On the hook for gentler fishing?

PENN STATE (US) — Fish have the same kinds of specialized nerve fibers that mammals and birds use to detect pain and other sensations, according to new research.

“By 2030, half of all fish that humans eat will come from fish farms,” says Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology at Penn State.

“It seemed logical to me to care about fish, because agriculture in general is confronting animal-welfare issues. If we are concerned about animal welfare, we should be concerned about fish welfare.

“We now know that fish actually are cognitively more competent than we thought before. Some species of fish have very sophisticated forms of cognition,” Braithwaite says in a new book, Do Fish Feel Pain?

“In our experiments we showed that if we hurt fish, they react, and then if we give them pain relief, they change their behavior, strongly indicating that they feel pain.”

Braithwaite says she eats fish and is not against sport fishing.

“I recognize how valuable the efforts of anglers have been historically for conservation, many fishermen are staunch stewards of the aquatic environment, guarding our waterways against pollution and degradation. We would not want to be without them or their efforts.

“Perhaps my book will influence people to be more humane when sport fishing,” she says, “persuading them to make quicker kills and use barbless hooks and not keep fish out of the water long if they are practicing catch and release”

The United States, Braithwaite estimates, is 10 years behind Europe in its thinking about the way it keeps and kills animals in agriculture and aquaculture is even further behind.

Those concerns are just now starting to be extended to aquaculture. Producers are only now beginning to search for more humane ways to kill fish.

“Electrical stunning may change the way we harvest fish at sea,” she says.

“We have a responsibility, I think, to make clean and quick kills of fish we eat. Certainly, most of us are not comfortable with piles of fish slowly suffocating on the decks of fishing trawlers at sea and in port.”

According to Braithwaite, the latest scientific evidence suggests that the protections currently given to birds and mammals should be widened to include fish.

“There is a perception that fish have simple brains and are incapable of feelings, and this has somehow made them different from birds and mammals when it comes to our concerns for their welfare,” she says.

“But we now have strong evidence that suggests fish are more intelligent than previously thought and their behavior more complex.”

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