Fish constitute the greatest source of confused thinking and inconsistency on earth at the moment with respect to pain.
You will get people very excited about dolphins because they are mammals, and about horses and dogs, if they are not treated properly. At the same time you will have fishing competitions on the River Murray at which thousands of people snare fish with hooks and allow them to asphyxiate on the banks, which is a fairly uncomfortable and miserable death.Professor Bill Runciman, Professor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, Adelaide University
Fishing is considered a recreational past-time among most Australians and Australia has a large commercial fishing fleet. Any animal protection group that raises the issue of fish welfare in this country is instantly derided.
Having to acknowledge that fish feel pain and distress is not something that those who enjoy fishing, or those whose income is generated through fishing, want to know about.
As an animal protection organisation, Animals Australia's role is to present facts that will allow the community to make informed choices — whether they be fishermen (or women) or those who eat fish — knowing that many members of the community if informed, will make personal choices that don't cause harm to others.
Therefore, the fact that fish feel pain and distress is just another inconvenient truth that needs to be told.
Centuries of indifference
It's hard for fish to arouse our compassion. They can't show their agony by crying out. They don't have the sad eyes of a seal pup or dog, and they aren't cute and furry. They live in an environment foreign to us and people have very little contact with them compared with birds or mammals. Fish can't express their feelings of pain or fear through easily recognisable behaviours such as vocalisation.
There is no doubt that fish suffer
Fish have nerve structures which are anatomically similar to those of humans and other mammals. The lips and mouth of fish are particularly well supplied with these pain specific nerve endings — the very area impacted upon by hook and line fishing.
Research studies have also shown that fish have conscious awareness. A specialist in fish behaviour from Macquarie University (NSW), Dr Culum Brown stated 'Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of 'higher' vertebrates including non-human primates'. Brown's studies suggest that older fish teach younger fish about predators, for example, including the sound of trawler engines. ('Aquatic neurotic: do fish have feelings?' The Age 23/6/07). The children's film 'Finding Nemo' was less fictional that most would realise!
Fish avoid painful stimuli; suggesting that they experience distress. Studies have also revealed that in a restrictive environment fish, like other animals in captivity, will exhibit abnormal behaviours indicating stress and distress.
So, we know that fish suffer, we know that they are conscious beings that feel pain and distress; so consider for a moment the scale of suffering inflicted on these inhabitants of the marine kingdom.
Do fish have emotions?
A recent paper has cited evidence that the minds of fish may be far more complex than previous thought. Studies have revealed that fish can retain memories from both negative and positive experiences and that fish may even experience similar emotions to other animals (Kittilsen S, 2013, “Functional aspects of emotions in fish”).
Recreational & commercial fishing
Fishing affects more individual animals than any other human-based animal industry. In Australia there are more than 3 million recreational anglers and 24% of households fish regularly. The commercial 'wild capture' fisheries seek some 800 different marine and freshwater 'seafood' species — under 300 marketing names for domestic and overseas consumption. 241,000 tonnes of fish, crustacea (prawns, cabs etc) and molluscs (scallops, oysters etc) were commercially 'harvested' in the 2005/6 year in Australia (State and Commonwealth). This does not account for the fish taken by recreational fishers.
Trawling is one of the most common methods of commercial fishing in the world — and a system of fishing that eventually kills all in its path. Hundreds of different life forms are killed as trawl nets grind over the sandy bottom of the ocean. When fish in the nets are dragged up from the ocean depths the change in pressure (called barotrauma) causes their eyes to balloon and their swim bladders to burst. Many fish (and other aquatic animals) drown under the weight of all the other fish and creatures including starfish, crabs and shellfish. The unwanted catch is simply thrown back to the sea where many will subsequently die.
Once caught either by hook or by net — most fish suffer an extended death through suffocation. In their death throes fish writhe, gasping and flapping their gills as they desperately try to get oxygen.
Finning, long line fishing, purse seine nets and drift gill netting are all other methods of commercial fishing that cause suffering to the targeted fish. These methods of fishing do not discriminate — marine mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and seals, turtles and 'non-target' fish are also caught and suffer as a result.
Other fish welfare issues
What you can do
Marine biologists acknowledge that we have devastated the marine kingdom through commercial fishing and polluting their environment.
Governments have been forced to act on impacts of global warming on the basis of indisputable evidence — even though scientists have been pleading for governments to act for over a decade.
We now need to face that we have also plundered the marine kingdom and have disregarded the devastation we have caused.
Fish feel pain and distress — yes, it is an inconvenient truth.
If you want to avoid contributing to the welfare issues that abound in the commercial fishing industry, then choose instead a vegetarian alternative. Delicious vegetarian mock fish-meats are now available.
The challenge for any individual who has enjoyed fishing is enormous, however, far better that any decision to continue, or discontinue, is an informed choice.