Pain in the Bass

Bob HalsteadA few years ago I surveyed several fisher persons with the question “Do fish feel pain?”. The response was a unanimous “NO WAY”! I then decided to pose the same question to my ichthyologist friends and the responses varied from “probably not” to “maybe” and “just a little” and even “you’re so smart, Halstead, why don’t you ask them” – which latter remark I thought was perhaps an attempt to mock me.

So it was interesting, recently, to read the headline “Scottish Scientists Prove Fish Feel Pain”. It could have just been press hype but, whatever; it provoked immediate suspicion since real scientists do not go around claiming that they have proved things. They might say, for example, “We have discovered evidence that suggests that ….” but rarely would they claim an absolute truth, after all, the whole history of science consists of excellent theories found to be less excellent as scientists proudly discover more stuff. Global Warming for example.

The “scientists” that do go around saying that they have proved things are generally those that work for advertising agencies or creationist religions and who wear white lab coats. They claim proof that brand X soap washes brightest, and that Darwin was a Dickhead. Perhaps the only thing they do actually prove is that people who believe them are on the double-digit side of the IQ bell curve.

Then the “Scottish” bit peaked my interest. Perhaps they only budgeted for a few experiments? Perhaps they wore kilts instead of white lab coats? This was a bit of a puzzle until a later news item made everything clear. These people, or their mates, were trying to get a ban placed on fishing for Scottish salmon. Fish feel pain, they argued, therefore fishing is cruel, thus fishing for Scottish salmon should be made illegal. This is pure logic to them.

Don’t know about you, but I really enjoy a good feed of fish. I love the taste and I am told that the flesh contains all sorts of nutrients that are extraordinarily good for your health. I can remember at primary school even liking the cod liver oil capsules administered every day. Most thought they tasted awful.

But, in order to eat, first catch your fish. Hauling aboard a frantic struggling fish with a hook stuck in its bleeding mouth to slowly suffocate, or have its brains bashed, is not my idea of fun anymore, but I will do it to catch my supper. I am however very fussy where I catch my fish from, and aim for pelagic and deepwater fish to avoid executing any of my friends on the reef. Those of you who have dived regularly at a site know that it is easy to become emotionally attached to different individual fish with their different personalities. Anyone working with animals bred for slaughter suffers the same dilemma. You grow to love the animals you intend to kill. My advice; never give them names, or if you do, call them “Lamb Curry” or “Roast Beef” or “Chook L’Orange” or “Fish ‘n’ Chips”.

Over-fishing is a huge problem these days – but the reason over-fishing takes place is because so many people like to eat fish. If there were not so many people we would not have this problem. So the real answer is to reduce the number of people. As Billy Connolly suggests, an ideal solution would be to bring back cannibalism. You could eat someone I do not like – I could eat someone you do not like, and we could also solve the prison, homeless, unemployment and hooning problems. One good feast and the world’s population could be more than halved!

What people do not realise is that most fish are actually eaten alive. I know you like yours fried in beer batter, but most fish are eaten in the sea – by other fish. No worries about cannibalism underwater. The old, the weak and the slow-witted go first, often ingested in one great wriggling gulp. Others, even in their prime, are mauled, chomped and shredded before or during consumption. That is nature at work.

Given this, I, wearing my white lab coat, can now prove that, IF fish do feel pain, and IF God created them, then He (more likely She) is mean beyond belief. All that suffering! So perhaps they do not feel pain or perhaps God …. but let’s not get into that.

As Dr. Jack Randall, one of my ichthyological friends, pointed out – would you fight as hard as a fish does if you had a hook stuck through your jaw? (Ouch!). That’s a pretty good argument that perhaps fish do not feel pain as much as we do. Mind you, healthy people often think a little pain will not hurt them. We can suffer pain, but not remember it very well, and this is a good job too as otherwise women would be unlikely to have more than one child, and dentists would be a rare species. Mind you I guess many people only go to the dentist when already suffering an agonising toothache.

I certainly doubt whether fish suffer the mental pain that humans can and do. The loss of a loved one, an unrequited love affair, a home destroyed by fire, financial ruin, the mother-in-law paying an unexpected visit – I could write a huge list of circumstances that cause human misery and mental suffering. This suffering is connected to our imagination and particularly our ability to imagine what our future is likely to be in these new disastrous circumstances. This is, I believe, entirely a human trait and many of us would be quite happy to swap mental agony for some physical pain. We can predict that physical pain usually passes, but mental pain seems never likely to end (though it usually does too, eventually).

