Our Bias Against Fish

Living in a non-vegan world constantly exposes us to the fact that many people simply don’t want to know the uncomfortable truth about animal agriculture. Going beyond willful ignorance, certain animals, like fish, elicit absolutely no compassion from most people. They are seen as too simple, too stupid, and too unaware to be capable of suffering in any meaningful way. We seem conditioned to sympathize with creatures that reflect certain aspects of ourselves, but fish are silent and expressionless. So when they flail around outside of water, we don’t allow ourselves to see them as suffering, despite the fact that they are communicating the only way they are able to. The fact that they are suffocating while we hold them up for a picture, as they try to get away, holds no emotional weight because, well, ‘they’re just fish’.

Image by Наталья Коллегова from Pixabay

What does the evidence say? Can fish experience pain or fear? Can they suffer? There are conflicting studies on this and, at this point, I don’t think we’re really sure.

What we do know:

“At the anatomical level, fish have neurons known as nociceptors, which detect potential harm, such as high temperatures, intense pressure, and caustic chemicals. Fish produce the same opioids—the body’s innate painkillers—that mammals do. And their brain activity during injury is analogous to that in terrestrial vertebrates: sticking a pin into goldfish or rainbow trout, just behind their gills, stimulates nociceptors and a cascade of electrical activity that surges toward brain regions essential for conscious sensory perceptions (such as the cerebellum, tectum, and telencephalon), not just the hindbrain and brainstem, which are responsible for reflexes and impulses.”

From <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/fish-feel-pain-180967764/>

“…the mere presence of the receptors did not mean the animals felt pain, but only triggered a unconscious reaction to the threat.”

From <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/9797948/Fish-cannot-feel-pain-say-scientists.html>

“Administering morphine significantly reduced the pain-related behaviours and opercular beat rate and thus morphine appears to act as an analgesic in the rainbow trout. It is concluded that these pain-related behaviours are not simple reflexes and therefore there is the potential for pain perception in fish.”

So there are indications that there’s the possibility of pain, room for the possibility, but seemingly no irrefutable evidence as of yet that this is the case. There’s always a challenge when you can’t simply ask your subject. Researchers have to observe the behavior of the animals they study and try to accurately interpret what they’re seeing and why they’re seeing it. Fish pose as a particularly challenging subject compared to many other animals, as they do not grimace, whimper, or give other humanoid reactions.

Image by jürgen Scheffler from Pixabay

There’s another side to this that I would like to address. There’s been a lot of talk about plastic straws lately and how they impact marine life. What many people don’t realize is the degree to which commercial fishing affects far more than just the fish we like to eat. Discarded fishing nets account for 46% of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Perhaps you’ve seen the sad pictures of dolphins, seals, and turtles that die because they’re wrapped up in these nets. There’s also the animals that get caught in active fishing nets that are sometimes killed and tossed overboard. Nets are expensive and sometimes fisherman will cut fins, tails, etc. off to remove these creatures from their nets before they cut the nets themselves.


Image by David Rich from Pixabay

People seem to be more likely to feel anger, sadness, and motivated to change when they see these types of creatures. They look at someone who would cut the fin off of a shark and throw them back into the ocean to slowly die as heartless, but feel nothing when a smaller fish is left to slowly suffocate on a fishing boat (which can literally take hours for some fish). In a world filled with so much uncertainty, why do we choose to only give the benefit of the doubt when it’s convenient? Our hearts will extend to sea life animals that we don’t want to eat because that doesn’t require us to change in any significant way. But not supporting the fishing industry that causes the death of a wide variety of sea life is considered ‘extreme’ because suddenly you’re being asked to make a real change.

I strongly believe that it’s important to strive to be consistent in our ethics. To not make exceptions for emotional reasons, but logical ones. Is there any logical reason why the life of a turtle matters more than the life of salmon? There are people in different places in the world that only survive because of their ability to fish, but genuine necessity is not the same as habit and desire. For those of us who have a choice, we should choose compassion. We can be aware that we don’t understand everything there is to know about how fish experience the world and still err on the side of caution. The value of life is not confined to our ability to recognize it.

Image by Jim Combs from Pixabay







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