Controversial research claims fish feel pain

The National Angling Alliance (NAA), of which S&TA is a member, have been working hard to present angling’s case in the latest fish and pain debate.

The National Angling Alliance (NAA), of which S&TA is a member, have been working hard to present angling’s case in the latest fish and pain debate.

A team of scientists from the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh are claiming that as a consequence of their recent research, they have demonstrated that fish can perceive pain. This follows work performed on live rainbow trout in which the fish were injected with poisons, after which their physiology and behaviour were monitored.

Their surprising conclusions – published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society – were based on the discovery around the fishes’ mouths of so-called nociceptors, special sensory cells that can detect noxious stimuli. In subsequent experiments, injections into the lips with bee venom and acetic acid caused the fish to cease feeding for three hours, and their respiratory rate was also elevated for this period.

That these findings demonstrate that fish can feel pain is in direct contrast to the recent work of Professor James D Rose of the University of Wyoming in the USA, who stated in the Reviews of Fisheries Science that fish do not possess the necessary and specific region of the brain – the neocortex – to enable them to feel pain or, indeed, fear.

Dr Bruno Broughton, a well-known fish biologist and scientific advisor to the National Angling Alliance (NAA), is unconvinced by claims that fish can feel pain. “I doubt that it will come as much of a shock to anglers to learn that fish have an elaborate system of sensory cells around their mouths. Nor is it a surprise that, when their lips are injected with poisons, fish respond and behave abnormally”.

Dr Broughton continued: “However, it is an entirely different matter to draw conclusions about the ability of fish to feel pain, a psychological experience for which they – literally – do not have the brains.”

The NAA believes that that the known evidence points towards the fact that fish are not capable of feeling pain as it is perceived within mammals. Quite apart from scientific arguments, common sense dictates that a fish with a hook set into its mouth would not fight against such pain, nor would it feed on diets which included spiny-finned fish, molluscs and the like.

Speaking on behalf of the NAA, Paul Knight – also the Director of the Salmon & Trout Association – commented: “We do not accept that fish feel pain, but the wider issue of fish welfare is a subject that good anglers take seriously. That is why the sport is governed by national legislation, fisheries byelaws, fishery rules and codes of conduct, all designed to assure the well-being of the fish we catch.”