Finding the sentience of fish

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2003:

Credit scientific discovery.  Credit
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Credit Finding Nemo,  the latest pro-animal
animated production in a 64-year string from Walt
Disney Productions.
Whatever the reason,  humans around the
world are suddenly talking about the suffering of
fish as never before.

The first paragraphs of previews of Finding Nemo tell the story:
*  New York Times film critic Stephen Holden
noted a mako shark named Bruce who chants to
himself “Fish are friends,  not food,”  trying to
break the fish-eating habit.
*   “You might care to swear off seafood
after Finding Nemo,  or go to the port and net a
fisherman for dinner,”  wrote San Diego
Union-Tribune critic David Elliott in a review
picked up by MSNBC.
*  Finding Nemo “has pet fish traders
worried about rough seas ahead,”  said Associated
Since the anti-hunting classic Bambi
(1940) and the exposé of circus treatment of
elephants included in Dumbo (1941),  Disney
animated features have time and again anticipated
the crossover of humane concerns into public
awareness. Lady & The Tramp (1955) included the
first prominent screen depiction of what really
goes on in dog pounds,  and the first edition of
101 Dalmatians (1959) more-or-less created the
anti-fur movement.
Cruelty-to-fish cases are suddenly
getting a level of attention rarely accorded to
any animal cruelty cases until barely a dozen
years ago.
In Copenhagen,  Denmark,  Trapholt modern
art museum director Peter Meyer was on May 18
acquitted of cruelty to goldfish–but only after
a two-day trial,  and the internatonally reported
outcome was no longer described in the joking
tone used in February 2000,  when Friends of
Animals/ Denmark (not affiliated with the U.S.
group of similar name) brought charges against
Meyer and Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti for
mounting an exhibition in which visitors were
offered to opportunity to puree live goldfish in
a blender.  Two fish were killed despite a police
injunction ordering Meyer to cut off the
electricity to the blender.
In New Jersey the Press of Atlantic City
reported seriously on a multi-agency humane
investigation of the use of goldfish as live
table ornaments at the mid-May Middle Township
junior prom.  Some attendees allegedly abused the
fish,  and server Susan Genova said the staff
were told to trash the fish afterward.  Instead,
Genova and other servers rescued those they could.
The San Franciscio Chronicle and Santa
Cruz Sentinel both reported in early June that
two members of the Delta Omega Chi fraternity at
the University of California in Santa Cruz were
charged with theft and malicious mischief for
allegedly killing a 15-year-old three-foot koi
who had resided in a pond at Porter College since
A year ago awareness that fish feel pain
and suffer when caught scarcely won a word of
mass media attention.  On April 30,  however, the
Roslin Institute and Edinburgh University
affirmed after a two-year study that fish indeed
feel pain.
Since 1997,  when other Roslin Institute
researchers produced Dolly,  the first cloned
sheep,  Roslin Institute announcements have
tended to make headlines.
First to break the news in the U.S. was the
Florida Sun Sentinel,  serving a state where
commercial fishing is a $217 million a year
industry and sport fishing is worth $4 billion a
year,  according to the Florida Wildlife
Within the next week many of the most influential
news media worldwide featured the confirmation
that fish feel pain,  including The New York
Times,  the BBC,  CNN,  Agence France Presse,
and all four leading London newspapers:  the
Times,  Independent,  Observer,   and Guardian.
The Roslin Institute study was directed by Lynne
Sneddon,  Ph.D.,  head of animal biology at
Liverpool University.
“What I set out to do was to find pain receptors
in fish like those in higher mammals and humans,”
Sneddon told Valerie Elliott and Helen Rumbelow
of The Times of London.
While previous studies on cartilaginous fish such
as sharks indicated that they do not feel pain in
the same way as mammals,  Sneddon found that bony
fish “rocked from side to side when injected with
bee venom,  a rocking motion strikingly similar
to that seen in animals and humans suffering
stress,”  Sneddon said.  “When acetic acid was
injected,  the gill respiratory rates of the fish
doubled and they were seen rubbing their lips
against the tank walls.  The fish injected with
venom also did not eat until the effects of the
experiments subsided.  All in all,  the results
fulfil the criteria for animal pain.”

