August 2006 - Do fish feel
An early scene in David Lean's epic portrayal
of Lawrence of Arabia features a young Peter O'Toole in
the lead role, showing off to his staff of military filing
clerks. In a theatrical flourish, he rolls back his shirt
sleeve, strikes a match and watches the flame burn down
to his thumb and finger.
"What's the trick?" asks one
of the clerks. "The trick," he says, "is
not minding that it hurts." Not minding the pain is
a leitmotif throughout Lawrence's life. It is as if he is
capable, like some Hindu fakirs, of numbing the impulses
transmitted from nerve endings to the brain that would ordinarily
register as pain.
How anyone can do this is not understood.
Nor do we understand exactly how the brain interprets the
reaction of damaged nerves as pain. If we did, we would
be able to shed a little more light on a debate that has
emboldened a branch of the animal rights movement to concentrate
its attention not on hunting among the so-called higher
animals - foxes, deer, whales - but to the hitherto unassailable
pastime of fishing.
Ever since Izaak Walton published the
Compleat Angler, his famous treatise on fishing, in 1653
- 101 years before the first rules of golf appeared - angling
with rod and line has enjoyed an esoteric reputation, rubbing
shoulders with the more contemplative and peaceful diversions
of intellectual life.
For hundreds of years, fishing was up
there with smoking, fine wine and good conversation as an
honourable pursuit that bridged classes, sexes, generations,
even ethics. It was as attractive to the industrious as
it was to the feckless. William Wordsworth called it the
"blameless sport" although Byron thought otherwise,
describing it as "the cruellest, the coldest and the
stupidest of pretended sports".
Then in February 2004, the law banning
the hunting of animals with packs in England and Wales came
in to force, leading some field sports enthusiasts to ask
the question "what next?". Hunts, however, have
not disbanded. Their members are still riding to hounds
and the League Against Cruel Sports continues to monitor
alleged breaches, mostly involving the pursuit of live quarry.
For the moment, the attention of the anti-hunting
lobby remains fixed on pack hunting. But a consensus seems
to be developing that game shooting will become the next
priority of anti-cruelty campaigners and that, down the
line it will be the turn of the anglers.
Concerns among anglers had grown so acute
last year that the question of fish feeling pain and the
possibility of a future angling ban was debated at the annual
Country Landowners' Association Game Fair - the biggest
event in the UK field sports calendar. Sharing the platform
with politicians and anglers was a member of People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), an international
animal rights organisation, founded in the US, that claims
to have 850,000 members and supporters world wide.
With Jeremy Paxman, the BBC Newsnight
presenter and enthusiastic game angler, in the chair and
a partisan pro-field sports audience, the debate was one-sided.
But Peta has shown in successful campaigns against McDonald's
and the Gap clothing chain that it can influence animal-based
sourcing policies within large commercial organisations.
Could it do the same in angling, where
it has begun to concentrate some of its resources? One of
its more provocative billboards shows a dog with a large
fish-hook pulling at its top lip. "If you wouldn't
do this to a dog," it says, "why would you do
it to a fish?"
Peta runs a separate website, www.fishinghurts.com,
devoted entirely to cruelty to fish. It points to accumulating
evidence from research that challenges many long-held beliefs
about the sensory systems and thinking capabilities of fish.
One of the most widely debated studies
is a research programme headed by Lynne Sneddon, a lecturer
in marine biology at Liverpool University, that has observed
the behaviour of a rainbow trout subjected to various stimulants.
When the fish was injected with bee venom, it stopped feeding
and was seen to become agitated, grinding its nose into
the gravel bottom of its tank. An injection of salt solution
produced no effect.
The study found that fish have nociceptors,
small nerve endings that in humans are known to respond
to painful stimuli. Sneddon has used this discovery to suggest
that fish feel pain in the same way that it is experienced
by higher animals.
The claim has been rejected by James Rose,
a Wyoming-based scientist who points out that fish do not
have the brain development of mammals. A tiger shark brain,
for example, is no larger than the size of its eye. Rose
stresses that fish do not possess a neo-cortex, the part
of the brain, he says, that interprets the sensory reaction
Another counter argument presented by
many anglers focuses on the differences between fish and
mammals. Michael Charleston, honorary secretary of the South
West Rivers Association, believes that fish sensitivity
to pain is not uniform across their bodies. "If they're
pricked near the mouth, they don't seem to feel pain but
if they are pricked anywhere near the lateral line, they
go wild," he says. "The mouth is designed to eat
sharp things like crabs. It wouldn't help the fish if it
were to be too sensitive."
