Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience ‘positive emotions’, landmark study suggests


Fish are sentient animals who form friendships, experience “positive emotions” and have individual personalities.

That, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), is the implication of a landmark new study which found zebrafish are social animals in a similar way to humans and other mammals.

And people who refuse to eat meat on moral grounds but do eat fish – as well as people who keep fish as pets – should bear that in mind, Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the RSPCA’s research animals department, told The Independent.

The researchers discovered that being in a group gives zebrafish a kind of “social buffering” so they are less afraid when confronted by danger.

And this effect was associated with a distinct pattern of brain activation known to be involved in social buffering in mammals, they added.

Because of this similar mechanism, the scientists hope zebrafish can now be used as a model to study social effects on human health with suggestions that isolation can have a significant impact on conditions such as depression.

But Dr Hawkins said the study also added to the growing body of evidence that fish should not be viewed as lesser animals.

“I think if you are going to think it’s okay to eat any animal, then you have to realise what you are doing,” she said.

“You are causing the death of an animal who is sentient, who has experiences, interests.”

She said the RSPCA did not advocate vegetarianism but operated a “welfare friendly” labelling scheme for meat and fish.

“If you do choose to eat meat and fish do just be aware of what you are buying into and make sure you go for higher welfare labels and not just the cheapest,” she said.

Asked if she thought fish could form friendships, Dr Hawkins said: “It depends how you define friendship. It’s not going to be analogous to human friendship.

“But if you think of friendship in terms of being with another individual who you are familiar with and whose company you seek and who makes you feel positive emotions, then these are fish friendships.

“It would be a good thing if these kinds of results were used, not only to improve the lives of laboratory fish, but also for people who keep fish in fish tanks to think about what they are doing when they mix unfamiliar fish together or when they split groups of fish up.

“They are not just ornaments or play things for people, they are individuals, they are sentient.

“There’s quite a lot of research going on into fish personalities. Some fish are bold, some are shy, there’s a whole lot more going on in the fish tank than people than people thought previously.”

However she also criticised the study, saying the anaesthetic used on the fish before they were killed had been “shown to be very irritating for them”.

“They will work quite hard to get out of it. There are other anaesthetics that don’t have this effect,” Dr Hawkins said.

She said it was a “a bit of a tragic conflict” that the evidence “to make people sit up and think” about fish had come from a study that involved animal suffering.

“The price these individuals paid in order to find this out was pretty high,” Dr Hawkins said.

The zebrafish were kept in a laboratory tank and exposed to their own ‘alarm substance’, a secretion from their skin that signals danger, the researchers said in the journal Scientific Reports.

If they were alone, they displayed signs of greater fear, but when they were with other zebrafish they responded more calmly. They were then killed to allow their brains to be examined.

Professor Rui Oliveira, of the ISPA university in Lisbon, who led the study, said what made it significant was the discovery that zebrafish shared a similar social buffering process in the brain with humans and mammals.

Asked about whether it should change people perceptions of fish, he said: “What this study shows is certainly they change the way they perceive their environment when others are present, which suggests they might be cognitively more complex than we originally thought.

“Maybe because of that people will become more aware of their needs and welfare issues. I think if it helps, it’s great.

“There are all the myths about fish have a memory of five seconds, like in [the film Finding] Nemo, that’s obviously not the case.”

On Dr Hawkins’ complaint about the way the zebrafish were killed, he said the anaesthetic used was part of the official protocol and he was unaware of a better alternative.

His colleague, Dr Ana Faustino, stressed the zebrafish’s social support process “does not have the complexity of the social support verified in humans”.

But she added: “Research in zebrafish will allow us to explore in depth the neural mechanisms involved in this social behaviour, which is paramount to the well-being and mental health of the human species, particularly due to its relevance to certain psychological diseases such as depression.”

Article taken from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fish-sentient-animals-friends-positive-emotions-study-study-source-ethics-eating-pescaterians-vegans-a7660756.html


Scotland’s seals still being killed

Since 2011, the Marine (Scotland) Act has made it illegal to kill, injure or take a seal. However, fish farmers are still able to obtain a license from Marine Scotland and have been continuing to secretly (and legally) shoot seals all along the coasts.


