Led recognition of “metric tons” of fish as millions of sentient lives
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania––The biggest news in the watery world of fisheries in early October 2019 was the appearance of the 447-foot Margiris, reputedly the world’s second-largest trawler, through the mists of the English Channel just 14 miles off Brighton, East Sussex.
“For days,” at least 10 days altogether, “it has been tracking up and down the south coast netting vast quantities of fish,” reported ITV News correspondent Rupert Evelyn.
The catch, mostly herring, mackerel and blue whiting, “are not lifted out of the water, but pumped aboard directly from the net,” Evelyn explained, to be “processed and packed for export, mostly to Africa.”
Pumped fish sold to replace fished-out populations
There, the fish go to market in place of local fish populations that earlier in the 21st century were plundered to collapse by both European and Asian trawlers.
The Margiris is “capable of catching and carrying more than 6,000 metric tons of fish,” Evelyn mentioned. “How can it guarantee the sustainability of fish stocks? And how do they avoid catching protected species?”
Affirmed Blue Panet Society spokesperson John Hourston, “There are serious concerns about the potential by-catch of short beaked common-dolphins, endangered bluefin tuna and overfished sea bass that feed on the same target fish species.”
6,000 tons = 4 million lives
Neither Hourston, nor Evelyn, nor other newscasters mentioned that 6,000 metric tons of herring, mackerel and blue whiting, in approximately equal numbers, would amount to the lives of approximately four million sentient and sensitive beings.
Three more days passed before Russell Deeks of BBC Science Focus took note that a review of current research led by Liverpool University director of bioveterinary science Lynne Sneddon “shows there is very little doubt that fish experience pain – although whether they experience it in the same way as mammals is less clear.”
Sneddon, Deeks told listeners, “was the first scientist to prove that fish have ‘nociceptors’––cells that detect pain––in their mouths. Now, after examining the evidence from dozens of studies carried out worldwide, she is more convinced than ever of the need that greater care be taken in our interactions with fish species.
“Treat fish with same consideration as mammals & birds”
“Be it recreational angling, large-scale fisheries, ornamental fish – any way that we use fish,” Sneddon told Deeks, “we should treat them with the same consideration we afford to mammals and birds.”
Summarized Deeks, “While the research shows that fish do feel pain and adapt their behavior accordingly, the circumstances in which they do so can differ from humans. Fish are far less sensitive to cold, for instance, but much more sensitive to pressure.
Explained Sneddon, “Their mechanical thresholds – the amount of pressure you have to apply to stimulate the nociceptors – are much lower than in mammals. It’s actually quite similar to the human cornea, so handling them is likely to cause pain.”
Concluded Deeks, “The next step for Dr. Sneddon is to look at how pain signals are processed by fish brains.”
Braithwaite, 52, died days earlier
Pioneer of fish sentience research Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology and holder of the Dorothy and Lloyd Huck Chair in Behavioral Biology at Pennsylvania State University, missed the discussion, having died on September 30, 2019 from pancreatic cancer, at age 52.
Braithwaite was survived by two sons, James, 24, of Boulder, Colorado, and Matthew, 22, of Berlin, Germany, and by two grandchildren, Jonas Sean, 2, and Isla Viktoria, three months.
Braithwaite, a visiting professor in 2003 at the University of Bergen, Norway, had no idea then that she was about to make a discovery that would change her life, the direction of her field, and the perception that much of humanity has of fish.
How do fish perceive their world?
Braithwaite certainly did not foresee, as an animal researcher, that she would open a whole new direction in animal advocacy.
Even three years later, when Braithwaite summarized her work in an op-ed essay for the Los Angeles Times, she was surprised by the intensity of the response she drew from readers.
All Braithwaite set out to do was to better understand how fish perceive their world.
What she accomplished, however, was the most convincing demonstration to that point that fish feel and respond to pain.
Though seemingly self-evident to anyone who ever watched a hooked fish fight, or a netted fish try to flop back to water, the idea that fish suffer as human food and playthings had long been resisted by scientists, conservationists, and even some animal advocates, who argued that fish should be used in laboratories instead of mice because they purportedly feel less.
Initially studied pigeons
Braithwaite began her investigations of animal perception, learning and memory at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and doctorate in animal behavior.
