Recently, the news has been full of reports of Culum Brown‘s article published in Animal Cognition asserting fish as sentient (to all intents and purposes, feeling) and they should be afforded the same protections and respect of other vertebrates. It seems that we are less keen to include fish on our moral compass because they do not tick charismatic macrofauna boxes. Yet evidence is increasingly showing that there is more to fish cognition than we previously thought. It is now widely accepted that fish have effective memories and even count numbers. Fish are aware of pain, even if they don’t experience it as we do (the lack of a neocortex means that they experience a feeling probably closer to what we experience as stress or fear, not pain). Although largely subjective, all this information implies suffering. In other words, fish suffer when subjected to something that humans would experience as pain.
Brown’s review came hot on the heels of a report by the ABC that a Ph.D. thesis produced by Miriam Sullivan of The University of Western Australia that suggests that pet fish do not have the love and care they require or deserve. Because they live in water and are covered in scales, it appears that fish are generally considered less significant. Sullivan encourages people to be more aware of the welfare of their pet fish. Historically fish have been considered something of a disposable pet; a first lesson in animal care for young children and a matter of little concern if their wellbeing is compromised. None of this will be of any surprise to anyone that has ever won a goldfish at a fair, or flushed one down a toilet (not recommended).
With or without sentience, the ability to feel pain, emotion and stress levels, fish are vital components of our aquatic and marine ecosystems. Fish comprise large amounts of biomass in the oceans and throughout our freshwater systems. They partake in food webs that span terrestrial and aquatic environments, they store chemicals and alter the chemical composition of the waters in which they live and they alter the physical conditions of their habitats. Fish are hugely influential in their environments and therefore hugely influential in our environments. Fish influence our daily lives, whether we are aware or not. Our own sentience could be considered in question to fishes…
Fish are an important source of protein for hungry mouths around the world, yet they are also a delicacy for greedy gastronomes that bypass the sustainable fisheries advice produced by the likes of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Our palates are considered more important than the ecosystem and struggling fishermen desperately collect the very last individuals from ever remote areas. Orange roughy is frequently found on the fish shelves of supermarkets, despite the evidence that shows the extreme threat to the species by fishing (briefly, they are long-lived, late maturing large fish, the populations of which have been known to crash dangerously in the past). Tuna is another popular food fish, eaten frequently, over-exploited constantly. Eaten by the rich and spoilt. Easy to overlook, given that fish live in water and are covered in scales.
Agrillo C, Dadda M, Bisazza A (2007) Quantity discrimination in female mosquito Fish. Animal Cognition 10:63–70
Brown, C. (2014). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal Cognition: 1-17 (online early)
Rose, J. D. (2002). The neurobehavioral nature of fishes and the question of awareness and pain. Reviews in Fisheries Science 10(1), 1-38
Zion, B., Karplus, I., & Barki, A. (2012). Ranching acoustically conditioned fish using an automatic fishing machine. Aquaculture, 330, 136-141
*I could not find this on their website, but it is reproduced on many other websites, unanimously crediting Sea Shepherd.