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July 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fish Do Feel Pain

from the July, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You may not hear them say "ouch," but fish feel pain just the same, according to a new book, Do Fish Feel Pain? by Victoria Braithwaite, a professor of fisheries and biology at Penn State. She argues that fish, like most other organisms, are capable of experiencing pain, and that humans can cause fish to suffer. She found that fish have the same kind of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli, tissue damage and pain. She also explored whether fish are sentient beings, and whether an organism must possess "awareness" to experience pain.

"We now know that fish are actually more cognitively competent than we thought - - some species of fish have very sophisticated forms of cognition," Braithwaite wrote in a press release. "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."

She was drawn to the issue after reading about fish-farming concerns. "By 2030, half of all fish that humans eat will come from fish farms," Braithwaite told Discovery News. "It seemed logcal 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 animal welfare."

She believe the U.S. is 10 years behind Europe in its thinking about the way it keeps and kills animals in agriculture. Those concerns are now being extended to aquaculture. "Electrical stunning may change the way we harvest fish at sea. We have a responsibility, I think, to make clean and quick kills of the 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?'"

To do this on a wide-scale commercial level, Braithwaite recommends that protections related to pain and suffering now 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. But we now have strong evidence that suggests fish are more intelligent than previously thought, and their behavior more complex."

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