Fish Can't Feel Pain? Don't Be So Sure

fish can feel pain“But why not at least eat fish? They can’t feel pain anyway”.

Growing up vegetarian, this was an argument I encountered on a regular basis. I always balked at it, for a couple of different reasons. First, was the implication that the inability to feel pain somehow caused a life to be of lesser value. The other was, perhaps, a bit more complicated. How, I would ask, can we be sure that fish really don’t feel pain?

It seems that I was not the only one asking this question.

It has long been denied that fish are capable of feeling pain, a conclusion drawn from the idea that they do not have the brain matter required to recognize it. Yet studies done over recent years have done a great deal to challenge these long-held beliefs.

In 2003, a report from the BBC described research conducted at the University of Edinburgh. This research team identified, for the first time, receptors in fish similar to those found in other species, including mammals. Furthermore, when the fish were injected with such substances as venom and acid, they wiggled and showed reactions that both went further than reflex and were comparable to reactions one might see in other creatures.

Last year, American and Norwegian scientists took things further. A group of fish, as in the British experiment, were introduced to painful substances; however, part of the group had been given morphine. After the test, those who had received morphine acted normally. Those who had not became fearful, just as would be expected from a creature who had experienced the pain. (It is interesting to note, when reviewing the studies, that fish were subjected to cruelty in an effort to determine whether fish may be subjected to cruelty. But perhaps I digress.)

As we cannot truly experience the world as a fish does (swimming a mile in their fins?), we may not, at least yet, be able to say for certain whether fish feel pain as we understand it. However there is a great deal of evidence indicating that fish are at least more complex beings than people have been willing to recognize, and there can be little doubt that something is going on when a fish displays behaviors that indicate pain.

So, maybe I could succumb to peer pressure and chow down on a fish filet. Yet when it comes to a question of cruelty, I like to give the victim the benefit of the doubt.

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