By Bob Halstead
A few years ago I surveyed several fisher persons with the question “Do fish feel pain?” The response was a unanimous “NO WAY”! I then decided to pose the same question to my ichthyologist friends and the responses varied from “probably not” to “maybe” and “just a little” and even “you’re so smart, Halstead, why don’t you ask them” – which latter remark I thought was perhaps an attempt to mock me.
So it was interesting, a while back, to read the headline “Scottish Scientists Prove Fish Feel Pain”. It could have just been press hype but, whatever; it provoked immediate suspicion since real scientists do not go around claiming that they have proved things. They might say, for example, “We have discovered evidence that supports the hypothesis that ….” but rarely would they claim an absolute truth, after all, the whole history of science consists of excellent theories found to be less excellent as scientists proudly discover more stuff. Take Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming for example.
The “scientists” that do go around saying that they have proved things are generally those that work for advertising agencies or creationist religions and who wear white lab coats. They claim proof that brand X soap washes brightest, and that Darwin was a Dickhead. Perhaps the only thing they do actually prove is that people who believe them are on the double-digit side of the IQ bell curve.
Then the “Scottish” bit peaked my interest. Perhaps they only budgeted for a few experiments? Perhaps they wore kilts instead of white lab coats? This was a bit of a puzzle until a later news item made everything clear. These people, or their mates, were trying to get a ban placed on fishing for Scottish salmon. Fish feel pain, they argued, therefore fishing is cruel, thus fishing for Scottish salmon should be made illegal. This is pure logic to them.
Don’t know about you, but I really enjoy a good feed of fish. I love the taste and I am told that the flesh contains all sorts of nutrients that are extraordinarily good for my health. I can remember at primary school even liking the cod liver oil capsules administered every day. Most thought they tasted awful.
But, in order to eat, first catch your fish. Hauling aboard a frantic struggling fish with a hook stuck in its bleeding mouth to slowly suffocate, or have its brains bashed, is not my idea of fun anymore, but I will do it to catch my supper. I am however very fussy where I catch my fish from, and aim for pelagic and deepwater fish to avoid executing any of my friends on the reef. Those of you who have dived regularly at a site know that it is easy to become emotionally attached to different individual fish with their different personalities. Anyone working with animals bred for slaughter suffers the same dilemma. You grow to love the animals you intend to kill. My advice; never give them names, or if you do, call them “Lamb Curry” or “Roast Beef” or “Chook L’Orange” or “Fish ‘n’ Chips”.
Over-fishing is a huge problem these days – but the reason over-fishing takes place is because so many people like to eat fish. If there were not so many people we would not have this problem. So the real answer is to reduce the number of people. As Billy Connolly suggests, an ideal solution would be to bring back cannibalism. You could eat someone I do not like – I could eat someone you do not like, and we could also solve the prison, homeless, unemployment and hooning problems. It is another South Pacific tradition cruelly repressed by the missionaries that needs revival. One good feast and the world’s population could be more than halved!
What people do not realise is that most fish are actually eaten alive. I know you like yours fried in beer batter, but most fish are eaten in the sea – by other fish. No worries about cannibalism underwater. The old, the weak and the slow-witted go first, often ingested in one great wriggling gulp. Others, even in their prime, are mauled, chomped and shredded before or during consumption. That is nature at work.
Given this, I, wearing my white lab coat, can now prove that, IF fish do feel pain, and IF God created them, then He (more likely She) is mean beyond belief. All that suffering! So perhaps they do not feel pain or perhaps God …. but let’s not get into that.
As Dr. Jack Randall, one of my ichthyological friends, pointed out – would you fight as hard as a fish does if you had a hook stuck through your jaw? (Ouch!). That’s a pretty good argument that perhaps fish do not feel pain as much as we do. Mind you, healthy people often think a little pain will not hurt them. We can suffer pain, but not remember it very well, and this is a good job too as otherwise women would be unlikely to have more than one child, and dentists would be a rare species. Mind you I guess many people only go to the dentist when already suffering an agonising toothache.
I certainly doubt whether fish suffer the mental pain that humans can and do. The loss of a loved one, an unrequited love affair, a home destroyed by fire, financial ruin, the mother-in-law paying an unexpected visit – I could write a huge list of circumstances that cause human misery and mental suffering. This suffering is connected to our imagination and particularly our ability to imagine what our future is likely to be in these new disastrous circumstances. This is, I believe, entirely a human trait and many of us would be quite happy to swap mental agony for some physical pain. We can predict that physical pain usually passes, but mental pain seems never likely to end (though it usually does too, eventually).
Does it matter whether fish feel pain or not? The fisher people want there to be no pain (I hope) so they can justify carrying on not-inflicting it, and the anti-fisher persons want there to be pain (poor suffering fishes), to support their argument to have fishing banned.
I think it is all a pain in the bass.