Scientists cannot say for certain that you – or anyone else – can feel pain. If you say you do, then others take your word for it but it is more complex in animals who do not speak our language.
Those of us who live with companion animals and have learned to read their language at least a little can tell when their dog, cat or other non-human animal is in pain. But fish are so very different from us. They won’t lie in their basket with sad eyes, or cry out if something is hurting them. This does not mean they don’t feel pain; it means we have to work harder to understand the signs of pain in fish.
And there is now plenty of scientific evidence to indicate that fish do, in fact, feel pain. First, they have pain receptors, which would be strange if they weren’t able to feel pain. Moreover, they produce substances known as enkephalins that mediate pain in the same way that they do in vertebrates like you and me. In other words, they have the right biological equipment to feel pain.
The second way scientists determine that a species can feel pain is to observe whether they behave as though they feel pain. There has been much research that has shown that aquatic species have an aversion to noxious substances and may rub their antennae if they come into contact with it.1 We know crabs will trade a great hiding place for a mild electric shock but abandon it for an inferior place should the shock be increased.2
These are recognizable and scientifically demonstrable responses, and they indicate that fish do feel pain.
Despite this, billions of these sentient beings are hauled out of the water and left to asphyxiate in the air, or are crushed under tonnes of their shoal mates. The rapid change in pressure causes their swim bladders to overinflate, and their stomachs and intestines to be pushed out through their mouths and anuses. Their eyes distort, bulge and can also be pushed out of their sockets.
Fishing is also devastating for the environment. Half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from commercial fishing vessels,3 and fishing also kills dolphins, whales, sharks, rays, sponges, turtles, starfish and diving sea birds.
Farmed fish fare little better. Shrimps, for example, are deliberately blinded because those reared in captivity often aren’t able to reproduce, and having their eyestalks cut off triggers the maturing of their ovaries. Eyestalk ablation, as it is called, has been labeled cruel and traumatic4 but it won’t stop – it is an intrinsic part of shrimp farming and more than half of all shrimps consumed globally are farmed.5
Even if you are not convinced by the gathering body of evidence, isn’t the kindest thing to give these beings the benefit of the doubt? There are vegan shrimps, tuna, fish fillets and other fishy products available now, so you can get all the flavor without harming fish, driving wild species to the brink of extinction and damaging the oceans.
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