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What we always knew: fish feel pain

July 5, 2013

Please leave fish off your forks. Click here to learn how to go vegan, or order PETA’s free vegetarian/vegan starter kit for great tips and recipes to help you make the transition to a fish-free vegan diet.

Source: PETA

In her book Do Fish Feel Pain? biologist Victoria Braithwaite says that “there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals.”

Fish don’t audibly scream when they’re impaled on hooks or grimace when the hooks are ripped from their mouths, but their behavior offers evidence of their suffering—if we are willing to look. For example, when Braithwaite and her colleagues exposed fish to irritating chemicals, the animals behaved as any of us might: They lost their appetite, their gills beat faster, and they rubbed the affected area against the side of the tank.

Neurobiologists have long recognized that fish have nervous systems that comprehend and respond to pain. Fish (like “higher vertebrates”) have neurotransmitters such as endorphins that relieve suffering—the only reason for their nervous systems to produce these painkillers is to alleviate pain. Researchers have created a detailed map of more than 20 pain receptors, or “nociceptors,” in fish’s mouths and heads—including those very areas where an angler’s barbed hook would penetrate a fish’s flesh. As Dr. Stephanie Yue wrote in her position paper on fish and pain, “Pain is an evolutionary adaptation that helps individuals survive . . . . [A] trait like pain perception is not likely to suddenly disappear for one particular taxonomic class.”

Even though fish don’t have the same brain structures that humans do—fish do not have a neocortex, for example—Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we “have to look at behaviour and physiology,” not just anatomy. “It’s possible for a brain to evolve in different ways,” he says. “That’s what is happening in the fish line. It’s evolved in some other ways in [other] parts of the brain to receive pain.”

Numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated that fish feel and react to pain. For example, when rainbow trout had painful acetic acid or bee venom injected into their sensitive lips, they stopped eating, they rocked back and forth on the tank floor, and they rubbed their lips against the tank walls. Fish who were injected with a harmless saline solution didn’t display this abnormal behavior.

Trout are “neophobic,” meaning that they actively avoid new objects. But those who were injected with acetic acid showed little response to a brightly colored Lego tower that was placed in their tank, suggesting that their attention was focused instead on the pain that they were experiencing. In contrast, trout injected with saline—as well as those who were given painkillers following the painful acid injection—displayed the usual degree of caution regarding the new object. Similar results have been demonstrated in human patients suffering from painful medical conditions: Medical professionals have long known that pain interferes with patients’ normal cognitive abilities.

A study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that fish who are exposed to painful heat later show signs of fear and wariness—illustrating that fish both experience pain and can remember it.

A study by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast proved that fish learn to avoid pain, just like other animals. Rebecca Dunlop, one of the researchers, said, “This paper shows that pain avoidance in fish doesn’t seem to be a reflex response, rather one that is learned, remembered and is changed according to different circumstances. Therefore, if fish can perceive pain, then angling cannot continue to be considered a noncruel sport.”

Similarly, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada concluded that fish feel fear when they’re chased and that their behavior is more than simply a reflex. The “fish are frightened and … they prefer not being frightened,” said Dr. Duncan, who headed the study.

Other studies have shown that fish communicate distress when nets are dipped into their tanks or they are otherwise threatened. Researcher William Tavolga, for example, found that fish grunt when they receive an electric shock. In addition, the fish begin to grunt as soon as they see the electrode, in anticipation of the painful experience to follow.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Counterpoint program, Dr. Culum Brown of Macquarie University explained that the stress that fish experience when they are pulled from the water into an environment in which they cannot breathe is “exactly the same as a person drowning.”

And Dr. Lynne Sneddon, who led a groundbreaking two-year study by scientists at Edinburgh University and the Roslin Institute in the U.K. proving that fish do feel pain, stated, “Really, it’s kind of a moral question. Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?”