Applied science

Sneddon did not flinch from applying her
findings to common sport fishing and scientific
“At present there are no rules on killing
fish,  and I would like to see painkillers used
if fish are tagged or have fins clipped to
identify them,”  Sneddon said.  “I don’t have a
problem with people getting fish out of the water
quickly,  killing them quickly,  and taking them
home to eat,”  she said,  “but people also catch
fish and let them go for sport and hold them in
keep-nets,  and I don’t think these are
welfare-friendly practices.”
The Sneddon study followed up a 1994
report to the Royal SPCA by Steve Kestin of
Bristol University.  Wrote Kestin,  “It cannot be
argued that fish experience pain in exactly the
same manner as humans.  Such an argument is
untestable.  But it can be argued that the pain
fish feel as a result of injury is likely to be
just as important to them in their own way as
human pain is to humans.”
The attention given to the Sneddon study
appeared to stimulate some British news media
interest in a year-old Compassion In World
Farming report on the suffering of ranched trout,
salmon,  halibut,  and sea bass,  called In Too
Deep.  In gist,  CIWF found that the same kinds
of animal welfare problems that occur among pigs
and chickens raised in close confinement also
afflict confinement-reared fish.
The Norwegian Federation for Animal
Protection cited the Sneddon findings in a
mid-May objection to “Fishing Pole Project 2003,”
in which the Norwegian Hunting and Fishing
Federation donated 40,000 fishing poles to grade
school students,  following up a similar
promotion in 2002.
Animal advocates have occasionally
objected to fishing almost from the beginning of
the organized humane movement in the early 19th
century.  The early 20th century Austrian
novelist Franz Kafka quit eating fish for humane
reasons,  but as with his books,  his gesture was
noted mainly posthumously.
Serious opposition to fishing by animal
advocates  has focused mostly on harm to marine
mammals resulting from fishing– either when
whales,  seals,  and sea lions starve due to lack
of fish,  or when they are slaughtered,  as in
the Atlantic Canada massacre of 350,000 harp and
hooded seals this year,  for allegedly depleting
fisheries that have already been depleted by
humans past foreseeable recovery.

PETA campaign

PETA is the only animal advocacy group to
sustain a significant anti-fishing campaign for
humanitarian reasons.
Coordinated by Dawn Carr,  the PETA campaign
seems to have begun with protests at several New
Jersey and Louisiana fishing tournaments in 1996.
Such protests have continued in strategic times
and places ever since.
The PETA anti-fishing campaign gained
momentum from public statements against fishing
made by the late Linda McCartney in 1997,  a year
before her April 1998 death from breast cancer.
In 1999 PETA produced a television ad featuring
McCartney’s appeal for abstention from sport
fishing–but the ad was banned in Britain by the
Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre for
allegedly being “too political.”
In September 1999 PETA protested against
the presence of fish on the menu at the Monterey
Bay Aquarium restaurant,  and had members write
letters objecting to the depiction of a trophy
fisher on Wheaties boxes.
The PETA campaign spread to Africa in
June 2001 with an appeal to the South African
Scout Association,  asking that a merit badge for
fishing achievement be withdrawn.  Similar merit
badges are presented by the National Scout
Councils of many other nations,  including the
U.S.,  where PETA earlier made the same request.
In August 2001 PETA touched off a furor
in Florida and New Jersey,  following several
shark attacks on humans,  by pointing out that as
anti-fishing campaign spokesperson Dan Shannon
put it,  “sharks killed 10 people worldwide last
year.  Humans kill over 50 million sharks each
Also in 2001 PETA distributed a poster
showing a dog with a fish hook stuck in his
cheek,  with a caption asking,  “If you wouldn’t
do this to a dog,  why do it to a fish?”
Quiet in 2002,  the PETA anti-fishing
campaign revived one day after publication of the
Sneddon findings with an alert e-mailed by
activist liaison Megan Hartman.  Hartman also
mentioned the practice of boiling lobsters alive,
another longtime target of sporadic protest,
including dozens of lobster releases conducted by
PETA during the 1980s and early 1990s.
The first pro-lobster action to gain
widespread attention in 2003 came toward the end
of May,  when Joel Freedman of Animal Advocates
of Upstate New York bought a pound of scallops
and dumped them into a supermarket lobster tank
in Canandaigua,  New York,  as an intended meal
for the lobsters.  Lobsters awaiting boiling are
not fed.
“As far as I’m concerned,  I obeyed the
law by feeding the lobsters,”  said Freedman,
who was escorted from the store but was not
charged with any offense.
“Like many others,  I respond with a
lesser gut reaction to the suffering of fish than
to that of other animals,”  online animal rights
commentator Karen Dawn of DawnWatch acknowledged
in 2001.  “But I appreciate PETA’s reminder that
uncute animals matter.  Moreover,  PETA is
pushing the envelope.  They are out there getting
laughed at whilst fighting for fish.  The rest of
us,  fighting mostly for mammals,  look more and
more mainstream.”