In 2014, at least 205 seals were shot in Scotland. The number of seals shot in the rest of the UK is unknown.

There are no regulations on killing seals during breeding seasons and many of the seals being shot are likely mothers. Without their mothers to feed them, the orphaned pups will starve to death.

Seals have been targeted by those farming and hunting fish under the false belief that seals are the primary threat to fish stocks. In 2010 the European Commission found that this claim was inaccurate, with Scotland’s porpoises, minke whales and dolphins consuming a similar amount of fish.

Seal numbers are monitored by the Special Committee on Seals (SCOS), who have been appointed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to monitor seal numbers under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970.

According to the European Commission, seal population have been in a slow decline, with the number of harbour seals in Scotland having fallen by up to 70% since 2000. Seals are also killed as bycatch, with an estimated 391 killed in 2013.

The real problem is not the seals, but the fact that Scottish fisheries remain depleted and overexploited. Seals are simply doing what comes naturally to them and the fact that Scottish fishermen have overexploited Scottish fish is no reason to start killing one of their natural predators.

Save Scotland’s Seals from being Killed is a stakeholder group made up of numerous organisations and individuals against the on-going legal culling of seals. According to them, the easier (and more humane) solution would be to install double skinned anti-predator nets and position fish farms away from known seal haul-outs.

According to the 2014 SCOS report, these modified nets, which include a narrower entrance, are currently being tested.

In the meantime, seals are still being killed legally in the UK, thanks in large part to the salmon industry, which has annual exports of over £285 million and produces 155,000 tons of fish a year.

To keep up to date on this issue, check Seal Scotland’s website or like them on Facebook.

Article taken from: http://theanimalspost.com/2015/04/10/scotlands-seals-still-being-killed/


Sting of the Day: Man admits animal cruelty after downing four fish

A 33-year-old man who drank four fish in a cocktail of alcohol has walked free from court after admitting animal cruelty.

Paul Wooding, from Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, appeared at Hereford magistrates court for sentencing over two offences linked to the online drinking craze Neknominate. Wooding was given an 18-month conditional discharge for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and for failing to protect the fish, after being prosecuted by the RSPCA. He admitted both charges in court earlier this month.


In a video recorded at a pub in February, Wooding announces “this is my Neknominate” before downing a pint of wine, gin, vodka, rum and lemonade mixed together – along with the fish. The footage came to the RSPCA’s attention after it was seen on Wooding’s Facebook page. Rafe Turner, prosecuting, said it was a vet’s opinion that “the fish have been caused pain, based on the video evidence”.

The Neknominate phenomenon is understood to have emerged in Australia, and Wooding’s case is believed to be the fifth to come to court in the UK in connection with the craze. After being questioned about the video, Wooding later posted on Facebook: “Some people’s lives must be that sad and boring, to get any excitement they have to report me to the RSPCA for my Neknominate.”

Wooding told investigators he had been nominated to drink by friends and “something was going around to get some fish, to make it different”. Turner said he told the RSPCA the fish were “little minnows” and he had got them out of his friend’s fishtank an hour before carrying out the act.

Wooding said he had drunk about eight pints and six double gins before downing the cocktail at the Golf Inn in Ross-on-Wye. Chris Morgan, in mitigation, questioned why the prosecution had ever made it to court when “other similar matters” had entailed cautions being issued.

He added: “Yes, those fish may have experienced pain and then died, but they are small fish, nothing more.” He said the offences should be looked at objectively, and that comparing the deaths of the fish to, for example, four horses would be “contrary to common sense”.

Morgan said his client was “stupid, irresponsible and ashamed” but had already suffered having been exposed to “public ridicule” and the press spotlight. He said Wooding had had no idea that drinking the fish was against the law. “If it can ever be said of a crime, that a defendant has learned the error of his ways, it can be said here,” said Morgan.

Wooding was also ordered to pay £500 costs and a £15 victim surcharge.

Article taken from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/19/fish-cocktail-animal-cruelty-neknominate

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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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