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Home / Articles / Columnists / Healthy Living /  The Inner Lives of Fish
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Friday, January 4,2019

The Inner Lives of Fish

By Karen Ellis-Ritter  

Many people have said to me in conversation, “I don’t eat meat - just some fish”. I, myself, used to be a pescatarian, making a mental distinction between sea animals and land animals, as if somehow, sea animals were exempt of sentience, feelings and sensory perception. But as recent scientific studies demonstrate, this assumption is erroneous.


“It would be an unjustified error to assume that fish do not perceive pain in these situations merely because their responses do not match those traditionally seen in mammals subjected to chronic pain.” - Michael Stoskopf, Professor of Aquatics, Wildlife, and Zoologic Medicine and of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at North Carolina University.

Going beyond pain perception and the capacity to suffer, expert animal behaviorist/ethologist Jonathan Balcombe dedicated an entire book to the topic of fish intelligence, sentience and sensory perception, called “What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins”.

From the book’s summary: “Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives – a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.”

This book became a New York Times Bestseller.

"They´re just not any less intelligent or sophisticated than terrestrial animals. That idea is a total myth.” - Culum Brown, Associate Professor at Macquarie University and Assistant Editor of the Journal of Fish Biology. For years, Brown has studied the behavioral ecology of fishes with a special interest in learning and memory, based on his years of research into fish behavior and learning.

Contrary to society’s commonly held beliefs, scientific findings have shown that fish can possess exceptional long-term memory, facial recognition skills and a keen ability to problem solve. Like us, they are social creatures that prefer the company of those they know. They also go out of their way to avoid pain.

“Traditionally, fish have been viewed by some as simplistic animals – unintelligent and with a limited behavioral repertoire and severely compromised memory – leading to the discounting of their ability to feel pain. In reality, however, fish are neither behaviorally deficient nor cognitively impaired…. Indeed, even a cursory scientific literature search reveals an abundance of data devoted to behavioral and cognitive study of fish.” - HSUS Report: Fish and Pain Perception by Stephanie Yue, Ph.D.

As animal rights activism has gained momentum in recent years, a heightened focus has been placed on fish… and yet, sea animal inclusion is still not a given for most of society. Several organizations have popped up to bridge that gap, including Fish Feel, Fish Count, and Toronto Fish Save. Inadvertently supporting sea animal rights, ethological and biological science has finally caught up with what some of us knew already, deep in our hearts: Fish do feel.


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It's true, science has confirmed what many people have intuitively known: fishes are sentient beings. They suffer fear and pain and they can experience pleasure. They deserve our respect and compassion not cruel exploitation. Yet they are killed in the greatest numbers of all vertebrate animals, and in some of the most inhumane ways. 

All of the nutrients derived from fish, and from animals in general, can be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally responsibly from plant sources. There are marvelous vegan versions of virtually every type of seafood, and other foods, imaginable: