Victoria Braithwaite asks, quite simply, "Do fish feel pain?" She writes, "Pain is a negative, unpleasant sensation that we try to avoid. It also makes most of us uncomfortable to know that someone else is hurting" (p. 3). And I would argue that many people also feel uncomfortable knowing that animals are hurting. Does this include fish?
She begins by exploring whether fish have the receptors for detecting painful stimuli. Then she discusses whether fish change their behavior upon receiving a painful stimulus, and whether that behavioral change reverts to the pre-pain state when pain-masking drugs are administered. Finally, she points out that experiments show that fish have a memory of pain, and this memory will change their future behavior.
She writes, "This book examines the evidence we currently have for whether fish can suffer, and indeed whether it is meaningful to discuss pain in fish" (p. 23). "To answer the question raised by the title of this book, we need to show that fish have the apparatus to detect noxious stimuli - the nociceptors and fibres that conduct the information - but we also need to ask whether fish are capable of perception and awareness" (p. 41).
The answer is, yes.
The question now is, what do we do with this knowledge?
"Accepting that an animal has the ability to suffer from pain changes the way we choose to interact, handle, and care for it" (p.2).
"Many scientists complain about the lengthy [IACUC] process, but the regulations are important - the training and the writing of the project proposal force researchers to contemplate the real value of the animal work being proposed" (p. 6).
"Animal welfare concerns more than just health and well being; it expresses ideas about the quality of an animal's life and maintains the moral view that animals that are sentient should be protected from unnecessary pain and distress" (p. 16).
People utilize fish in many ways, as pets, as food, and as research animals. However, it is recreational angling and commercial fishing and aquaculture that impacts most fish. The author writes, "What we learn from these studies can be implemented into codes of practice to guide anglers about what is and isn't good for the fish" (p. 164). "Perhaps the biggest negative effect we have on fish, and the least researched, is how we fish at sea" (p. 174).
Apologists tell us that fish are caught again and again in "catch and release" fisheries, so it sure doesn't seem like fish are suffering. And commercial fishers just tell us that they are utilizing techniques dictated by custom and economics.
Yet, isn't this the same argument used 100 years ago regarding livestock and slaughter? Doesn't the National Rifle Association now promote the highest ethics when hunting? People and customs change.
The deaths of fish can be improved. That is the responsibility of those who utilize fish. And the ethical consumer must begin to ask the appropriate questions and vote with their dollars when it comes to sustainable seafood, as well as well-treated fish.
Time to begin the process, and continue the conversation.