Do fish feel pain?  |  Bon appetit

Do fish feel pain? | Bon appetit

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  • March 16, 2023
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Various researchers have since made similar discoveries. In 2006, Rebecca Dunlop, Sarah Millsopp and Peter Laming, researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, published a study showing that fish can also learn to avoid painful experiences. They gave eight goldfish electric shocks. Everyone darted away, but surprisingly, the fish didn’t immediately return to the area where the incident happened – even if food was present. The scientists concluded that the response to the initial shock may have been instinctive, but the decision to stay away suggested more complex pain responses.

Appearances can be deceiving. Though alien in appearance, fish share some important anatomical similarities with mammals that have long been thought to cause pain. In response to noxious stimuli, fish bodies produce the same opioids (like natural painkillers) found throughout the animal kingdom. And when they’re injured, parts of the brain thought to be essential to conscious sensory perception glow like glowsticks at a rave, just like land animals.

Sneddon says that the biological function of pain is practically universal to the living beings that experience it. “It’s an alarm system that warns you of injury,” she says. “If it wasn’t a terrifying psychological experience, animals wouldn’t learn to avoid painful stimuli and would just go about their lives, constantly hurting themselves.”

The skeptics

Others argue that fish are incapable of feeling pain and that any behavioral responses recorded tend to be unconscious responses to negative stimuli. In other words, they believe that fish can instinctively detect damage to their bodies without suffering.

James Rose, an avid fisherman and professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Wyoming, has claimed that fish don’t have a human-like ability to feel pain because our nociceptors—nerve cells that reflexively transmit pain—are different. Fish, he and colleagues wrote in a 2012 paper, elicit instinctive escape responses rather than signal violations.

Two years later, BBC Newsnight interviewed Bertie Armstrong, President of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. He argued that scientists hadn’t sufficiently proven that fish feel pain and said marine animals shouldn’t enjoy the same protections as land-bred ones. Alternative slaughter methods, Armstrong said, could be prohibitive for the fishing industry.

Then, in 2016, Brian Key, a biomedical scientist from Australia’s University of Queensland, argued that fish lack the neurological architecture to feel pain. The squishy neocortex that sits atop a human brain is like a city: diverse neighborhoods connected by neural highways work together to create vivid experiences of pain. The crux of Key’s argument is that because fish brains lack the same organized neocortex, they are unable to experience injury as consciously as we do.

The Refutation

Droege and colleagues have contradicted Rose’s argument. They have found homologous structures in fish that may play the same role as elements of the human brain, and argue that our own pain actually tells us very little about that of animals.

On the BBC show, the late Pennsylvania State University biologist Victoria Braithwaite (who wrote the 2010 book Do Fish Feel Pain?) countered Armstrong, saying that fish undeniably don’t have the same pain response as humans, but that they probably feel it Similar to other land animals, “if we’re going to augment the welfare of birds and mammals, then logically why not fish?” She went on to argue that protecting fish and viable outcomes from commercial fishing needn’t be mutually exclusive—there’s likely to be some innovation that could be made to reduce suffering.

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