Victoria Braithwaite’s Do Fish Feel Pain? is not a technical book. The type is large and the prose is easy to understand.
I had to read this book, because many of the issues around fish pain are the same as those raised for invertebrate pain (Puri and Faulkes 2010; this post). Fish researchers are about five years ahead of the invertebrate researchers.
Braithwaite’s answer to the question posed in her title is...
Spoiler alert! Click here to read more.
Her arguments will probably not convince everyone, however.
For Braithwaite, a defining aspect of pain is that pain is a conscious experience. She repeatedly distinguishes pain from nociception on the grounds that nociception is unconscious and reflexive. Her views on these definitions seem idiosyncratic. My impression is that for many researchers, nociception is a description of a behavioural response, with nothing said about consciousness one way or the other.
By recasting that the question of whether fish feel pain into the question of whether fish are conscious, Braithwaite’s arguments become harder to assail, but lose some of their force. Consciousness is a very tricky subject. We don’t have a good scientific theory of human consciousness, let alone animal consciousness.
Given her definition, a large chunk of her book is aimed at proving fish have consciousness; that they are, as she puts it, “sentient beings.” For the last bit of evidence she needs to say fish are conscious, sentient beings, Braithwaite draws almost exclusively on one example of cooperative hunting that can occur between individuals in two species, groupers and moray eels. (Irritatingly, this key reference is nowhere to be found in the bibliography! It’s Bshary et al. 2006.)
Now, I realize that a single exciting, detailed story is more compelling than a compilation of statistics. Braithwaite may have chosen to use just a few case studies because this is a popular book. But a lot hinges on those specific examples. And she never says, “This is just one example, but there are loads more I could describe.”
She follows up her chapter on fish consciousness up with a chapter arguing that there is not yet evidence for consciousness in invertebrates. She focuses on the evidence for cephalopods and crustaceans, and I can’t help but wonder if her choices of examples are influenced by those two groups being lumped together with fishes as “seafood.” The strongest evidence of invertebrate nociception there is right now (Tracy et al. 2003) is nowhere to be seen. Similarly, I wonder if Braithwaite considered Portia spiders for evidence of complex cognition in an invertebrate (Wilcox and Jackson 1998). They are very clever wee beasties.
It is a little worrying that the spectacular diversity of fishes and invertebrates doesn’t seem to factor into the argument. If one fish can do it, they must all be able to do it, it seems. The notion that perhaps some fish species might experience pain more than others is never entertained. Again, there’s no way to tell if she just left this out because she wanted to have the broadest appeal or for some other reason.
The book ends with an exploration of applying animal welfare standards more strongly to fishes, and you get the sense that this is what matters most to Braithwaite. She talks about fish harvesting, aquaculture, angling, and more. Considering how degraded so many wild fisheries have become, I do hope that this book gets people to take stock of the way they harvest and use fish.
Another review is here (paywall).
Bshary, R., Hohner, A., Ait-el-Djoudi, K., & Fricke, H. (2006). Interspecific communicative and coordinated hunting between groupers and giant moray eels in the Red Sea PLoS Biology 4(12): e431. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040431
Brathwaite V. 2010. Do fish feel pain? Oxford University Press: Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-955120-0
Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2010. Do decapods crustaceans have nociceptors for extreme pH? PLoS ONE 5(4): e10244. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010244
Tracey Jr., W., Wilson, R., Laurent, G., & Benzer, S. 2003. painless, a Drosophila gene essential for nociception Cell 113(2): 261-273. DOI: 10.1016/S0092-8674(03)00272-1
Wilcox RS & Jackson RR. 1998. Cognitive abilities of araneophagic jumping spiders. In: Animal cognition in nature: 411-434. Balda RP, Pepperberg IM, Kamil AC (eds). San Diego: Academic Press.
Photo by anikaviro on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.