Does this mean that fish, like T E Lawrence,
are capable of "not minding" pain, possibly because
they simply do not feel it the same way as humans do? We
know, for example, that something in the make-up of a salmon
suppresses its eating behaviour when it enters a river.
Could other receptors be suppressed in a similar way? The
experience of migratory salmon, driven by the breeding instinct
to return to their rivers of origin, often running a gauntlet
of predators and rocky waterfalls, suggests that these fish
are equipped with an extraordinary hardiness and resilience.
Numerous accounts exist of fish that have
been returned to the water after being caught a first time,
seizing a bait again shortly afterwards, apparently oblivious
of their earlier ordeal. But does this mean that they do
not feel pain?
Sneddon rejects the neo-cortex argument.
"Only primates have a highly developed neo-cortex.
The cortex in other animals is less well developed but we
know they display pain reactions," she says.
"Pain is quite a complicated phenomenon.
In humans, there is emotional pain experienced when someone
suffers grief but it is impossible to discover whether an
animal feels pain in that way."
Her latest work has involved subjecting
fish to fear stimuli such as unfamiliar objects and alarm
pheromones, the chemicals released by fish when they encounter
predators. "Fish show a strong reaction to this scent.
They freeze and show a series of physiological responses,"
On the other hand, fish that are placed
among other fish are less likely to react, in the same way
that mammals, when in a pack or herd, are less likely to
show signs of pain for fear of being ostracised by their
While the pain debate continues, other
findings have emerged to suggest that fish are not quite
as forgetful as they are sometimes portrayed in popular
In the Pixar/Disney film, Finding Nemo,
the heroine fish called Dory suffers from a chronically
short-term memory. But Theresa Burt de Perera, a research
fellow at the Royal Society, who studied spatial awareness
among blind Mexican cave fish, found that the fish relied
on subtle changes in pressure to detect and build a detailed
map of objects around them. When obstacles were moved around,
the fish showed they were aware of the changes after memorising
the previous order, says de Perera.
Research at the University of Edinburgh
has established that fish memories can extend over many
months. Biologist Culum Brown found Australian crimson spotted
rainbow fish that learned to escape from a net in their
tank, were able to repeat the trick immediately when reintroduced
to the net 11 months later.
If fish do remember things and do feel
pain, should anglers be sharing the same moral footing as
that of fox-hunters and shooters, struggling for public
acceptance within a brittle countryside alliance so often
at odds with city and suburban sympathies? Support for pro-hunting
campaigners among anglers has been somewhat chequered in
the past. Not all anglers want their sport bracketed with
other forms of hunting, although many others are happy with
Hunting groups fear that many anglers
have been too complacent. But there may be some justification
for complacency. In practice, as Paddy Tipping, Labour MP
for Sherwood admitted at last year's game fair, the sheer
number of anglers - estimated at 4m in the UK alone - means
that no political party is going to support a ban on angling.
"There is simply no stomach for it," he said.
The character of angling is complex and
changing. There was once a sharp distinction between coarse
and game angling. Coarse is fishing for any freshwater species
other than trout and salmon (and possibly grayling), which
are classed as game fish. Today the two strands are beginning
to overlap as many fly fishers - traditionally game anglers
- have begun to practise catch and release, a long-established
feature of coarse fishing.
Only four or five years ago, most salmon
fishing ended in the death of the fish. The "priest",
a small club used to kill fish, remains an essential component
of an angler's kit. But its use is diminishing as more and
more anglers release at least part of their catch. The practice
has led to greater use of barbless hooks while landing nets
tend to be used more frequently in an effort to land a fish
swiftly rather than play it to exhaustion... At the same
time, some fly anglers are broadening the numbers of species
they pursue. Underpinning these changes is a passionate
concern for conservation, one area where angling interests
can overlap with those of the animal rights community.
Increasing numbers of rod and line anglers
appear to be lining up in opposition to intensive net fishing
operations at sea. Some methods, such as pair fishing, where
fishing boats chase bass shoals by suspending a net between
two trawlers, scooping up everything in their path, has
led to indiscriminate killing not only of bass but of its
larger predators such as porpoise and dolphin, feeding off
the same shoals.
In the same way, drift-netting off Ireland
has, according to the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, deprived
some of the best salmon rivers in Europe of stocks. The
drift nets appear to be falling victim to their own success
since last year, Irish net catches of salmon were down to
100,000 fish from 200,000 four or five years earlier.
"That is still 100,000 too many,"
says Orri Vigfússon, chairman of the fund, which
is seeking to buy out the salmon nets.
