Al Campbell, Field Editor

May 12th, 2003

Do fish feel pain?
By Al Campbell

Is this fish feeling pain? According to Dr. Lynne Sneddon who led some recent research on the subject for the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, it is. She goes on to say that trout have polymodal nociceptors - receptors that respond to tissue-damaging stimuli - on their heads. In other words, she believes trout have the proper nerve receptors, and a sufficient nervous system to feel and register pain.

This isn't a new argument. PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) has been pushing this largely unaccepted theory for years, and now they seem to have an ally in Great Britain. While I suspect Dr. Sneddon's motives, I suspect her methods even more. From my side of the street, it appears that the goal was drawn up before the research began; and that the research was designed to achieve that goal. Appearances can be deceiving, and we may never know the real motive of Dr. Sneddon's group, but there seems to be a goal here.

Dr. Sneddon's group conducted their research by injecting the lips of trout with bee venom and acetic acid (the acidic stuff in vinegar). They then watched the reactions of those trout to determine if any reactions they had could be considered painful reactions. When the fish showed strong reactions, they determined the fish could feel pain. However, not everyone agrees with their conclusions.

Dr. James D. Rose, Ph. D., Dept of Zoology and Physiology, University of Wyoming, wrote a rather detailed response to Dr. Sneddon's article for a writer from Nature magazine. In his letter, Dr. Rose explained that Dr. Sneddon's research doesn't actually deal with pain but rather a nociceptive response.

For those who don't understand nociception, you're not alone. I read more than 150 scientific papers about the subject while trying to understand the nociception, and I think I have only slightly dented the surface of the meaning. From what I could gather, nociceptive responses are the initial reaction to the nerve impulses that result from injury. Those responses occur in both conscious and unconscious animals, including humans. Considering the fact that unconscious people don't actually "feel" pain, and that is why anesthesia is used during complex medical procedures, Dr. Rose's comments might be right, but I wanted to know more.

Of the 150 plus papers I read on the Internet, every paper dealt with nociceptive pain in mammals except one, and that was Dr. Sneddon's paper. Several dozen papers described how nociceptive impulses travel to and are registered as pain in the neocortex of the brain (a part of the brain fish don't have). They also explained how reactions and other responses to that type of stimulus are controlled by various parts of the brain, but focused on the neocortex as the area where pain is registered. OK, so far it's at least 150 to one against Dr. Sneddons research.

Dr Bruno Broughton, Ph.D., one of England's leading fisheries biologists, agrees with Dr. Rose. Concerning Dr. Sneddon's research he says, "In particular, although they found special sensory cells around the mouth of the fish and drew parallels with the presence of sensory cells in higher mammals, they did not examine the capability of the fish's brain to process the information. Fish just don't have the brains to recognize pain. The so-called emotional center of the brain is missing in fish."

From a layman's standpoint, I find it interesting that they used bee venom on the fish. Considering the sometimes-deadly reaction to bee venom in humans that weight more than 150 pounds, I would suspect that any long-term reaction in a fish that weighs less than three pounds to be more than a pain response. Dr. Rose indicated the same thoughts in his response. In his words: "In light of the probable intensity and sustained nature of this noxious stimulus, it is quite likely that a physiological and/or endocrine stress response was elicited in the trout to a much greater degree than procedures to which control fish were exposed. A physiological response of this type is known to alter the ongoing behavior and physiological function of trout and is perfectly understandable, but it is not evidence of a pain experience."

Understandably, the animal rights groups are pointing to Dr. Sneddon's research as a reason to immediately ban all types of fishing. One commentator on MSNBC news made some emotional comments in the same direction. The focus of these groups appears initially to inflame a response in anyone who will buy their claims and Dr. Sneddon's research.

I also find it interesting that the animal rights communities were some of the first people notified of Dr. Sneddon's research results. I don't know if she has ties to those groups or not; and it probably doesn't matter. From what I've been able to find in my research on this subject, Dr. Sneddon appears to be one woman crying out in a forest of people who don't agree with her findings.

Let's explore for a moment the idea that PETA might be able to win this game and find a way to ban all fishing. Would the fish gain from that move? As a species, would trout gain from a total ban on all trout fishing? I don't think so. In fact, I would bet that the real losers would be the fish that PETA says they are trying to protect.

If all fishing were banned, a multi-billion dollar industry would come to a screeching halt. Considering there is a tax on fishing related items, and that the tax is largely used to promote things that benefit fish and fisheries, fish would be big-time losers. Also, considering the many hours of donated time and many donated dollars fishermen freely put back into the fisheries in the form of stream and other fisheries projects, the fish would lose again. Add to that the money spent by fishermen and the fishing industry to fight fish diseases and other things that adversely impact fish and fisheries, the fish lose again.

Who would fight for stream and fisheries improvements if fishing were banned? Who would be the watchdog against aquatic pollution and other factors that threaten our fisheries if that happened? Would PETA step up and care for our fisheries? I don't think so. Why would a group who has earned a reputation as the nation's largest euthanizer of cats and dogs spend a dime to help fish? Heck, a few years ago they spent less that .03% of their 15 million donated dollar budget on animal shelters, and roughly 30 times that amount on the legal defense and family income of a terrorist who, in the name of animal rights, destroyed medical research labs working on a cure for cancer. Does that sound like a group that would step up to fill the gap in funding for fisheries? I don't think so.

If PETA were to find the support to end all fishing, then the fish would feel the pain. Not the individual pain PETA and Dr. Sneddon are talking about; but the pain of lost habitat, impossible living conditions, deadly diseases, inhospitable waterways, and neglect. Who would fight to restore struggling species to their historically healthy populations and waterways? Who would repair spawning grounds and feeding places after floods and other natural or unnatural things happen to them?

If not for fishermen, this kind of work would never get done. Fishermen generously spend their time and money to benefit fish and fisheries everywhere on this planet. If you remove fishermen from the equation, the fish lose. And, I guarantee you animal rights groups, and one Dr. Sneddon in Great Britain won't step up to fill the gap.

Do fish feel pain? According to the vast majority of the scientific community, no, fish do not individually feel pain. However, if special interest groups are allowed to have their way, fish as a species, will feel more pain than they have in centuries. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice