The Sentience and Feelings of Fish
As the oil flows in the Gulf of Mexico and public attention turns to marine life, the mainstream media is covering the plight of fishermen and their loss of livelihood. Animal advocates, on the other hand, have also been thinking of the fish. It seems that fish are rarely the focus of animal protection efforts even though billions of fish are killed each year, over-fishing is damaging ecosystems, and the mercury content of fish is making people sick.
Even some people who identify as vegetarian put fish on their plates. Personally, I know that I was in denial about the lives of fish for a long time. After I had stopped eating all other animals and most animal products, I was still eating fish; I had two excuses. The first is that I believed fish were less sentient than land animals and mammals. Second was my belief that fish had no memories (which I somehow decided meant that they could not remember suffering and so could not really suffer).
Of course, in both cases I was wrong. The idea that fish have no memories is a bit of an urban legend, so the folks at mental_floss took it on. Matt Soniak scoured the research and found that studies examining this question come to the same conclusions: “fish are 1) capable of learning, 2) retaining that information, and 3) recalling and acting on it after an extended period of time.”
Fish not only learn, but they feel. Their sentience seems clear to anyone who has witnessed a caught fish struggling to free itself from a hook or to return to the water. Scientists who have investigated sentience in fish come to this conclusion as well. For a doctoral dissertation in veterinary science, Janicke Nordgreen conducted three experiments on fish’s ability to feel pain, all of which suggested that fish do feel pain. Further, a report by the Animal Health and Welfare Panel in Europe concluded that, while knowledge of fish’s ability to feel pain is limited, there is evidence that they experience fear and distress and have brain structures that indicate they are likely sentient.
Fish these days are suffering for a multitude of reasons: their current popularity as food for humans, which leads to over-fishing; the ongoing pollution of ocean waters; and of course the environmental tragedy caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill is impacting not just the local economy, but also countless individual fish, each of whom research shows is as capable of awareness and suffering as most mammals.
 The exact number of fish killed each year in food production is unknown. The amount of fish caught is measured by weight rather than as individual animals. Further, much marine life is caught as bycatch; they are caught in nets when they are not the intended type of catch being sought. In these cases they die, but never make it to the table.