We abduct fish from their world and let them die in ours. In fishing and fish farming, we exert a ruthless domination on a universe we know almost nothing about – the world of aquatic animals. Who are the fish?
Since they stay silent and do not have facial expressions, we struggle to take fish seriously. Most often, humans feel little or no empathy for them. Their suffering is usually denied, hidden or both. The phylogenetic distance that separates us from them makes compassion harder for us, but this fault is ours. Scientific discoveries should lead us to rethink our prejudices and attitudes.
What science can teach us about fish
Fish and many other aquatic animals (lobsters, shrimp, crabs, squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, etc.) are sentient beings with their own subjective experience of the world.
They can feel pain. Trout injected with pain-inducing substances are more restless than those injected with placebos, and morphine calms them down2. Many fish show that past suffering influences their present behavior3, for example by avoiding places where they have received electric shocks in the past4.
Contrary to widely held beliefs, fish do have long-term memory. After a single high-tide event, gobies remember the locations of cracks and gaps in the sea floor where they can find shelter at low tide5.
The social behavior and capacities of fish is much more diverse than we usually assume. They can recognize individuals both from their own species and from other ones using their sight, hearing and sense of smell. Like us, they develop affinities with animals from other species6, less aggressive individuals usually being preferred as friends.
Finally, fish can learn and do not behave purely out of instinct as people often assume. Rather, they exhibit lifelong learning abilities and even develop specific group cultures7.
A daily massacre
Whether it’s longline fishing, recreational fishing or bottom trawling, the ways in which we catch and kill fish are as diverse as they are horrible. Exhausted by prolonged efforts to flee, maimed by hooks or crushed under the weight of other fish in nets, their organs often explode from decompression when we hoist them up from the depths. Those who survive this will die from asphyxiation. Whether they are members of the species targeted by fishermen, or simply “bycatch” accidentally caught in their nets, their fate will be the same.
Fish farms are just as brutal. Hundreds of billions of fish live short, miserable lives, packed in underwater cages, basins or tanks. Some fish farms are prisons to half a million animals. Their lives in these overcrowded conditions are full of stress, frustration and aggression. Injuries are frequent and the animals are afflicted by flesh-eating parasites and constant infections. Mortality rates are higher than those of the worst factory farms.
Do we really need to do this? We rarely ask whether fishing and fish farming are justified, even though these practices involve the massive killing of sentient animals. Nothing entitles us to kill trillions of animals who care about their lives just as we care about ours. The distance that separates us from them does not justify our practices.
Although more and more people are speaking out against the injustice happening in slaughterhouses, we tend to forget the floating abattoirs we usually call “fishing boats”.
The first World Day for the End of Fishing, March 31th, 2017, bears witness to the fact that people are starting to ask important moral questions about fishing and fish farming.
- Jonathan Balcombe, American ethologist and author of the book What a fish knows : The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins
- Aurélien Barrau, astrophysicist and professor at the University of Grenoble Alpes and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
- Tanja Breining, doctor in marine biology (Germany)
- Culum Brown, professor of fish biology and cognition at Macquarie University (Australia) and assistant editor of the Journal of Fish Biology
- Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal and former editor of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences
- Philippe Léna, geographer and sociologist and emeritus director of research at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, assigned to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France)
- Thomas Lepeltier, historian and philosopher
- Joël Minet, biologist and professor at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris, France)
- Peter Singer, philosopher and professor at Princeton University (USA)
- Dinesh Wadiwel, sociologist, director of the Master in Human Rights program, Sydney University (Australia) and author of the book Do fish resist?
- Markus Wild, philosopher and specialist in animal ethics with special focus on aquatic animals, University of Basel, Department of Philosophy (Switzerland)
- This op-ed article was published in March 2017 by the daily French newspaper Libération, under the title “Prendre au sérieux les intérêts des poissons”. Translation by Elisabeth Lyman.
- Sneddon, Lynne U., “The evidence for pain in fish: the use of morphine as an analgesic”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 83, no 2 (September 2003): 153‐162. In Braithwaite, Victoria, Do Fish Feel Pain?, Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Beukema, J.J., “Angling experiments with carp (Cyprinus carpio L.). II. Decreasing catchability through one-trial learning”, Netherlands Journal of Zoology, 20, (1970): 81-92.
- Dunlop, R., Millsopp, S. and Laming, P. (2006). “Avoidance learning in goldfish (Carassius auratus) and trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and implications for pain perception”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2): 255–271. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2005.06.018.
- Brown, Culum, “Familiarity with the Test Environment Improves Escape Responses in the Crimson Spotted Rainbowfish, Melanotaenia Duboulayi”, Animal Cognition 4, no. 2 (October 1, 2001): 109-13. doi:10.1007/s100710100105.
- Aronson, L.R., “Further studies on orientation and jumping behaviour in the gobiid fish, Bathygobius soporator”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 188, (1971): 378-407.
- Griffiths, S W. and Anne E. Magurran, “Familiarity in Schooling Fish: How Long Does It Take to Acquire?”, Animal Behaviour 53, no. 5 (May 1997): 945-49. doi:10.1006/anbe.1996.0315.