Do a quick search for “New York Times” and “fish” and, aside from a roasted bass and fennel recipe, you’ll find some pretty foul news. Recent reports suggest that fish are, among other things, mislabeled, on the verge of extinction, saturated with toxins, banned from being caught in certain regions, genetically modified, trapped with dragnets, infected with lice, flowing with mercury, and labeled as “sustainably” caught when, alas, they’re not.
But what you won’t find is perhaps the most important recent discovery scientists have ever reported about fish: they’re smart.
Ethically, fish swim in grey territory. Most decent people agree that that the land-based creatures we domesticate for food not only feel pain but live with some level consciousness. Based on this quality, many people have decided to think seriously about how to handle them, or even whether or not we should handle them at all, much less eat them.
Whatever ethical pricks we experience rarely extend to fish. Partly because they literally lurk beneath the surface of our observation, fish have yet to enter this privileged category of analysis. Could it be that the distinction drawn between, say, fish and pigs is as morally capricious as the one drawn between dogs and pigs? Could fish matter more than we’ve ever considered?
Considerable evidence indicates they do.
a) The oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes, “I wouldn’t deliberately eat a grouper any more than I’d eat a cocker spaniel.” Fish, she explains, “are sensitive, they have personalities; they hurt when they’re wounded.”
b) The German neuroscientist Stefan Shuster agrees, saying that, “people don’t expect much from fish but that’s where they’re wrong.” “Fish,” he claims, “are capable of much more than people think.”
c) The fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite told a reporter, “We’re concerned about the welfare of chickens, pigs, and cows on farms. Why not fish?” Her recent book, Do Fish Feels Pain? answers that question with clear implications for those who think eating fish, ethically speaking, is a done deal.
Research on fish sentience is new. But in a short period of time—say 20 years—a welter of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that fish teach each other tricks, are savvy social learners, make situational (rather than just instinctive) decisions, and can adopt the perspective of other fish—something serious enough to be deemed a “theory of mind” by those who evaluate such things. These animals swim the seas with a certain level of intellectual sea cred.
It’s important to note that scientists who study animal cognition—not to mention the journalists who write about it—are professionally wary about attributing consciousness to the animals they study. It’s can be a dangerous move, an unflattering mark of sentimental anthropomorphism and, regrettably, it can have dire consequences for one’s reputation.
It is, therefore, all the more significant that a team of animal scientists, writing in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, surveyed the evidence and declared, “This review of the anatomy, physiology, and behaviour of fish suggests that they are more likely to be sentient than not.”
Don’t let the scholarly understatement fool you. The mere mention of “fish” and “sentience” in the same breath by a group of prominent scientists makes the point loud and clear. Fish think. They feel pain. They suffer.
Regrettably, too many of us, even animal lovers, act as if it doesn’t. Inversely related to the rapidly growing evidence of fish intelligence is our willingness to accept the implications. It’s hard for humans to entertain the idea of treating fish with moral consideration.
Not only do fish hide under water, but when we do have a chance to encounter them, or maybe even interact with them, it’s usually while they jerk on the end of a line or do endless laps around a fish tank. Under these circumstances—well, under any circumstances actually—we lack the opportunity to do something essential for connecting empathetically with fish: Visually assess their emotions.
Walleyed and lacking eyebrows, fish—who did not evolve in mutual interaction with humans—do not behave towards humans in ways that incline us to responsibly anthropomorphize them into creatures with recognizable feelings. This necessary failure to see eye-to-eye stands in sharp contrast to dogs, animals who anthropologists theorize may have evolved eyebrows for the sole purpose of making advantageous emotional connections to the humans who have generally nurtured them and, with rare exception, have decided not to eat them, in part, because of those imploring, expressive eyes.
This isn’t to say that, when it comes to fish, compassion is completely absent from the human heart. In 2009, a television reporter in Denmark, in an act of unaccountable stupidity, poured a small amount of shampoo into a fish tank to demonstrate its toxicity. The minute the fish went belly up the public wrath came slamming down. The reporter was sued for causing “unnecessary suffering” and the judge condemned her for “deliberately commit[ing] an act of cruelty to animals.”
Ultimately she was exonerated because, as her lawyer noted, “Fish are killed by suffocation in industrial fisheries and we throw live lobsters into boiling water, but we don’t press charges against fishermen or restaurant owners.”
Which is not such a bad point.
And as it suggests, the Denamrk anecdote is the exception that proves the rule: Fish don’t measure up on our fickle moral scales. Making matters more difficult for the defender of fish sentience, those scales are tipped by entrenched cultural perceptions of fishing as an activity that promotes bonding and relaxation.
“Fishing,” explains Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, “is wholesome family fun.” Vacation packages often cater to “father-son fishing trips” and it’s a longtime practice for men in particular to escape the gruel of daily life and pound their chests while catching fish on a boat with a lot of beer on it. In Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the anonymous narrator defines nothing short of his manhood vis-à-vis a marlin he aims to kill. The earliest picture of my dad and me shows me holding up a string of trout. It hangs in the hallway of my parents’ house on a wall of familial warmth.
That picture has meaning. Through dead fish it conveys human love. And thus I’m reminded that our culture of accommodating and celebrating fish exploitation cannot casually be brushed aside. The animal advocate cannot simply declare “fish are sentient” and expect a previously unquestioned habit that imparts immense human pleasure to screech to a halt.
But consumers—and the journalists who bring them the news—should realize that fish do in fact suffer. The world’s leading authority on fish pain, Victoria Braithwaite, has become so convinced that fish suffer that she’s concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that “we should extend welfare considerations to fish.” An estimated 500,000,000,000 fish die a painful death every year to feed humans food we don’t need. Regardless of what the New York Times fails to say about the matter, that pain and suffering means as much to a fish as it does to an animal who can look us in the eyes and capture our hearts.