Fish Feel Fear and Pain and Stress

The jury’s verdict is in, and it is unanimous: fish feel pain. “In the scientific community, the question of whether fish are capable of experiencing stress, pain and fear is nearly undisputed,” the Food Empowerment Project states.

“Fish feel pain too,” agrees Discovery News’s Jennifer Viegas in her analysis of Penn State professor Victoria Braithwaite’s book on the subject, Do Fish Feel Pain? A 2009 study published in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science” also concluded that fish feel pain and that even after the pain is over, they alter their behavior in response to their memory of it. A 2003 study found ”profound behavioural and physiological changes” akin to those higher mammals exhibit in response to pain.

That throws a wrench into the arguments of a couple different interest groups. One is people who fish. They often justify their pastime with the claim that it doesn’t hurt their prey. Those who throw fish back in the water after hooking them claim “no harm, no foul,” as though the hook they ripped out of a fish’s mouth (or left in) didn’t hurt. Those who keep the fish they catch can’t possibly watch the desperate thrashing (like that of the tuna in the video below) and believe the fish are not suffering, but if they do, they are now on notice: the fish are feeling pain, stress, and fear as they struggle to breathe.

The other group that won’t like this scientific consensus is self-labeled “vegetarians” who eat fish. More accurately called pescatarians, some of them abstain from eating most meat because they believe it is murder and/or don’t want to be the cause of animals’ suffering. They make an exception for fish flesh. Those who base that exception on the belief that fishing doesn’t hurt fish are now on notice too.

Of course, there are plenty of hunters and omnivores who know they are killing and eating sentient, feeling beings, and just don’t care. This news won’t change their world. I’d like to think that the video might, for at least a few empathetic souls.

Then there is a whole other kettle of fish: aquaculture, or fish farms. 50 percent of the fish people eat comes from aquaculture. Like factory farming of land animals, this version of agribusiness spares not a thought for the fishes’ well-being. “Fish raised in aquaculture are unable to swim in open waters and eat natural foods. The cramped conditions cause severe stress.” This sounds a lot like egg-laying chickens, sows, and dairy cows: no chance to roam free or even stretch their muscles, and a diet they would never choose in the wild: ”aquaculture feeds are increasingly utilizing proteins from grains such as soybeans and wheat, as well as meat meal and poultry meal from industrial animal factories.” Not exactly health food for animals that live and eat underwater. I don’t know if poor diets cause farmed fish pain or stress, but being packed in like sardines can’t be pleasant.

Whether by capturing them for recreation or commerce or raising them for food, humans subject fish to fear, pain, and stress all the time. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves that they don’t mind.

Related Stories:

Considering the Ethics of Fishing

Farmed Fish and Sea Lice Endanger Wild Salmon Stocks

Sea Shepherd to Defend Bluefin Tuna in Libyan Waters

Photo credit: iStockphoto


Hannah Scrivener
Hannah Scrivener3 years ago

WHAT? Wow. At the risk of seeming condescending, was this really a heated debate? Fish are living breathing creatures that breed, eat, bleed, and die. Why would they not feel pain?

The question isn't whether other living species are intelligent or capable of feeling; the real question has always been, do we care?

Diane L.
Diane L.3 years ago

Yes, Ann, I'd be interested in reading facts provided by a real scientific study as well. I doubt Twitter would be a way for real scientists to publish results of their studies, however. You say "your fish" feel pain? You know this how? Just asking, since I've had tropical fish for decades. They DO react to stimuli. Their instincts provide reactions to many things, including trying to get away from predators and yes if removed from water, trying to get back IN it. On the opposite end of that scenario, we would try to avoid drowning, but not because it was painful, but because we know we will not live if we can't breathe and we can't breathe under water without assistance thru "gadgets". If we didn't know that, maybe we wouldn't struggle to get OUT of the water when we fall in it.

Lynda H.
Lynda H.3 years ago

Ann F, that link did not work. When I took the “.” out of the middle of the word “shares” I got a site about investment shares. I looked up @digitaljournal but couldn’t find anything resembling what you report. Could you try posting the address again please, or find another access to the site you mention?