The fund has campaigned on economic grounds,
arguing that rod and line angling is sustainable whereas
net fishing is not. Moreover it argues that rod and line
fishing is far more economically important than the economic
returns of netting, particularly when farm-caught fish are
Fish farming too has had its share of
critics who blame it for the ruin of Ireland's once famous
sea trout runs. Intensive fish rearing led to an epidemic
of sea lice that attached themselves to the sea trout in
lethal numbers as they ran the gauntlet of estuaries and
lochs turned over to fish farming waters.
But, as fish farming methods have improved,
so has the quality of farmed fish among the more progressive
suppliers. Kurt Malmbak-Kjeldsen, managing director of Musholm
Lax, a Danish trout farm that specialises in supplying steelhead
trout, mainly to markets in Japan and Russia, raises rainbow
trout (or steelheads) in carefully controlled conditions,
avoiding the risk of disease and pollution that emerged
in the early days of fish farming.
"I think that the chefs we see on
TV should think twice before they talk about having wild
salmon in a recipe," he says. "Do they know how
those net-caught salmon die? They struggle themselves to
death and sometimes they are half eaten by seals or crabs.
It's horrendous what happens. It tears your heart out."
When farm fish are killed, he says, they
are sedated first with carbon dioxide bubbling through the
tanks for a minute, then each fish has its gills removed
with a knife before it is replaced in water to bleed to
His company turns over 4,000 tonnes of
trout, about 1m fish a year, and each fish is killed in
this way. Fish need to be bled, he says, in order to ensure
their roe is clean. The roe is treated with salt by Japanese
technicians to produce Sujiko, a Japanese fish delicacy.
"It's the best-priced roe in the world - not as expensive
as caviar but better," says Malmbak-Kjeldsen.
He goes so far as to suggest that the
meat of net-caught salmon is often inferior to that of the
farmed fish. Fish that have been thrashing around in nets
will have built up lactic acid in their muscles. Another
problem is rigor mortis. To freeze a fish just after rigor
mortis has set in, he says, is to ruin the meat. "Yet
I rarely hear this explained by those in the business of
preparing fish," he adds.
As fish stocks find themselves under pressure
all over the world, few anglers would describe their pastime
today as a "blameless sport". Indeed many game
anglers would feel uncomfortable with the idea of regarding
fishing solely as sport, retaining instead a strong affiliation
with the spirit of hunting. But, as some would point out,
this is not incompatible with the need for conservation
and sustainable fishing practices.
Towards this goal Malmbak-Kjeldsen presents
a compelling argument for farming methods as a substitute
for the net fishing of wild game fish.
But it may be asking too much to expect
animal rights campaigners who resist any killing of animals
to line up in favour of fish farming as a sustainable alternative
to net fishing. "We don't want the fishing industry
to be sustainable. We don't want to sustain cruelty to animals.
We want to end it," says Karin Robertson, manager of
Peta's Fish Empathy Project.
While the gulf between animal rights campaigners
and anglers appears as wide as ever, it must be acknowledged
that both share concerns in their distinctive ways about
fish conservation. But which lobby has been most successful?
Increasing catches of returning migratory salmon on many
rivers suggest that net fishing buyouts have proved effective.
In the long run, the question of whether
fish feel pain may prove no more than a diversion in a much
more pressing debate over the control and policing of international
"The last thing any of us wants to
see is the disappearance of the fish we love so much,"
says Vigfússon. "We care about the fish we catch.
Yes, we want to go on fishing, but we don't want to see
an unbridled exploitation of fish populations. That way
lies ruin for the fish, the netsmen and the angler."
SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
While a growing body of research has demonstrated
that many fish have a memory extending beyond the three
seconds for so long attributed to goldfish, debate continues
over the intelligence of fish.
A study at Queen’s University, Belfast,
published earlier this year, showed that goldfish could
learn to avoid places in their tanks where they would receive
mild electric shocks, for periods of at least 24 hours.
Similar observations of trout behaviour
led the researchers to conclude that the fish had changed
their response after learning from their experience.
In the same way pond keepers have noticed
that normally tame goldfish become wary of their presence
after a heron has visited the pond and depleted their numbers.
Other observations, however, suggest that
not all species of fish learn to the same degree. Fish farmer
Kurt Malmbak-Kjeldsen created a feeding device activated
by a pendulum that, when nudged by a fish, would dispense
“Trout learned very quickly how
to activate the feeder but salmon never did,” he says.
These behavioural differences suggest that researchers may
be mistaken in attributing the same kind of responses to
all fish species.
Salmon have shown that their eating patterns
are suppressed when they return to the rivers of their birth
to breed. Could other physical responses change in the same