Anglers may not want to think about it, but fishing is nothing more than a cruel blood sport. When fish are impaled on an angler’s hook and yanked out of the water, it’s not a game to them. They are scared and in pain and fighting for their lives. Michael Stoskopf, professor of Aquatics, Wildlife, and Zoologic Medicine and of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at North Carolina University, said, “It would be an unjustified error to assume that fish do not perceive pain in these situations merely because their responses do not match those traditionally seen in mammals subjected to chronic pain.”

Dr. Michael Fox, D.V.M., Ph.D., put it this way: “Even though fish don’t scream [audibly to humans] when they are in pain and anguish, their behavior should be evidence enough of their suffering when they are hooked or netted. They struggle, endeavoring to escape and, by so doing, demonstrate they have a will to survive.”

Please leave fish off your forks. Click here to learn how to go vegan, or order PETA’s free vegetarian/vegan starter kit for great tips and recipes to help you make the transition to a fish-free vegan diet.

PDF to print and give out: What About Fish

we are fish,
we live to swim.
you humans think
our minds are dim.
but guess what people,
maybe something you
never knew…
we feel pain and fear
and just like you
we want to survive,
so keeps us off your
so we can stay alive.

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

30 Comments leave one →
  1. narhvalur permalink
    July 5, 2013 8:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Ann Novek–With the Sky as the Ceiling and the Heart Outdoors.


  2. permalink
    July 5, 2013 10:57 pm

    I know that every sentient creature feels pain. I am glad that the issue with fish is finally being recognized.



    • July 5, 2013 11:02 pm

      I completely agree. Thank you so much for your compassion, Diane.


  3. July 5, 2013 11:24 pm

    Thanks for the post, Stacey. This was quite informative.


  4. July 5, 2013 11:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Sherlockian's Blog and commented:
    Fish feel pain like all other living beings. Please consider going vegan.


  5. c. ehlers permalink
    July 5, 2013 11:57 pm

    so sad…..any petitions to sign? THX!


    • July 6, 2013 9:39 am

      At this time, not that I am aware of, but you can protest by going vegan if you are already not. Thank you so much.


  6. July 6, 2013 2:45 am

    Reblogged this on Carinas space.


  7. karenlyonskalmenson permalink
    July 6, 2013 3:56 am

    we are fish,
    we live to swim.
    you humans think
    our minds are dim.
    but guess what people,
    maybe something you
    never knew…
    we feel pain and fear
    and just like you
    we want to survive,
    so keeps us off your
    so we can stay alive.


    • July 6, 2013 9:41 am

      Perfect! Thank you, wonderful poet.


      • karenlyonskalmenson permalink
        July 7, 2013 4:05 am

        you are so welcome, sweet stacey!


    • July 7, 2013 2:33 am

      In California, the Delta (one of America’s most fish-rich ecosystems) is being drained so that vegetables can be grown. Fish are dying – for the vegan diet. Read up on it.


      • July 7, 2013 10:30 am

        Source with your statement in proof, please. Most crops grown feed food animals – for the non-vegans to eat. They are not grown for human consumption.


  8. MorganG permalink
    July 6, 2013 12:56 pm

    I feel so bad about the types of pain inflicted on the fish to prove the common sense conclusion that they feel pain. Injecting their lips with chemicals? Really?


    • July 7, 2013 10:31 am

      I agree, I thought that, too. Very sad when this was never needing to be proven. Thanks, Morgan.


  9. July 7, 2013 2:30 am

    We would like to make two points: Fish – like all living organisms – react to negative stimuli, and while this is true it does not therefore follow that they “feel” pain. The best science on this matter remains inconclusive. All living organisms show signs of aversion to negative stimuli, but it is a huge – and unscientific – leap to conclude that they are experiencing “pain” when they evidence that aversion.
    But we quibble.
    The far more damaging (insidious, brain-empty) point this blog seems to be making is that if humans would change to a vegetarian diet animals would somehow be better off. This is nonsense – and downright dangerous nonsense.
    The last remaining viable forest habitat for ivory bill woodpeckers (to take one example) was cut down 60 years ago and is now covered with soy beans and other vegetable crops. The last good forested land in America exists primarily because fishermen, hunters and others who care about the natural world have banded together to preserve it.
    A vegetable diet is no solution to the problems overpopulation has created. Period.
    Many in the PETA/vegan movement are in denial regarding that fact. The attitude of bring another million people into the world along with another million pets while felling another forest to supply the soy beans and cotton to keep them fed and clothed is not sustainable.
    In a balanced world, humans harvested fish for millennia.


