Turns Out, Fish Feel Pain

Animal rights and environmental reasons not to eat fish

Sardines at a fish market. David Silverman / Getty Images

The reasons for not eating fish range from animal rights concerns to the effects of overfishing on the environment.

Do Fish Feel Pain?

It's easy to dismiss the lowly fish. They are so low on the food chain they’re easily forgotten in animal rights conversations. Thoughts about the feelings of fish are not nearly as sexy as some of the bigger campaigns such as greyhound racing, dolphin slaughter and horse soring.

In a 2016 focus essay written by Brian Key, Head of the Brain Growth and Regeneration Lab at the University of Queensland and published in a peer review journal entitled Animal Sentience, Key makes the point that fish do not feel pain since they lack certain brain and neurological functions necessary to act as pain receptors. After mapping the brains of fish, Key concluded “that fish lack the necessary neurocytoarchitecture, microcircuitry, and structural connectivity for the neural processing required for feeling pain.”

But some of his peers strongly disagree, and more scientists and biologists are conducting their own studies which, frankly, directly contradict Key’s assertions. For example, Yew-Kwang Ng Division of Economics Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, argues that Key’s opinions are not salient and do not “support a definite negative conclusion that fish do not feel pain… many researchers believe that the telencephalon and pallium in fish may be performing functions equivalent to some functions of our cerebral cortex.” In other words, fish most definitely have the ability to feel pain.

Ng has written over a hundred essays on what he calls “welfare biology,” or the study of reducing suffering in wildlife. He appears to be passionate about his work, and wouldn’t be pushing the idea of welfare biology if he didn’t believe that animals were truly suffering. The movement can use more scientists who are engaged; and the world can use more compassionate scientists who offer statistics, proof and raw data about animals. These studies strengthen not only the argument for animal rights, but also our resolve to keep raising the bar until all animals are safe from exploitation, pain and death. Even fish.

It turns out they can count too. According to a 2008 article in The Guardian, fishies got some math skills!

The subject of fishing has long been the red-haired step child in the animal rights movement. With so many other atrocities being addressed by the movement at large, it’s sometimes easy to forget that fish are indeed animals and should be included in discussions about animal rights. As Ingrid Newkirk, co-found of PeTA once said, “Fishing is not a harmless activity, it’s hunting in the water.” In a December, 2015 article for the Huntington Post, Marc Beckoff, Professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado tells us that not has science proved fish feel pain, but it’s time we all “get over it and do something to help these sentient beings.”


Some may question whether a fish is capable of feeling pain. I would ask those questioners if they have their own motives for denying a fish’s capacity for pain. Are they trophy hunters? Parents looking to bond with their kids? People who like to fight with big gamefish because they “put up a great fight”? Are they consumers of the fish they catch and eat? I once chastised a kid for terrorizing a family of ducks living peacefully on a pond in a park. The kid was heartlessly chasing the ducks, while the mom looked on dispassionately. I asked the mom, “Don’t you think it’s wrong to teach your kid that it’s ok to torment animals?” She gave me a blank look and said “Oh it’s harmless, he’s giving them some exercise!” Seeing the look on my face, she asked “You fish don’t you? What’s the difference?”

I don’t fish, of course, but her assumption that I did spoke volumes. The general public thinks of fishing as just a pastime, or sport. Many self-titled “animal lovers” not only eat fish, but catch them as well. They’re quite annoyed when I point out that, though they believe themselves to be compassionate, their empathy may extend past their own dogs or cats to the factory farm, but stops at water’s edge.

Watching a terrified fish struggle at the end of a fish hook is enough evidence for most people who believe all animals are sentient, but it’s always good to have the science to back it up. Numerous recent studies have shown that they do feel pain. [Note: This is not an endorsement of animal experimentation, but the ethical objections to vivisection do not mean that the experiments are scientifically invalid.] For example, a study by the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh revealed that fish reacted to exposure to noxious substances in ways that are comparable to “higher mammals.” The reactions of the fish to these substances, “do not appear to be reflex responses.” A study conducted at Purdue University showed that fish not only feel pain but will remember the experience and react with fear afterwards.

In the Purdue study, one group of fish was injected with morphine while the other was injected with a saline solution. Both groups were then subjected to uncomfortably warm water. The group injected with morphine, a painkiller, acted normally after the water temperature returned to normal, while the other group “acted with defensive behaviors, indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety.”

The Purdue study demonstrates that not only do fish experience pain, but their nervous system is similar enough to ours that the same painkiller works in both fish and humans.

Other studies show that crabs and shrimp also feel pain.


Another objection to eating fish is partially environmental and partially selfish: overfishing. While the array of fish available in the supermarket may lull some into believing that overfishing is not a serious problem, commercial fisheries around the world have been collapsing. In a 2006 study published by an international team of 14 scientists, data indicates that the world’s supply of seafood will run out by 2048. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that “over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.” Also,

In the last decade, in the north Atlantic region, commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock and flounder have fallen by as much as 95%, prompting calls for urgent measures.

The drastic reduction in certain species could have dire consequences for entire ecosystems. In the Chesapeake Bay, the mass removal of oysters appears to have caused significant changes in the Bay:

As the oysters declined, the water became cloudier, and sea grass beds, which are dependent on light, died off and were replaced by phytoplankton that does not support the same range of species.

However, fish farming is not the answer, either from an animal rights standpoint or an environmental one. Fish raised on a farm are no less deserving of rights than those living wild in the ocean. Also, fish farming causes many of the same environmental problems as factory farms on land.

Whether the concern is about the decimation of a food supply for future generations, or about the domino effects on the entire marine ecosystem, overfishing is another reason not to eat fish.

This article was updated and re-written in large part by Michelle A. Rivera