Do fish really have the brains for pain ?

Us anglers will never be free from the ‘don’t fish feel pain’ question which has been in the news again lately – but in a good way. Now I’ve long argued that we have much in common ground with mainstream environmentalists many of whom recognise that as anglers, we are the eyes and ears of the aquatic environment.

However, just as there are idiot rednecks in fishing who think conservation is a dirty word there are those extreme greens and uber-bunnyhuggers who would love to see fishing banned because it doesn’t fit in with their personal ideology. They trot out spurious “science” claiming that we are barbarians and that fishing is cruel because fish feel pain in the same way as humans or warm blooded animals. This is, of course, bullshine and many of these people are little more than “lifestyle fascists” who want to stop us eating fish or meat and ban the keeping of pets.

The arguments of groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are not new but with access to some serious funding and occasional hard hitting advertising, they can have an impact on public opinion. PETA and their fellow travelers claim that fish have nerve structures which are anatomically similar to those of humans and other mammals and that the lips and mouth of fish are particularly well supplied with these pain specific nerve endings. As such a fish hook, however small, must cause the creature pain.

For most fish an angler's hook is the least thing they have to fear
For most fish an angler’s hook is the least thing they have to fear

What the scientists tell us

If all this were true anglers might have something to worry about but a newly released scientific study has found that even when impaled on a hook, the fish is unable to detect pain because it simply does not have the brains for pain. I am once again grateful to my friend and colleague Dr Bruno Broughton for permission to use extracts from his invaluable paper on this subject.

Published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, this new research was conducted by a team of seven scientists led by Professor James Rose from the University of Wyoming, who concluded that the fish brain does not contain the highly developed neocortex needed to feel pain and concluded that any reaction to being hooked is an unconscious one, rather than a direct response to pain. It has long been known that fish have nociceptors – sensory organs that respond to pain by sending messages to the brain. Past reports have suggested that these nociceptors enabled the creatures to feel reflexive and cognitive pain.  

In 2003 research conducted by Sneddon and others received widespread media publicity as evidence that fish could feel pain. In a series of bizarre experiments, chemicals were dripped onto the exposed brains of live trout to measure their brain activity, and bee venom and acetic acid were injected into live fish to observe their behavioural reactions. The actual results confirmed nothing new – fish have an elaborate system of sensory cells around their mouths and when their lips are injected with poisons, fish respond and behave abnormally. The conclusions that this was evidence that fish could feel pain were and still are contested strongly by leading neuroscientists, ichthyologists and fisheries professionals.

It is these outdated and discredited reports that anti angling groups and sadly the RSPCA have seized upon to reject the latest findings from Prof. Rose. The RSPCA actually emailed angling publications last week saying:

“There are a number of studies which we believe provide enough evidence to show that fish do feel pain (notably the work of Victoria Braithwaite, Lynne Sneddon and Felicity Huntingford) and this remains our view.”

These people need to realise that there is a distinct difference between an animal’s unconscious reaction to noxious stimuli – known as nociception – and the conscious feeling of pain. Nociceptive responses are those types of behaviour that follow from injury or disease. Just because an animal reacts to a potentially harmful stimulus is not an indication that it is experiencing pain.

In order to show that any organism experiences pain, it is essential to demonstrate that the organism has consciousness because, without it, there can be no pain. The parts of the brain which involve pain are quite specific, namely the neocortical regions of the cerebral hemispheres. In fish, the neocortex is absent whereas, by contrast, it is huge in humans. Thus, it could be said that fish simply do not have the brains for pain!

In advancing his argument that fish are incapable of feeling pain Prof. James Rose, has gone on public record by stating that pain perception in fish is an anatomical impossibility.

“Fishes are neurologically equipped for unconscious nociception and emotional responses, but not conscious pain and feelings. In view of the necessity of consciousness as a precondition for pain experience claims have also been made for the existence of consciousness in fishes. Our assessment of these claims leads us to conclude that neither their rationale nor their supporting evidence is compelling, much less neurologically feasible.”

.Furthermore he is particularly scathing of Sneddon, Braithwaite and Co saying in his latest study:

“Our examination of the research literature revealed that these requirements have not been met in research leading to claims for fish pain. Definitions, of pain such as ‘more than a simple reflex,’ are too vague and at odds with the existence of complex unconscious, nocifensive (nociception-evoked) behaviors. In addition, this definition has fostered the use of a false dichotomy that invalidly biases interpretations in favor of conclusions that fishes feel pain. Consequently, the research literature that alleges to show pain in fishes has failed to do so.”

If fish really felt pain would they be doing this?
If fish really felt pain would they be doing this?

What we know about fish behaviour

Perhaps the pro pain lobby would like to tell us why fish are able to eat sharp food items, including crabs, molluscs, spined fish and even sea urchins, which cause lacerations to their mouths and which would certainly cause pain were fish capable of experiencing it? Or why a hooked fish will pull away from an angler whereas we would be able to pull a bull towards us were we to fix a rope to a ring in its nose?

As anglers we know that a fish which seizes a bait but which is not hooked – say with a bait trapped within its jaws, for example – fights in exactly the same way as one which is hooked. No “pain”  yet the same reaction from the fish.

We can deduce from these observations alone that fish do not need to feel pain to survive. In fact, the logical conclusion is the reverse: in their underwater world, pain must be absent because fish would be unable to survive otherwise. Look at the horrendous injuries that prey fish carry with them as a result of attack from predators and yet their behaviour and fighting fitness often seems unaffected.

In an angling context, it is by no means unusual for a caught and released fish to be re-caught in the same day – in fact I once caught a particularly stupid river Test trout three times in the same afternoon – not exactly behaviour one would expect from a creature in pain!

This cormorant sliced Fenland bream was feeding normally despite its horrific injuries
This cormorant sliced Fenland fish was feeding normally despite its horrific injuries

To summarise. It is a a simple fact that fish lack the parts of the brain necessary for the registration of pain and, as such, they operate at the unconscious level. They are still capable of complex behaviour and can react to stimuli, but they cannot experience pain. Common sense – and our knowledge of fish behaviour – leads us to exactly the same finding.

I would like to think that this will now be the end of the argument for as Professor Robert Arlinghaus, one of the team’s researchers, said:

“ The presumption that fish feel pain has hindered scientists for decades and has stigmatised angling,  causing an unnecessary social conflict between animal welfare campaigners, and anglers.”

At the Angling Trust we are not holding our breath for any dramatic rapproachment with our critics many of whom don’t need a scientific justification to take a pop at angling.  In many ways this debate about fish feeling pain has always been something of a red herring, if you’ll excuse the pun. We feel that science is well and truly on our side and that modern angling methods and fish care practices mean we have nothing to fear from the scrutiny of our sport.

As our Chief Executive Mark Lloyd said:

“Anglers care passionately about the protection of fish stocks and do more than any other group to protect and improve freshwater and marine environments.” 

What I would have added is…

“ Oh and we do a lot more to make sure fish survive than the bunnyhuggers ever will!”

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