Young men & the sea

About 35 million Americans fish, between
two and three times the number who hunt.  Most of
them are men.  Fish and other marine species are
the animals many men are most likely to see
suffering,  and cause to suffer through their own
deliberate actions.
The suffering of crustaceans evident to
recreational diver John Kroezen of Port Lincoln,
Australia,  was enough to cause him to disobey a
government directive to clip the ends of the
tails off of rock lobsters,  to prevent sport
fishers from selling the lobsters commercially.
Kroezen,  who also kills lobsters by icing them
before boiling,  made enough noise about the
tail-clipping regulation that the South Australia
Research and Development Institute in mid-May
2003 began a study of how painful the procedure
may be.
Giving up fishing after recognizing that
marine species feel pain can become a man’s first
decisive action in choosing a more humane
lifestyle–as it was for Steve Hindi in 1990,
two years before he founded SHARK.
Hindi at the time was not just a
recreational fisher,  but a shark fisher with a
national reputation,  who sometimes wrote for
fishing magazines.
“I first fished at age five,”  Hindi
recalled in a May 1996 ANIMAL PEOPLE guest
column.   “Like most children,  we learned what
we were taught,  setting aside whatever qualms we
may have felt.  Our mother raised us to care for
cats and dogs,  and we regularly took in strays.
However,  we were told that fish had no feelings,
and we killed them with  abandon.  Sometimes I
would give a fleeting thought to whether these
animals suffered as they lay gasping on the
shore,”  Hindi admitted.  “Catfish and bullheads,
and carp take a long time to suffocate.  After a
while,  we would hit their heads with rocks to
kill them quickly.”
As a teen,  Hindi began pursuing “game
fish,”  so-called because they put up more of a
fight. “Often we bought large sucker minnows as
bait.  Although we were told, and wanted to
believe,  that fish did not feel fear or pain,”
Hindi wrote,  “we almost always knew when a
predator approached the sucker.  The bobber would
begin to bounce and move; panic was obvious.  I
decided that live bait fishing was cruel and
pursued my prey thereafter with artificial lures
or dead bait.”
Hindi was not alone in his qualms.  By
the 1980s the sport fishing industry began to
address “matters of ethics and conservation,  at
least superficially,”  Hindi remembered.
“Spokespeople began talking of catch-and-release.
We would hook our prey,  allow them to suffer as
they fought for their lives,  and then release
them,  hoping they would survive to endure this
torture again.  At about the same time
catch-and-release became popular, the ethical
gurus decided that fishers should use lighter
gear to fight our victims.  A small fish could be
fought not just for a couple minutes, but perhaps
for a quarter of an hour.
“My conversion to shark fishing,”  Hindi
wrote,  “seemed to quell a fairly quiet but
nagging voice suggesting that killing animals,
especially those much smaller than me,  was not
completely defensible as a hobby.
Soon,  however,  Hindi began to see
evidence of the sentience and suffering of
sharks,  and of tuna,  often caught from the same
Thrashing tuna on the deck of a boat can be dangerous.
“To keep them still,  we simply put a
cloth over their exposed eye to block the light,
much as you would calm a horse,”  Hindi
explained.  “This was a problem.  Much like a
horse?  How much like a horse?  I wouldn’t do
this to a horse.  Why was I doing this?”
By the time Hindi gave up fishing,  along
with hunting,  his brother and two fishing
buddies had already voiced discomfort about the
killing,  similar to his own.
Despite his ethical choice to stop
fishing,  Hindi admits he missed certain aspects
of it for a few years–until he became active in
trapping feral cats for neuter-and-return.
Catching feral cats,  he told ANIMAL PEOPLE,  is
exactly like fishing except that some cats are
even more challenging than the most evasive fish,
and he enjoys releasing them in the knowledge
that they have     been helped through his
“Fishing is as popular as it is because
fish do not have the ability to communicate
suffering as readily as cats,  dogs,  cows,  or
other mammals.  While many people may at first be
taken aback at the mere suggestion that fish can
suffer,”  Hindi concluded,  “I believe society
can grasp the concept.  And if we can make people
feel for those who cannot cry out their
suffering, how much more will they feel for those
who can?”