Does it matter whether fish feel pain or not? The fisher people want there to be no pain (I hope) so they can justify carrying on not-inflicting it, and the anti-fisher persons want there to be pain (poor suffering fishes), to support their argument to have fishing banned.

I think it is all a pain in the bass.

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8 thoughts on “Pain in the Bass”

  1. Of course fish experience pain. Pain is useful to the fish. Some other fish tries to take a bite and the fish reacts to the induced pain the bite causes. It would be less than smart to think that fish evolved without pain.

    Now the amount and memory of pain. Who knows. But I doubt that fish would have memory of pain.

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  2. To the readers: As you can see the level of discourse has now stooped from “silly” to “sophomoric” and will undoubtedly continue to decline. Of course, the deranged John Bantin is also “Mick Fleetwood”. I guess you have to see him in person to fully appreciate both the obvious physical resemblance and the underlying personality quirks derived from over three decades of loud music, a fondness for controlled substances, and the effects of watching singer Stevie Nicks’ ass gyrate right in front of you onstage while trapped behind your drum kit in frustrated longing.

    It all just goes to show you that when Bob Halstead wrote this article with humor and tongue-in-cheek style, he meant no disrespect to our fish friends. Bob is a staunch conservationist and one of diving’s finest voices of reason. But he is a transplanted Brit to Australia and that further confuses his already peculiar sense of humor. So poor “Hadronization” has been barbed by all of us for failing to recognize rapier wit in its primal form.

    Perhaps we have picked on him too much… Nah, he deserved it.

    Halstead, Bantin, and I will continue to skewer both “sacred cows” and occasionally fish with our own brand of warped perspective. For those with a sense of humor: read on and have an occasional giggle. But if you can’t recognize such literary forms, I counsel staying as far away from our ilk as possible.

    As I’ve noted before to self-righteous wounded critics that I have rebutted: Don’t engage in a battle of wits if you are an unarmed man.

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  3. Hey Mick,
    Leave my mate Bret alone, will you?
    I won’t have him bullied like that!

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  4. I saw a Maori wrasse attacked and bitten by a Titan Triggerfish. I would say it felt pain because it turned on the Titan and shook it to death like a terrier with a rat. Then there is the reaction of the fish bitten by the false cleaner wrasse…and Bob, if everyone was built like Bret, we’d need more than one feast to solve the human problem! Get the barbe lit!

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  5. Bob and Brett,
    Thank you for such a much needed laugh this morning! I would love to meet you both as one can never have too many “comedian” friends 🙂 And smart ones to boot!

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  6. To Bret Gilliam – Thanks for the comment!

    I the tapestry of life it is, alas, only too easy to offend SOMEONE. All one does is to offer an opinion, even tongue in cheek. But the best way to look at this is, I believe, to think of offence in the say way that I think of graffitti = some walls deserve it …..

    Anyway, I like seeing them go red in the face.

    Trust all is well. I’m off to PNG for some diving at the end of May – and intend to eat a few Spanish Mackerel while I’m there. Uh Oh now I’m going to get a complaint that I am mocking the Spanish!

    All the best,


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  7. Oh dear, Bob has offended “Hadronization” with his tongue-in-cheek sarcastic humor and is now taken to task in rebuttal on behalf of Scottish scientists (a perfect oxymoron, by the way) and burning questions of “Halstead’s Theory of Relative Fish Pain”. It’s a daunting subject and now Bob has been admonished that he “has to lay off the comedy.” What cruel irony, foul knave.

    Disarmed of comedic style, Bob is left in the intellectual gladiator pit to do battle essentially unarmed. What a cruel world. Somehow I can intuit that Bob will rise from the detritus of the fish scales at his feet to take up his filet knife to skewer yet again and soldier on like the noble Lancelot or, at least, Mr. Bean.

    Go forth, good knight, and rid this land of those with no sense of humor and lead us back to a kingdom where Fish & Chips may be eaten without guilt, stigma, or censure. Strike a blow for freedom… and at least some tartar sauce for all of us longing to be free.

    I’ll have the salmon with basil cream garnish, please. And hold the wine “on principle”… I can hear the grapes screaming as they are crushed beneath the bare feet of the scantily clad maidens in the winery. In fact, just bring me a warm Irish beer and a couple of the maidens and we’ll leave it at that.

    Bob, you thoughtless knave, Sir Hadronization has called you out. When does the joust commence?

    My money’s on Bob…

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  8. Fish have a backbone (CNS),sure they feel pain.

    Mocking Scottish Scientists is one way to show you are an idiot; (research the scot’s scientists of the enlightenment) right after your noting of being mocked. Lay off the comedy.

    I am neither Scottish or a comedian.

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