Do Fish Feel Pain?

Victoria Braithwaite / Oxford University Press / 256 pages

The realization that mammals and birds are capable of experiencing pain and distress has had a profound influence on our relationship with them. The knowledge of this pain capacity has inspired a substantial number of laws, ordinances, regulations, and policies that dictate how mammals and birds can and should be treated when used for food and fiber production, in research, as companion animals, in zoological displays, and in many other situations. Although there is much work still to be done in improving the lives of these animals, no one should question that mammals and birds need to be protected from unnecessary pain and distress.

But what about fish? Fish are hooked for recreation and food. Commercial fisheries capture and kill millions of fish every day. Fish are electro-shocked by researchers, managers poison unwanted fish in lakes and rivers, and the aquarium trade is thriving.

Do fish feelings matter?
Victoria Braithwaite explores the science and the ethics behind fish pain and suffering in her groundbreaking work, Do Fish Feel Pain? Braithwaite is a Professor of Fisheries and Biology at Pennsylvania State University, and in her book she summarizes research—much of it her own—on pain and suffering in fish.

A chinook salmon isn’t a golden retriever. And Braithwaite doesn’t argue that it is. What these animals have in common, however, are mechanisms for detecting painful events, a nervous system that reacts during these events, and a behavioral or decision-making response to these events. In other words, a salmon, like a retriever, can sense, react, and respond to painful stimuli.

Braithwaite develops a convincing case that fish can feel pain. Although their expressionless faces and a lack of vocalization in response to painful stimuli—no yelps, cries, or shouts—make fish easy to ignore in discussions about animal welfare, her book clearly shows why it is meaningful and appropriate to discuss pain in fish.

The fundamental importance of this research is its effect on human decision-making. If fish can feel pain, if they can suffer, then how do we respond to this knowledge? What does it mean for catch and release angling? How should it be applied in commercial aquaculture? Should animal welfare proponents be as concerned about a swordfish caught with long-line fishing as a leatherback turtle?

This is a conversation that is long overdue. As Braithwaite writes, “Finding out what triggers or contributes to animal suffering allows us to find ways of avoiding it.” It is time to include fish in our animal welfare discussions.

—Robert Schmidt, Ph.D., Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, Logan, UT

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