Ann Fox
Ann Fox3 years ago

Scientists use Twitter as a medium to be 'open and honest' via @digitaljournal.......just look at what the scientists themselves say about their works when they are reflecting..... about studies & tests done in labs ect what influences them ect... pretty scary... my fish feel pain...

Lynda H.
Lynda H.3 years ago

The hook and subsequent tear in my mouth would hurt like hell, because I have C fiber nociceptors that carry pain messages to the brain. Fish have so few of those nociceptors that it is impossible for pain messages to reach the brain. Fish do have, however, A-delta nociceptors, which deliver an immediate signal for a reflex action. Reflex actions are simple, such as “flop” or “swim away”, and stop as soon as the negative stimulus ceases.

Fish with gaping wounds continue to feed as normal, because they do not feel pain. They have an instinctive response to danger, but without an amygdala they are incapable of feeling fear. They are, however, subject to stress, just like every other living thing, including plants. Being hooked, pulled out of the water, having the hook removed quickly and being returned to the water causes them a little stress, yet they recover remarkably quickly. They do not swim away in a hurry, they resume eating, and are very likely to take the same bait - again and again.

Lynda H.
Lynda H.3 years ago

Again, Suba, you are guessing: you are putting yourself in the place of the fish. Empathy is an assumption based only on personal, human experiences: it’s a worthy starting point, but prone to error. The rather old study referred to above tried to verify the assumption that fish feel pain using tests that did not give clear and universal results, while the study I referred to tried to ascertain if fish were capable of interpreting pain by studying their neurological systems.

Yes, if you put a hook through my lips and tried to hang me, the hook would rip through my soft tissue and leave me with a nasty wound. However, I am heavier than a fish, and my skin is soft, unprotected by scales. A fishes mouth is as hard as a pineapple husk: it doesn’t tear easily. It can puncture, but not tear. Even its tongue is extremely hard.

Lynda H.
Lynda H.3 years ago

Marilyn, you are guessing that the released fish are sufficiently injured to be attacked by other fish. Beyond the initial hypothesis, science doesn’t guess, and anthropomorphism is not science either. There is a mortality rate for released fish, but it is extremely low. Fish resume normal behaviour - including eating - very quickly after release - some immediately. A barbless hook leaves a wound no larger than a needle prick, or injection site. Fish are injured around the mouth continuously from rocks, twigs, food that fights back and things that looked like food but were not.

3 years ago

"if they are injured to the point that other fish notice, they will be picked on and harrassed until they become weaker and weaker."...yes, and those thrown back into the water after the hook (barbless or not) has been removed from their skin ARE injured and when thrown back, can be victimized and attacked by the others. I just think it's cruel to mangle them and then throw them back to suffer.

I know that steelhead is trout...but we only eat cold water fish from the ocean because that's where the highest omega 3s are and we eat it for our health.
Our local store labels everything and mostly sells sustainable fish and have been awarded annually from Greenpeace for doing so.

Lynda H.
Lynda H.3 years ago

I never ignore what REAL scientists prove time and time again, “Julie H”, but I won’t let animal abolitionist psuedo-science pull the ‘vegan synthetic wool’ over people’s eyes!

Fish do not have their faces “ripped off”; they don’t suffocate in a keeper net or for the brief time responsible anglers have them out of the water: they are incapable of feeling fear - or pain. Sorry the real science doesn’t fit your ideology, but then it rarely does. If ever!

Julie H.
Julie H.3 years ago

Lynda H- Not only am I not wrong, but I have also expressed my views which happen to align with the science that has proven that fish suffer and feel fear, pain and stress. Seems you just refuse to accept that scientists have proven what some of us have known all along.
The fact remains that there are literally thousands of activities that do not involve harming other beings. People who derive pleasure in hooking fish and tossing them back as if the fish enjoy having their faces ripped into, suffocating, and feeling fear, ought to get their heads examined. By all means keep ignoring what scientists have proven time and time again.