Human Tears and Fish Fears: Do Fish Feel Pain?

I was walking in the food market today, and happened to hear a fisherman yelling out the catch of the day. My curiosity piqued, I leaned over to get a good look. There, lying on trays of ice, were live fish gasping for air. Their gills were discolored from the lack of oxygen, and their shiny eyes were gazing right into mine screaming, “Help me!”

fish on ice

I must admit to you that I am not a vegan, a vegetarian, or a PETA supporter. Yet, this sight struck the very core of my soul, and spelled out animal cruelty in clear bold letters.

I yelled at the fisherman, “This is morally unacceptable! Is this even legal?  The fish are suffering; can’t you at least kill them first?” (a good knock on the head takes a microsecond). He just chuckled, “They stay fresher this way and anyway… fish don’t feel pain.”

“How do you know fish don’t feel pain?” I asked. “Are you a fish? Have you had a hook jarred in your mouth? And if you speak Fishonian then tell me, what are your fish relatives saying as their gasping mouths open and close on a fatal bed of ice!?”

“Fish don’t feel pain!” he screamed again. “Of course they do,” I screamed back as I stormed away from this obvious sadist. It is scientific fact… right?

To my surprise, the answer I found was… Not exactly. Research actually has no conclusive evidence one way or the other. It all lies in the subjective word “pain.” There’s a huge difference between pain and the perception of pain, which scientists refer to as nociception.

painful injectionFishing advocates would argue that hooking a fish is equivalent to pulling the leg off a cockroach or stepping on a nail; the body reacts physically, as a reflexive response, but no emotional damage takes place.
A great example would be that of a child getting a shot at the doctor’s office. If a child is distracted when he feels that twinge of pain on the back of his arm, he will cry only because it hurts. This is a reflexive response.

Now let’s look at a very different scenario. If the child walks into the doctor’s office and sees a needle, he may cry before he even gets the shot. What if the child got localized anesthesia and couldn’t even feel his arm? The child might still cry as he watches the doctor inject a needle into him; these are both emotional responses to pain.

So, ‘Do fish respond emotionally to pain?’ asks a WA user.
Here are a few recent studies that highlight the conflicting results:

2003 – Dr. James D. Rose (Reviews of Fisheries Science) concludes that animals need specific regions of the cerebral cortex in order to feel pain. And fish do not have them.

2005 – Norwegian study reports crustaceans (lobsters and crabs) don’t have the capacity to feel pain either. Crustaceans have about 100,000 neurons, while the simplest vertebrates have upwards of 100 billion.

May 2009 –  Dr. Joseph (Applied Animal Behaviour Science) raised the temperatures in goldfish tanks. When temperatures returned to normal the fish were stressed, and exhibited fear which affected their future hooks

March 2009 – Dr. Bob Elwood (Queen’s University) found that crabs not only feel pain but remember it well after the sensation has passed, affecting their future decisions.

What is the ultimate answer to the question ‘Does it hurt when you hook a fish?’

Answer – Does not hurt me one bit. As the matter of fact, I feel pretty excited when I do manage to hook a fish.

So there you have it. Since science cannot decide, it is up to each one of us, as a responsible individual, to make the call. I just hope the excited fisherman doesn’t get reincarnated into a juicy flounder.

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