Dawning awareness

Globally,  the commercial fishing
industry landed 130.4 million metric tons of
fish,  crustaceans,  and mollusks in 2000.  Add
to that the millions of farmed fish,  fish caught
for sport,  and bycatch,  caught and killed but
dumped at sea for having no market value.
Still just beginning to acknowledge the
catastrophic impact of fishing on conservation
and biodiversity,  the world may be a very long
way from translating the dawning awareness of the
sentience of fish into public policy.
Yet it is also possible that humanitarian
concern for fish may succeed in taking fish off
the menu for millions of people for whom  the
conservation issues are abstract and
distant–much as awareness of the suffering of
other animals has caused millions to give up
beef,  pork,  and chicken,  even though cattle,
pigs,  and chickens are at no risk of extinction.
Much as fish are sensitive to even the
slightest ripples in the water surrounding them,
fishers seemed unusually alert to criticism early
in 2003.
In February pro-fishing organizations
were quick to amplify a report by University of
Wyoming professor of zoology and phyisiology
James D. Rose,  60,   that fish cannot feel pain
because they do not possess the regions of the
cerebral cortex that distinguish pain from
“nociception,”  meaning reflexive response to
“Pain is predicated on awareness,”  Rose
said.  “Anyone who has seen a chicken with its
head cut off will know that while its body can
respond to stimuli,  it cannot be feeling pain.”
In Britain,  National Federation of
Anglers representative Rodney Coldron lauded Rose
for “killing off that silly argument” that fish
feel pain.
But it was not a “silly argument” later
in February to 200 Thai fishers who confronted
Total Access Communication representatives in
Samut Prakan:  it was a perceived threat.  The
fishers were irate about a TV ad for cell
telephones that reportedly showed an activist
using a cell phone to ring in complaints against
fishers who were cutting the fins off live sharks
and roasting sea turtles alive.
Total Access Communication said that ads
were meant to promote awareness of marine
conservation.  The conservation message,
however,  was apparently not what disturbed Samut
Prakan Fishing Society chief Prasan Silapipat.
What upset him was that Thai fishers might be
perceived as torturers of the marine life they
Shark-finning reputedly occurs worldwide.
Since June 2000 possessing shark fins without a
shark carcass has been illegal in U.S. waters,
as a measure intended to slow down the currently
unsustainable rate of depletion of many shark
species–but fins are lucrative,  while demand
for other shark parts is weak,  tempting fishers
to ignore the law.  Trying to send a message,
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration on May 19,  2003  fined the
fishing companies Tran & Yu Inc. of Honolulu and
Tai Loong Hong Marine Products Ltd. of Hong Kong
a record $620,000.  NOAH agents in August 2002
had discovered more than 32 tons of shark fins
aboard one of their vessels,  the Honolulu-based
King Diamond II.
Live-roasting sea turtles in their shells
is still done on some Southeast Asian and Pacific
islands,  and between 20,000 and 28,000 green sea
turtles are butchered alive each year in Bali,
according to recent reports.
The Thai fishers,  however,  were adament that
they neither fin sharks nor kill sea
turtles–which would be illegal in Thailand as
well as most other nations.

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