Fish Feel Pain: Let's Get Over it and Do Something About It
A Fish Article from


Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today – Animal Emotions
January 2015

fish feel
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A recent set of essays in the new journal Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling is a must read...

"I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals — and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." (Victoria Braithwaite, Do Fish Feel Pain?, page 153)

There are many fascinating and vexing issues in the study of nonhuman animal (animal) cognition and emotions, and among those receiving increasing attention is the question, "Do fish feel pain?" A new journal called Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling has aptly launched its first issue centering on the question of whether or not fish feel pain , and my purpose here simply is to call attention to this incredibly rich online debate and highlight some of the discussion among experts in the field because taken together, they raise numerous issues about the study of animal emotions, namely, what does compelling evidence consist of when studying animals who supposedly can't tell you what they're feeling, when do we know enough to use what we know on behalf of the animals, and how should we continue studying a particular question.

The focus essay called Why fish do not feel pain is written by Brian Key, Head of the Brain Growth and Regeneration Lab at the University of Queensland. Dr. Key concludes, "that fish lack the necessary neurocytoarchitecture, microcircuitry, and structural connectivity for the neural processing required for feeling pain." The complete thread of responses reads as follows:

  • Key, Brian (2016) Why fish do not feel pain Animal Sentience 2016.003
  • Balcombe, Jonathan (2016) Cognitive evidence of fish sentience Animal Sentience2016.008
  • Braithwaite, Victoria A. and Droege, Paula (2016) Why human pain can’t tell us whether fish feel pain Animal Sentience 2016.009
  • Broom, Donald M. (2016) Fish brains and behaviour indicate capacity for feeling pain Animal Sentience 2016.010
  • Brown, Culum (2016) Comparative evolutionary approach to pain perception in fishes Animal Sentience 2016.011
  • Chella, Antonio (2016) Robot fish do not need sentience Animal Sentience 2016.012
  • Dinets, Vladimir (2016) No cortex, no cry Animal Sentience 2016.013
  • Haikonen, Pentti O. (2016) On the sentience of fish Animal Sentience 2016.014
  • Hart, Paul J.B. (2016) Fighting forms of expression Animal Sentience 2016.015
  • Jones, Robert C. (2016) Fish sentience and the precautionary principle Animal Sentience2016.016
  • Manzotti, Riccardo (2016) No evidence that pain is painful neural process Animal Sentience2016.017
  • Mather, Jennifer A. (2016) An invertebrate perspective on pain Animal Sentience 2016.018
  • Ng, Yew-Kwang (2016) Could fish feel pain? A wider perspective Animal Sentience2016.019
  • Seth, Anil K. (2016) Why fish pain cannot and should not be ruled out Animal Sentience2016.020
  • Striedter, Georg (2016) Lack of neocortex does not imply fish cannot feel pain Animal Sentience 2016.021
  • Key, Brian (2016) Going beyond just-so stories Animal Sentience 2016.022
  • Baluška, František (2016) Should fish feel pain? A plant perspective Animal Sentience2016.023
  • Burghardt, Gordon (2016) Mediating claims through critical anthropomorphism Animal Sentience 2016.024
  • Derbyshire, Stuart W.G. (2016) Fish lack the brains and the psychology for pain Animal Sentience 2016.025
  • Elwood, Robert W. (2016) A single strand of argument with unfounded conclusion Animal Sentience 2016.026
  • Gagliano, Monica (2016) What would the Babel fish say? Animal Sentience 2016.027
  • Godfrey-Smith, Peter (2016) Pain in parallel Animal Sentience 2016.028
  • Gonçalves-de-Freitas, Eliane (2016) Pain and fish welfare Animal Sentience 2016.029
  • Merker, Bjorn (2016) Drawing the line on pain Animal Sentience 2016.030
  • Panksepp, Jaak (2016) Brain processes for “good” and “bad” feelings: How far back in evolution? Animal Sentience 2016.031
  • Rose, James D. (2016) Pain in fish: Weighing the evidence Animal Sentience 2016.032
  • Segner, Helmut (2016) Why babies do not feel pain, or: How structure-derived functional interpretations can go wrong Animal Sentience 2016.033
  • Shriver, Adam J. (2016) Cortex necessary for pain — but not in sense that matters Animal Sentience 2016.034
  • Sneddon, Lynne U. and Leach, Matthew C. (2016) Anthropomorphic denial of fish pain Animal Sentience 2016.035
  • Stevens, E. Don (2016) Why is fish “feeling” pain controversial? Animal Sentience 2016.036
  • Van Rysewyk, Simon (2016) Nonverbal indicators of pain Animal Sentience 2016.037
  • Wadiwel, Dinesh Joseph (2016) Fish and pain: The politics of doubt Animal Sentience2016.038
  • Key, Brian (2016) Falsifying the null hypothesis that “fish do not feel pain" Animal Sentience 2016.039
  • Brown, Culum (2016) Fish pain: An inconvenient truth Animal Sentience 2016.058
  • Damasio, Antonio and Damasio, Hanna (2016) Pain and other feelings in humans and animals Animal Sentience 2016.059
  • Devor, Marshall (2016) Where is pain in the brain? Animal Sentience 2016.060
  • Diggles, B. K. (2016) Fish pain: Would it change current best practice in the real world?Animal Sentience 2016.061
  • Edelman, David B. (2016) Leaving the door open for fish pain: Evolutionary convergence and the utility of ‘just-so stories’ Animal Sentience 2016.062
  • Walters, Edgar T. (2016) Pain-capable neural substrates may be widely available in the animal kingdom Animal Sentience 2016.063

Because each essay is available, I'll just make a few comments to whet your appetite for the incredibly valuable information they contain. You can see from the titles that the essays written are wide-ranging and detailed, as one would expect from the people who were asked to write them.

