Now what? Michel Pireu     | Business Day Friday, April 12, 2019
Should we care how fish feel? In his 1789 treatise An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham articulated an idea that has been central to debates about animal welfare. When considering our ethical obligations to other animals, Bentham wrote, the most important question is not, “Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Conventional wisdom has long held that fish cannot—that they do not feel pain.

In 2014, BBC Newsnight invited Penn State University biologist Victoria Braithwaite to discuss fish pain and welfare with Bertie Armstrong, head of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Armstrong dismissed the notion that fish deserve welfare laws as “cranky” and insisted that “the balance of scientific evidence is that fish do not feel pain as we do.”

That’s not quite true, says Braithwaite. It is impossible to definitively know whether another creature’s subjective experience is like our own, but that’s beside the point. She and other fish biologists have produced substantial evidence that, just like mammals and birds, fish also experience conscious pain. 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. “More and more people are willing to accept the facts,” Braithwaite says. “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”

And while fish pain may be something different from our own, and we like to believe that ours is the most profound pain of all, we would do well to remember that our perspective at least gives it an expiration date. Whereas a fish’s thrashing might be sustained in the belief that it has entered a permanent state of suffering.

Adapted from an article by Ferris Jabr in Hakai
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