    • MorganG permalink
      July 7, 2013 10:25 am

      Just have a moment so I’ll make this short. Fact is the major consumer of soy is cows and chickens.Same with corn which is the largest feed grain crop.


      • July 7, 2013 10:26 am

        Thank you, Morgan, I was just about to make that exact point: the largest consumer of soy and corn is food animals. Stop feeding the animals, feed the world people with it instead. Short and sweet. The meat eaters seem to be in denial regarding this fact.

        And, as has been demonstrated and verifiably proven, fish feel pain.


    • July 7, 2013 11:36 am

      I like to source my statements, so see yourself, from decidedly unbiased sources, the EPA and the USDA. Now you tell me, who is in denial??? Stop feeding the animals, feed the starving people. Go vegan to save the world. Even the government agrees:

      Most of the crop (corn) is used as the main energy ingredient in livestock feed.

      Processed soybeans are the world’s largest source of animal protein feed

      According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production.

      Over 30 million tons of soybean meal is consumed as livestock feed in a year. Even the hulls are used as a component of cattle feed rations.

      Cottonseed and cottonseed meal are used in feed for livestock, dairy cattle, and poultry.


      • July 7, 2013 11:41 am

        Another about soy!

        About 85 percent of the world’s soybeans are processed, or “crushed,” annually into soybean meal and oil. Approximately 98 percent of the soybean meal that is crushed is further processed into animal feed with the balance used to make soy flour and proteins.

        About 85 percent of the world’s soybean crop is processed into meal and vegetable oil, and virtually all of that meal is used in animal feed. Some two percent of the soybean meal is further processed into soy flours and proteins for food use.

        Approximately six percent of soybeans are used directly as human food, mostly in Asia.


        • markgil permalink
          July 13, 2013 6:29 am

          in addition to all of the crops wasted because they are fed to farmed animals, they are now the largest consumers of fishes. adding in the facts that animal agriculture is the biggest user of fresh water and the largest contributor to global climate change and raising animals for food has by far the biggest negative impact on ecosystems. blaming vegans for global resource depleation is like blaming spinach for giving people salmonella instead of the manure which was used on the plants as fertilizer or the toxic runoff from farmed animals.


          • July 13, 2013 11:53 am

            Thank you so much, Mark, I am certain that is a very compelling video and will watch it. It really is a good point about the runoff from farming as the actual cause of so many debilitating and dangerous illnesses. The veges and fruits are not to blame: the manure is. Thank you for all you do.


          • July 13, 2013 12:30 pm

            I should publish this, this looks to be great information, thanks, Mark.


  10. mark gil permalink
    July 7, 2013 9:33 am

    here is a great PDF summarizing many of the facts mentioned in the article. we have copies and carry them to put on cars when we see people fishing at the local ponds in our area. not sure what good if any it does, but something is usually better than nothing at all.

    Click to access WhatsFishyAboutSeafood.pdf


    • July 7, 2013 10:32 am

      Love it, Mark, thank you so much. I added a link to the pdf and would like to use it as well.


  11. July 13, 2013 5:22 am

    To me it seems very logical that all living things would feel pain of some sort it’s a shame that in this world we live in you have to bring this to peoples attention. I have been a vegetarian for the last 10 years or so and enjoy your site


    • July 13, 2013 11:40 am

      Well-said, I completely agree. And thanks for stopping by, you are always welcome. (Thanks, too, for your compassion, which goes without saying.)


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