Research Shows Fish Are Emotional Beings and Clearly Feel Pain

Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, has published a review paper in the journal Animal Cognition titled “Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics“, with an aim to bridge the gap between public perception of fish cognition and scientific reality, to inform the ongoing fish ethics and welfare debate. His findings, available to download here, show that “fish are sentient and emotional beings and clearly feel pain in much the same way that humans do”.

In his report, Professor Brown states, “Emerging evidence suggests that, despite appearances, the fish brain is also more similar to our own than we previously thought. There is every reason to believe that they might also be conscious and thus capable of suffering.”


The report makes for interesting reading, as Professor Brown considers sensory perception, cognition and social learning of a number of fish species. With regards to fishing practices, Brown finds that fish can learn to avoid aversive stimuli rapidly and retain the information for extensive periods – pike that have been hooked displayed hook shyness tendencies for over a year. Fish also were found to cooperate with one another when undertaking dangerous deeds such as inspecting predators. If a pair of fish inspects a predator, they glide back and forth as they advance towards the predator each taking it in turn to lead. If a partner should defect or cheat in any way, perhaps by hanging back, the other fish will refuse to cooperate with that individual on future encounters. This shows that the fish not only recall the identity of the defector but they also assign a social tag to them and punish them on future encounters.

In summary, Brown suggests that, “Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.”

Oh, that we would.

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