Why We Need to Seriously Reconsider Eating Fish

We don’t often think of fish when we talk about animal welfare or the treatment of animals we keep as pets, eat or use in experiments, but research coming out this month in the journal Animal Cognition is urging us to reconsider seeing fish as less intelligent or complex than other animals who often take the spotlight.

Fish biologist Culum Brown, who is a professor at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, has taken the scientific approach to get us to appreciate fish in “Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics,” writing that, “Part of the problem is the large gap between people’s perception of fish intelligence and the scientific reality.”

Brown’s research for this paper was funded by Farm Sanctuary as part of its Someone, Not Something project, which aims at getting us to see animals used in agriculture as individuals, not commodities. While it’s easier to see and relate with the unique personalities of farm animals, or empathize with their suffering, fish seem to be another realm altogether.

Even though they’re kept as pets, held in aquariums, farmed, used in scientific research and are an extensive source of food, their treatment hasn’t made it into mainstream discussions about their welfare or raised the level of concern other animals are getting. After reviewing hundreds of research papers that examined areas ranging from the cognitive abilities of fish and their ability to feel pain, Brown makes a compelling case about why we need to include fish in our “moral circle.”

With interesting examples, he concludes that fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates, including primates, and that their brains are more similar to our own than we previously thought.

They have long-term memories, cooperate with each other, recognize themselves and others, develop complex traditions and can perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously. They also show traits that were once thought to be distinctly human, including making use of tools and using different sides of their brains to analyze information. Sarasins minnows, for example, look at familiar individuals with their left eye and use their right eye to view unfamiliar individuals.

Fish also use the same methods to count quantities that we do and can see as well as us, but have been found to fall for optical illusions, which means they’re making assumptions about what they’re seeing that’s likely based in part on their past experiences.

Fish can also learn to avoid things they don’t like and will keep that information for long periods. Pike that have been hooked have been found to shy away from them for over a year. Rainbowfish, who were taught to swim through a hole in a net took just five runs to figure out the location of the escape route. When tested almost a year later, they still remembered how to escape even though they had not seen the net in the meantime.

Whether or not they feel pain is a question that will raise issues for industries that use fish, including fishing and research, but Brown told Popular Science that he takes the position that having the same neurological system as other vertebrates means they do feel it in a way that we can relate to, in the way we feel empathy for companion animals and other species who are experiencing it.

While he’s not pushing to get people to stop eating fish, Brown is supporting a change of attitude that will lead to improvements in the way we treat them that are on par with other animals.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 years ago

thanks for the article.

Angela P.
Angie P4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Angela P.
Angie P4 years ago

Interesting article. I am sure fish are smarter than we think and really on learned behavior to survive.

Anteater Ants
Anteater Ants5 years ago

Oh, I've already commented on this article!

Jana DiCarlo
Jana DiCarlo5 years ago

interesting article

Mary Finelli
Mary Finelli5 years ago

Even the animal protection community largely ignores fish, although they constitute the largest category of exploited animals and arguably suffer the worst abuses yet receive the least protection. That's why we started Fish Feel. Visit us on Facebook and also at FishFeel.org.

cd C.
cd C.5 years ago

If something recoils when you touch it or do anything to it, then it is seemingly affected by pain and certainly is scared. This should be obvious right? But we've always known the animals we eat can feel pain and recognize things and care for their young et al. We justify that that's not a big deal by saying everything dies, carnivores are natural and animals are probably dumb. The first 2 seem to be an ok way to look at things. As long as we don't mistreat animals when they're alive and don't kill them in a painful way, it really is part of the earth and life in general.

Has it gotten out of hand? Yes. Big industry isn't taking their responsibilities seriously and governments don't hold them accountable enough. Is this really enlightening that most all living things with a brain basically feel and react like everything else? I don't know why... it seems like it should be obvious.

David Parker
David Parker5 years ago

Fish were here long before primates and had a much longer time to develop their brains. Humans are the ones who are new at all things, like surviving, other animals have done for millennia.

Leigh EVERETT5 years ago

Susie R.

I agree that we have made stupid assumptions in the past but this article is still making them. I mean seriously, a sarasins minnow looks at familiar individuals with their left eye and use their right eye to view unfamiliar individuals.

Give me a break. First of all, HOW do they work that one out? and second
How does the minnow know if the individual is familiar or not BEFORE looking?

"Oh oops, he's familiar and I looked with the wrong eye, how stupid of me".

It's seems to me that to make assumptions like these means that our brains are more similar to theirs than we previously thought and NOT the other way round.

And these scientists are, how do we say? Intelligent. more assumptions if you ask me.

Andrea W.
A. Cailia W5 years ago

Some of the many good reasons that I went vegan last year after being a pescatarian for 2 1/2 years. It's a decision I do not regret. I don't eat animal byproducts or use them for any other purpose whatsoever. And, I'm happy with that decision.