Recent Science Helps Close the Gap between Fish Intelligence and Public Misconceptions

See video footage from Mercy for Animals new undercover investigation of Catfish Corner, a fish slaughter facility in Texas

While there is much debate over the intelligence of fish (particularly their capacity to be conscious, feel pain, and experience emotions), one thing is certain: everyone seems to agree that for too long, we have known little or nothing about the minds of fish and there is a tremendous interest in understanding fish better. Some are chefs and consumers who love to prepare and eat fish. Others are anglers and fishing enthusiasts who have a passion for the sport. Then there are the biologists and animal behaviorists who are key to advancing our understanding of these elusive animals.

When evaluating information on the subject of fish, carefully consider the source. The fishing industry is powerful and profitable and, much like the animal agriculture industry, has launched an ongoing public misinformation campaign that has partially contributed to keeping Americans ignorant about fish. A prime example of this is the industry front group www.fishscam.com which was established by infamous PR spin agency Berman and Associates. For more information on Berman, see www.bermanexposed.com.

This ignorance is based on the notion that fish are stupid, incapable of experiencing pain or suffering, unable to think or feel anything, and without any cognitive skills. And of course this view of fish fits well with our lifestyle. If we can conclude that fish are “mindless”, then we don’t have to concern ourselves about their welfare, like that of birds and mammals. This ignorance could also explain why in commercial fishing millions of fish are caught on barbed hooks or left to die by suffocation on the decks of fishing boats. But the emerging science about fish intelligence is dispelling these misconceptions. The power of this knowledge lies in its potential to transform how we treat them in commercial fishing as well as how we view them as a society.

“Do fish have a capacity to detect tissue damaging stimuli and if they do, can the fish perceive such stimuli as painful? We have shown that fish possess a nociceptive system – specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect noxious stimuli. We have also found that fish experiencing noxious stimuli are cognitively impaired, but this impairment can be reversed if the fish are provided with pain relief. We are currently using fish cognition as a tool to investigate whether fish suffer. Our work aims to determine what types of welfare measures might be appropriate for fish held in captivity for aquaculture or in research establishments.” Victoria Braithwaite, Professor of Fisheries and Biology, Penn State University

Animal welfare groups, such as Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, have also shed light on the fact that the welfare status of fish could very well be the worst of any sentient animal in our food chain in terms of sheer numbers and the appalling conditions they endure. A new Mercy For Animals undercover investigation released this week provides a startling glimpse into “Catfish Corner,” a fish slaughter facility in Mesquite, Texas. The video depicts fish being tortured – suffocated, skinned and dismembered, all while conscious and feeling pain.

In a post we published last week showing the statistics of animals killed for food in the US in 2009, 51 billion of the total 59 billion animals were estimated to be fish and marine animals (including shellfish). With numbers like these and with some species being fished to the brink of extinction, we would do well to seize the moment and understand the welfare issues of fish and other marine wildlife—before it’s too late.

In the future, the only seafood options available to consumers may very well be factory farm-rasied fish that are genetically-engineered for specific traits and spend the duration of their dismal, short lives in overcrowded tanks. The industry calls this technology acquacultulture.

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