Taking Fish Pain Seriously
Most animal advocates know that fish feel pain, but the recognition is far from universal. The subject of fish pain — and specifically, how seriously we take it — is one of great ethical consequence. It is an “ethico-political” question that affects billions, perhaps trillions of individuals. The exact number is very difficult to estimate because most government and industry sources do not count fish individually; for instance, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the 2012 worldwide total was 158 million tons of fish, including aquaculture and commercial fishing. Per capita fish consumption has doubled in the last 50 years. In this context, the question of fish pain is not “just a matter of scientific curiosity or some abstract philosophical dilemma about how to deal with doubt.” The implications are much graver than that.
In this philosophical paper, the author makes a compelling case for taking a more precautionary approach to fish pain. “Current fishing practices do not conform to the basic welfare practices that are usually applied to land-based animals used for food,” the author notes. “Fish are subject to a range of practices that we know would induce severe suffering if applied to other animals who we accept feel pain.” The author is skeptical that any amount of change in philosophy (outside of a radical shift) can stem the tide of a global fishing industry. But there is also the suggestion that, at the very least, a recognition of fish pain could and should “put an immediate end to any form of fishing purely for pleasure (that is, recreational fishing). Given the doubt over whether fish feel pain, we cannot be confident that recreational fishing practices are not merely an example of pure cruelty for pleasure.”
For animal advocates and specifically those interested in the philosophy surrounding subjectivity, pain, and ethics, the full text of the article is an important read.