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Do fish have feelings?

November 21, 2016

Recent publicity surrounding the death of a sturgeon on display in a Tsawwassen shopping mall draws attention to the decades-old debate over whether fish can think and feel.

Even though they are widely used, fish are not very well understood – or appreciated. “We have difficulty relating to them,” says Meghann Cant, animal welfare educator for the BC SPCA. “We seem to have so little in common with them that it’s easy for us to accept the idea they’re just simplistic, instinct-driven animals.”

But, thanks to researchers studying fish around the world, we are discovering more about their mental and emotional capacities all the time. “We’ve now reached the point where leading scientists are acknowledging fish sentience,” says Cant. “Is it time for us as a society to step back and examine how we treat fish?”

Here are just a few examples that speak to the complex abilities found in fish:

Social skills. Bluestreak cleaner wrasses provide a special cleaning service to other fish. The wrasses swim into the gills and mouths of their “clients” to remove and feed on their parasites. In some cases, their clients are fish who would otherwise eat them. The wrasses can remember more than 100 individual clients of all different species. They can also recall how well their last interaction with each one went.

Furthermore, studies have shown that being stroked by cleanerfish is not only a pleasurable feeling for clients, it also helps them to relieve stress – much like a therapeutic massage.

Communication. Elephantnose fish communicate using electricity. Through unique electrical signals, they can tell each other apart. These signals say how old they are, how big they are, whether they are male or female, and even how far away they are. Males use them to serenade females, and pairs sing duets together. In a group, elephantnoses can even change frequency to avoid jamming each other’s signals.

Cooperation. Giant moray eels and Red Sea coral groupers often hunt together. First, they make gestures to ask the other to join them on a hunt. Then, once out hunting, they adopt complementary roles: the eels can squeeze into crevices too small for the groupers, while the groupers are faster swimmers in open water. Working together, the pair has a better chance of catching something to eat.

Memory. At low tide, frillfin gobies stay close to shore in tide pools to feed. When a predator such as a heron comes along, they escape by leaping into an adjacent pool. They are remarkably accurate; missing a jump would mean being stranded on the rocks. Frillfins are able to leap from pool to pool by memorizing the tide pool layout while swimming over it at high tide. All it takes is one try to create this mental map – and they can still remember it 40 days later.

Helping. Daffodil cichlids live in extended family groups. The group is made up of a large male and a large female – the dominant pair who do all the breeding. The rest are smaller helper fish. Many of the helpers are the offspring of the pair. They stay behind to defend the group’s territory and care for their younger brothers and sisters.

Play. The spontaneous nature of play makes it a difficult behaviour to observe in the wild. However, in captivity, white-spotted cichlids have been seen playing with objects such as floating thermometers, swirling around them and batting at them – much like kids playing with a punching bag clown weighted at the bottom to bounce back.

Learning. With incredible aim, archer fish can shoot powerful jets of water out of their mouths to knock down insects flying above them. They learn this impressive skill by watching and copying other archer fish.

Given the varied roles they play in our society – as pets, food and research subjects – fish are by far the most used vertebrate on earth. “The scientific evidence is now weighted in favour of fish as thinking, feeling creatures,” says Cant. “Perhaps it’s time we put the debate to rest and turn our attention instead to how we can improve their lives.”

The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.