Findings with the potential to transform the entire human perspective on fish
WASHINGTON D.C.––U.S. President Barack Obama on June 17, 2014 “will announce his intent to make a broad swath of the central Pacific Ocean off-limits to fishing, energy exploration and other activities,” Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post disclosed at noon on June 16.
But the biggest fish story of the day may have quietly appeared earlier in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Cognition. Obama’s proposal to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to nearly ten times its present size may be among the biggest fish habitat stories since the Great Flood was first documented in pre-Biblical times. The Animal Cognition review of scientific literature pertaining to fish sentience and intelligence, however, includes findings with the potential to transform the entire human perspective on fish, our most distant easily recognizable evolutionary ancestors.
The Obama proposal, wrote Eilperin, “slated to go into effect later this year after a comment period, could create the world’s largest marine sanctuary and double the area of ocean globally that is fully protected. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument would be expanded from almost 87,000 square miles to nearly 782,000 square miles — all of it adjacent to seven islands and atolls controlled by the United States. The designation would include waters up to 200 nautical miles offshore from the territories. The potential expansion area would quintuple the number of underwater mountains under protection. It would also end tuna fishing and provide shelter for nearly two dozen species of marine mammals, five types of threatened sea turtles, and a variety of sharks and other predatory fish species.”
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument expansion plan is expected to meet intense opposition from Congressional Republicans and from the tuna fishing industry. Noted Eilperin, “Fish caught in the area account for up to 3% of the annual U.S. tuna catch in the western and central Pacific, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. When [then-U.S. President George W.] Bush created the monument in 2009, he exempted sport fishing to address industry opposition.”
But the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument expansion is coming amid international recognition that much more of the Pacific Ocean must be put off limited to fishing to protect declining fish stocks and endangered populations of other marine species. Kiribati president Anote Tong on June 16, 2014 announced that an area the size of California surrounding the remote atoll nation will be closed to commercial fishing by the end of the year. The United Kingdom is reportedly considered designating a marine sanctuary around the Pitcairn Islands, settled by descendants of eight Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and nine British sailors who fled there after the 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty.
Fish intelligence compares well to primates
The Animal Cognition literature review was authored by Culum Brown, Ph.D., a biology professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, co-editor of the book Fish Cognition and Behaviour, assistant editor of The Journal of Fish Biology, and editor of the journal Animal Behaviour. The research was funded by The Someone Project, a subsidiary of Farm Sanctuary.
Citing the key findings from a wealth of relevant scientific research, Brown argues that “It would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviorally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain.”
But, though long debated, this point is no longer in serious scientific dispute. Of greater note, Brown finds that “Fish compare well to the rest of the vertebrates in most tasks,” with cognitive and behavioral attributes comparable to those of primates.
Various studies demonstrate, according to Brown, that fish can “perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously,” an ability that was until recently considered to be uniquely human; “have excellent long-term memories,” including of times, places, locations, social experiences, and aversive situations; “live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another, a process that leads to the development of stable cultural traditions…similar to some of those seen in birds and primates”; “show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation”; use tools; and “use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as we do.”
Although mammals and birds have long been known to be able to count their dependent offspring, research demonstrating the ability of animals to count in other contexts has only recently emerged.
Rosa Rugani of the University of Trento and Lucia Regolin of the University of Padova, both Italy, in the April 2009 edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain published details of experiments demonstrating that newly hatched chickens can add and subtract. Their work appeared to signify that the ability to distinguish among greater and lesser numbers is innate, rather than learned. Where previous researchers had asked “How soon do animals begin to count?”, the question became “How far back in evolution did numeracy emerge?”
The discovery of numeracy in fish appears to push the answer back at least to the evolution of vertebrates.
Social cooperation and complex planning ability among fish of differing species was reported in the December 8, 2006 edition of PLoS Biology by Redouan Bshary and colleagues at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, who had studied groupers recruiting moray eels to join them in paired hunting expeditions.
Leaving the safety of their caves and crevices, the moray eels forage in coral reefs much like dogs going to ground after burrowing prey. While the groupers catch smaller fish who are flushed out into open water, the moray eels get those who hesitate or turn back.
Bshary et al found that groupers summon moray eels to join them in hunts with a set of head shakes which could be interpreted as a physically expressed interspecies language.