebrates, fish have the same two types of nociceptors that we do — A-delta and C fibers. So they do have the necessary sensory wiring to detect pain.
And the wiring works. We stimulated the nociceptors by injecting diluted vinegar or bee venom just under the skin of the trout. If you’ve ever felt the nip of vinegar on an open cut or the sting of a bee, you will recognize these feelings as painful. Well, fish find these naturally irritating chemicals unpleasant too. Their gills beat faster, and they rub the affected area on the walls of their tank, lose interest in food and have problems making decisions.”
Finish reading the complete article
That Fish You Caught Was in Pain:
This is an excellent article and raises important ethical questions. In response though to the posed consideration near the conclusion of this essay that: “One could reasonably adopt a utilitarian cost-benefit approach and argue that the benefits of sport-fishing, both financial and recreational, may outweigh the ethical costs of the likely suffering of fish.”
In my view there is nothing that can outweigh the cost of suffering to another creature, most certainly not financial or recreational. There are numerous out door pleasurable pursuits which cause harm to no creature, for instance bird watching and walking. There is nothing more exhilarating than walking in natural surroundings and observing nature and the great variety of life both on land and in the water, surely to experience nature and her creatures as live animate beings, must be a more satisfying experience, rather than fishing – viewing the demise of another living being after struggling for his last gasp of air, in pain, on the end of an anglers barbed hook!
“Really, it’s kind of a moral question. Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?”
Dr. Lynne Sneddon,
Fish also experience emotional distress in response to pain and have been observed to engage in a rocking motion after experiencing pain. This type of motion is very similar to that seen in other animals including ourselves. People with mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders may rock backwards and forwards in response to stress. Likewise people with autism rock backwards and forwards a behaviour referred to as stimming, it is thought that such behaviours are engaged in as a method of relieving anxiety and stress. Fish, as we have previously discussed, have good memories and can suffer from the anticipation of pain.
For more informative information on the issue of the perception of pain in fish from which some of the information in the preceding three paragraphs was obtained please click:
For scientific evidence read about recent research by scientists from the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh:
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Fish do feel pain, scientists say
Often cruelty to fish is not considered due to the misconception that fish do not feel pain, that they are not sentient, and most bizarre of all, that they are not animals despite the fact that most people have had at least basic biology taught to them at school. Trying to change the way people think about farmed land animals is difficult enough but when it comes to fish the task is even more problematic. Fish and other aquatic creatures need to be treated with the same consideration as other sentient beings such as your dog or cat or your budgie. Birds of course and in particular poultry are often considered in the light of similar misconceptions.
Read more about the common misconceptions concerning fish and the abuse that they sufferer as the are dragged from their watery environment.
Some horrifying statistics concerning the immense loss of life of fish both in the wild and in fish farms
Fish Count estimates
The Hidden Lives of Fish