Fish feel pain so let's get over it and do something about It

"Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate." (Culum Brown, Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics​)

In his response to Dr. Key's essay called Fish pain: An inconvenient truth , Culum Brown, a fish expert at Macquarie University in Australia, notes that only three of more than 30 people who responded to Dr. Keys' essay agree with him. Dr. Brown correctly writes, "The primary message from these commentaries is that Key’s argument is fundamentally flawed from an evolutionary perspective. He argues (although later denies it) that human brain architecture is required to feel pain." Along these lines, in their essay called Pain and other feelings in animals , world renowned neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio write, "In conclusion, we do not see any evidence in favor of the idea that the engendering of feelings in humans would be confined to the cerebral cortex. On the contrary, based on anatomical and physiological evidence, subcortical structures and even the peripheral and enteric nervous systems appear to make important contributions to the experience of feelings." Others argue about the strong evidence that fish feel pain from ethological, neuroscientific, and philosophical perspectives.

The discussion about fish pain in a free online discussion is priceless. Given the costs of academic books nowadays, I could well imagine that such a rich and deep discussion would price itself out of many people's pocketbook.

Fish are not mere streams of readily available unfeeling protein

An objective reading of the essays by people who essentially comprise a who's who of people who study fish and other animals is that there is compelling evidence that fish do in fact feel pain and we need to ask why fish pain has evolved, not if it has evolved. What we pass off as "good welfare" simply is not "good enough." It's rather clear that fish are not mere streams of readily available unfeeling protein and there's far too much abuse -- far too much pain, suffering, and death -- beneath the surface (please also see "Aquatic animals, cognitive ethology, and ethics: questions about sentience and other troubling issues that lurk in turbid water").

Furthermore, it's clear that nonhuman animals can indeed "tell" us how they feel, even if they can't speak whatever human language a person speaks. While there are problems associated with what researchers call "other minds," this does not mean that other animals can't tell us how they're feeling. We just need to open our senses to the ones they use and not expect that they will be "just like us." Indeed, it's because they are not "just like us" that so many people choose to study other animals and their minds.

The field of cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds and what's in them) is an example of such broad and comparative interests that are rapidly growing. And, it seems like almost daily "surprises" are forthcoming about the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. Of course, while there are some surprises, many are not all that surprising if we keep an open mind about what other animals need to do and feel to be "card-carrying" members of their species. As I wrote in an essay called A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending, following up on the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, evidence of animal sentience is everywhere. There is no reason to embellish other animals, because science is showing just how fascinating and feeling they truly are.

"About 970 to 2,700 billion fishes are caught from the wild annually"

I titled my brief essay here as I did because we need to use the precautionary principle, as some of the authors point out, and accept that we know enough right now to use the information on behalf of fish. From a purely objective scientific perspective, these data are very important and fascinating no matter how surprising they may be to some. Furthermore, we need to do something about this now because billions of fish are killed globally for food as if they don't care about what happens to them. As Robert Jones of the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Chico, notes in his essay called Fish sentience and the precautionary principle , not only does Dr. Key's argument contain a logical flaw, but also, "First, according to a study by the U.K. fish welfare organization, about 970 to 2,700 billion fishes are caught from the wild annually. If fish are sentient (and there is good evidence that they are), then the number of sentient beings in the form of fish that are slaughtered for food annually equals at least twelve times that of the current human population (Mood & Brooke 2010). If the idea of such a moral atrocity weren't enough, current world fishing trends point to a global eradication of all taxa currently fished, causing a total collapse of the fishing industry by the year 2048 (Worm et al. 2006). Surely, by any moral calculus, applying the precautionary principle regarding fish welfare is reasonable and prudential, if not obligatory."

Dr. Jones also writes, "What we need is the ability to aggregate and synthesize our best physiological and behavioral data on the question of nonhuman animal pain, and from that, make a reasonable inference regarding the experiences and phenomenal aspects of our fellow creatures, like fish. Surely, as of the writing of this commentary, the corpus of such evidence weighs in favor of fish sentience. Yet, Key's oversights lead him too hastily, with ungrounded certainty and without sufficient warrant, to conclude that fish do not feel pain."

Please stay tuned for more on this topic and numerous others in this forward-looking and most-welcomed journal. If this first issue is any indication of the value of a publication devoted to animal sentience, it surely will become a leader in offering most-needed discussions about the cognitive and emotional lives of the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet, beings with whom we must peacefully coexist for their benefit and ours.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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