AR-News: NY Newsday on fish pain
KarenDawn at DawnWatch.com
Mon Jul 14 14:01:09 EDT 2003
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Newsday (New York)
July 13, 2003 Sunday ALL EDITIONS
NATURAL WORLD, Pg. N20
Scientific Can of Worms;
Dueling reports disagree on whether fish are capable of feeling pain on the
By Jennifer Smith. STAFF WRITER
Say you're about to take a bite of what you think is lunch when a hook rips
through the inside of your mouth. That's gotta hurt, right?
Not necessarily - if your name is Charlie Tuna.
Many anglers and people who work with fish assume that fish don't feel pain.
How else, they ask, could fish comfortably crunch down on hard, spiky meals
such as lobsters or scup, with their sharp-pointed dorsal rays?
"I've never heard them voice a complaint," said Norman Soule, director of
Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery.
But the simple question of whether fish suffer has opened up a can of worms
among scientists and animal welfare activists. In the past two years, a pair
of much-discussed research papers on the topic - one alleging that fish
don't feel pain, the other that they do - have reignited a debate on both
sides of the Atlantic.
"Really, it's kind of a moral question," said Lynne Sneddon, a British
scientist and author of the latter study, that examined pain perception in
trout. "Is your angling more important than the pain to the fish?"
The outcome of the fishy feud could spell trouble for catch-and-release
fishing, currently regarded as a successful way to allow large numbers of
people to fish for sport without depleting resources in rivers and lakes.
About 85 percent of fish caught this way survive after being released, said
Jon Lucy, a marine biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
But what if fish really did suffer each time they were caught? Scientists
estimate that in the Yellowstone River, cutthroat trout on average get
hooked 9.7 times each year. That makes for a lot of potential pain and
suffering, a point not lost on animal rights groups such as People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has an entire Web site -
www.fishinghurts.com - devoted to the issue.
>From a scientific standpoint, the verdict is by no means in.
It may be a problem of semantics as much as one of science. Both sides agree
that fish definitely react to negative stimuli, such as tissue damage from a
fish hook, which is detected by sensory receptors called nociceptors -
present in fish and in humans - that sound the alert.
But neither side can agree on a definition of exactly what pain is, which
complicates things considerably.
In one corner are those who say pain is a psychological event, a sensory and
an emotional experience that requires conscious awareness that they say is
far beyond the capacity of fish brains. "We know enough about consciousness
to know that fish don't have the hardware to do it," said James Rose, a
neuroscientist at the University of Wyoming who published a 38-page review
on the topic last year.
Rose and his supporters take their cue from research on humans and pain.
Noxious stimuli, such as a bee sting, prompt our nociceptors to send a
message to the brain, where it is processed by the neocortex, a part of the
brain which is well-developed in higher primates, present in mammals but
completely absent in fish. The neocortex produces an awareness of pain -
without that, Rose argues, there can be no conscious suffering.
In other words, reactions to negative stimuli that do not engage the
neocortex - anything from a fish flopping on a dock to a brain-damaged
person crying out when pressure is applied to his skull - don't count as
To some, this argument could be construed as hair-splitting. Instead of
using brain structure as a criteria for pain, Sneddon and other scientists
argue that if a fish appears to be suffering - given enough of an adverse
effect on its behavior and physiology - then it probably is.
"You can't prove emotional experience because they don't speak to you and
tell you how they're feeling," said Sneddon, who said she undertook the
study out of concern for animal welfare. "All we can do is make indirect
measurements and then make a judgment on that evidence."
Sneddon and her colleagues at the Roslin Institute in Scotland located 22
nociceptor sites on the heads of trout and injected them with various
unpleasant substances, including vinegar and bee venom. They then
interpreted various altered behaviors among the fish, including refusal to
eat and fish rubbing the affected spot against the tank, to mean that the
fish were most likely experiencing pain.
Rose, who is himself an angler, contests both Sneddon's definition of pain
and her interpretation of the experiment's results. More important, he said,
the whole argument is a red herring that distracts attention from more
serious issues affecting the health and welfare of fish.
"The pain and suffering thing is not where we should invest our time," Rose
said. "What does matter to them is injury, pollution in the water, water
He raises a real concern in the debate: that a finding in favor of fish pain
could inadvertently undermine general conservation efforts that benefit
fish. Switching from a policy of catch-and-release to catching only those
fish you intend to kill could vastly curtail fishing activity. And license
fees from fishing and hunting provide a large chunk of the money that states
use to support environmental programs.
But while the debate rages in the halls of science, for now, people continue
to find solace and sport in fishing. Gil Bergen, the superintendent of
Connetquot River State Park Preserve and a longtime fisherman who oversees
the park's 140-year-old fish hatchery, chuckled when asked his opinion on
"It's something that the scientists will have to answer," Bergen said.
"In the field," he added, "it doesn't cause a great deal of concern."
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