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Do Fish Feel Pain?

After decades of research investigating whether fish are capable of experiencing pain, whether humans cause them to suffer, and whether it even matters, Victoria Braithwaite examines this question in her new book, Do Fish Feel Pain?

A faculty member in the college and associate director of the Penn State Institute of the Neurosciences, her research and the book have caused a firestorm of controversy among both devotees and opponents of angling. Braithwaite’s approach is dispassionate, balanced, and matter-of-fact—and she is quick to point out that she is not against sport fishing.

She chafes at suggestions that she is a “tree hugger” or an animal-rights extremist. “I am not biased—my book gives a balanced account of the issue,” she said. “I recognize how valuable the efforts of anglers have been historically for conservation. Many fishermen are staunch stewards of the aquatic environment, guarding our waterways against pollution and degradation. We would not want to be without them or their efforts.”

Fish (iStockphoto.com)

Through exhaustive experiments with fish, explained in meticulous detail in her book, she builds a compelling case that fish have the same kinds of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli, tissue damage, and pain. And she explores the contentious concepts of whether fish are sentient beings and whether an organism must possess “awareness” to experience pain.

“We now know that fish actually are cognitively more competent than we thought before. Some species of fish have very sophisticated forms of cognition,” she said.

“I definitely think that we need to look at the welfare of fish,” she said. “It seemed logical to me to care about fish because agriculture in general is confronting animal-welfare issues.”

We may be troubled by the prospect of fish feeling pain, Braithwaite conceded, but we should not let our discomfort keep us from confronting the issue because the latest scientific evidence suggests that the protections currently given to birds and mammals should be widened to include fish.

Do Fish Feel Pain? is published by Oxford University Press and is widely available at bookstores and from online booksellers.

Photo: iStockphoto.com