Initially studying homing pigeons, Braithwaite confirmed that, as pigeon racers had long suspect, homing pigeons use landmarks to help navigate their way home.
Braithwaite turned to studying fish as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom.
Summarized her Pennsylvania State University obituary, “Specifically, she found that populations of the same species differed in how they solved spatial problems, and that these differences were related to predation risk. In environments with more predators, fish exhibited higher-level cognitive mapping abilities than those who were not exposed to predators.”
“First to experimentally study fish pain”
A 12-year faculty member at Edinburgh University, Braithwaite crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join the Pennsylvania State University faculty in 2007, teaching classes in animal behavior and animal welfare.
Recognized as “The first scientist to experimentally study fish pain,” the Pennsylvania State University said, “Braithwaite showed that fish have the same kinds of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli, tissue damage and pain. She found that fish experiencing noxious stimuli are cognitively impaired, and that this impairment can be reversed if the fish are provided with pain relief.
Braithwaite, though uncomfortable with over-simplications of her findings, argued in her 2010 book Do Fish Feel Pain?, published by Oxford University Press, that the sentience and suffering of fish should be taken into account by people using fish in any way, or disturbing fish habitat.
Children had to drag mother away from ponds
“In the preface,” the Pennsylvania State University obituary recounted, Braithwaite mentioned “that the more she learned about the biology, physiology and behavior of fish, the more engrossed she became.”
Wrote Braithwaite, “They really are seductive. My family knows this to their cost because I can rarely pass a pond, stream or river without stopping to search for a tiny bit of movement, the slightest flash of silver that betrays a fish’s position.”
Braithwaite joked that while most mothers sometimes have to drag their children away from water’s edge, in her family the roles were reversed.
PETA & FIAPO used findings
The influence of Do Fish Feel Pain? was almost immediate. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in early September 2010 cited some of Braithwaite’s findings in persuading a Sacramento restaurant to stop serving live shrimp.
Almost simultaneously, on the far side of the world, the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) paraphrased Braithwaite in persuading the destination resort company Club Mahindra to stop promoting angling on their web site.
Concluded the Pennsylvania State University obituary, “In her more recent work, Braithwaite examined the effects of introducing variability, such as rocks and plants, to salmon and trout hatcheries. She found that providing a more natural environment for young salmon increased their cognitive abilities and, thus, their survival rates upon being released into the wild.
Compassion Over Killing video
“In recognition of her scientific achievements, Braithwaite was named a Fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. In 2006, she was awarded the Fisheries Society of the British Isles Medal for her research on pain in fishes.”
The most meaningful tribute to Braithwaite’s life and work, however, may have been that a week after her death the animal advocacy organization Compassion Over Killing released its first-ever undercover video exposé of fish abuse at a Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm in Bingham, Maine.
Although ANIMALS 24-7 had exposed similar abuses in aquaculture more than 30 years earlier, fish suffering barely registered in animal advocacy consciousness before Braithwaite published Do Fish Feel Pain?
Cooke Aquaculture president apologized
Even more remarkably, Cooke Aquaculture president Glenn Cooke immediately apologized to the public for what the Compassion Over Killing showed, while Maine Aquaculture Association Sebastian Belle pledged that, “Considering this recent event, we are going to re-examine our Code of Conduct and recommendations for best management practices.
“As part of that process,” Belle said, “we will be consulting with experts in the veterinary and animal husbandry professions to help us provide the best possible recommendations to our members.”
Even if someone had produced a comparable video exposé a decade or two or three decades ago, practically everyone involved in the fish use industries before Do Fish Feel Pain? would likely have shrugged it off as a matter of small concern, if any.
Hi Merritt and Beth
Thanks for this column. One of my never ending peeves is that so-called enlightened businesses such as Whole Foods proudly displays dead frozen baby octopus on ice at it’s fish counters. They might as well lay out baby calves or dead kittens for sale since Octopus have been shown to have brains equivalent of a toddler!!! I personally don’t know if any organized groups protesting that.
Also would like to recommend Mama’s Last Hug by Frans DeWaal if you haven’t already read it.
Eric Mills, coordinator, ACTION FOR ANIMALS, Oakland says
VIDEO EXPOSE – COMPASSION OVER KILLING (COK)