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August 2006 - Do fish feel pain?

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,, 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 as pain.

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," she says.

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 companions.

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 fiction.

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 the association.

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 readily available.

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 death.

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 fisheries.

"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."


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 food.

“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 way?

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