|Dr Jonathan Balcombe. Image by Amie Chou.|
Dr Jonathan Balcombe is an ethologist, academic, editor of the journal Animal Sentience and author of a number of books including What a Fish Knows. I came across his work when studying fish welfare, an area of research that has become huge over the past decade. Those who cohabit with fish, and spend a decent amount of time observing them, appear to need no convincing that fish are thinking, feeling creatures. This seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Dr Balcombe took some time out to chat to us about “the most exploited group of vertebrates on Earth.”
For those who don't know, what does an ethologist do?
An ethologist specializes in the study of animal behavior, which is called ethology.
How did you come to devote the last four years exploring the science on the inner lives of fishes?
Two main factors drove my decision to focus on fishes. First, I wanted to enlighten people to the remarkably rich lives fishes have. Scientific studies of fish behavior have advanced a great deal in recent years, showing that fishes are consciously aware, they have thoughts and emotions, personalities and preferences, social lives and sex lives. But only occasionally does any of this information emerge from scholarly journals and reach the public eye. I wrote What a Fish Knows to make what we know of the lives of fishes widely available to humanity.
Second, fishes are collectively the most exploited group of vertebrates on Earth, and their habitats are beleaguered by human activities. We kill between 150 billion and two trillion fishes each year. Most die in horribly inhumane ways such as suffocation, crushing, or bleeding. I hope that by coming to understand fishes better, many people will change their relationship to fishes from one of complicity in their exploitation to one of respect and protection.
One of the common misconceptions about fish is that they have a three second memory (at least goldfish). How do we know fish are sentient creatures that have memories and can learn?
Careful studies on fishes of various types have shown that they feel pain and distress, and that they will actively seek to relieve it. The myth of the 3-second fish memory has been repeatedly debunked. Fishes recognize other individuals over the course of their lives, and some live a century or more. They learn to navigate through familiar habitats, including migration routes that may span continents. They watch others and adjust their behavior according to their awareness of their own social standing relative to another. They also learn by observation, including evidence that they can take the perspective of another—an advanced cognitive skill known only from a few animals.
There are others who argue that despite a huge increase in studies claiming to prove or support fish sentience that fish cannot feel pain. For example, some authors argue that fish have fewer nociceptors than humans who are born with a congenital inability to experience pain. What is your view on this?
In light of existing evidence, I consider arguments against fish sentience to be not just scientifically dubious, but selfish and mean-spirited. As full members of the vertebrate clan, fishes are anatomically and physiologically equipped to feel pain, and they respond to presumptively painful stimuli as we may expect from a pain-feeling organism: they may stop eating, hide, flee, avoid hooks, seek out pain relief, or become distracted enough to behave maladaptively. In a study of zebrafishes, individuals who had been subjected to an injection of acid began to swim in a barren chamber of their tank that they normally avoided—but only when that chamber contained a painkiller solution. Other zebrafishes injected with a less painful saline solution ignored the painkiller, choosing instead to remain in an enriched/preferred area of the tank with vegetation and objects.
You've said that you no longer consume fish. What are the implications of this scientific knowledge about fish feelings?
We can choose not to eat fishes because most of us (exceptions might be coastal communities whose lives depend directly on catching fish sustainably) can lead perfectly healthy and happy lives without contributing to the misery and suffering inflicted by catching and killing them. With the sorry state of affairs concerning fishes and their habitats—cruel capture methods; wasteful bycatch; dramatic population declines; chemical, plastic and noise pollution; ocean acidification; and coral bleaching—I hope more people will make the decision to cease or at least reduce their consumption of fishes.
Thank you Dr Balcombe. What a Fish Knows is available through MacMillan.