Fish are commonly thought of as mindless, unfeeling animals and are routinely excluded from the circle of human compassion. Cognitive ethology research is debunking common myths about fish and proving that, like other farmed animals, fish are sentient individuals who experience a wide range of emotions, have complex social relations, and have an interest in their lives.
1. Fish have impressive learning capabilities and excellent long-term memories. Fish intelligence is frequently underestimated, but studies are disproving the commonly held assumption that fish are simple-minded creatures. The cognitive abilities of fish are remarkable and include observational learning, problem solving, and even the creative use of tools to access food sources. Studies have shown that fish can remember tests, topography and faces for many months.
2. Fish are highly social, form friendships, and communicate in complex ways. When fish are in the presence of someone they have a relationship with, their stress and fear levels are significantly reduced. They seek comfort from one another, form cliques and prefer spending time with individuals they are familiar with. Studies have also shown that fish develop social structures and exhibit reciprocal altruism. Not only do fish communicate with one another through both body language and sound, they are also capable of interspecies communication. Fish have even been known to develop friendships with humans.
3. Fish have unique personalities. Studies have shown marked differences in how fish respond to various stimuli and events. Like other animals, fish are individuals with differing behaviors, likes, and dislikes. Some are curious, some are shy, some are playful— they each have unique personality traits and exhibit tremendous behavioral diversity.
4. Fish feel. There is no doubt that fish have complex nervous systems and feel pain in much the same way as humans, but they also feel a wide range of emotions. Fish are capable of feeling immense suffering and are known to experience depression. They also experience joy and like to have fun!
5. Fish are exempt from Humane Slaughter Act. Fish receive no legal protection and face a horrific, painful death when slaughtered. Fisheries commonly catch fish in trawling nets and leave them to slowly suffocate to death, which can take more than ten minutes. Undercover investigations have also revealed fish being skinned alive. Like other animals raised for food, fish are now being intensely confined on filthy factory farms. The hundreds of billions of fish per year who are subjected to the cruelties of animal agriculture experience tremendous pain and suffering.
6. Eating fish harms other sea life. Commercial fishing results in tens of billions of pounds of bycatch each year. These accidental casualties include hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, dolphins, sea lions, sharks and whales. Choosing to eat fish fuels the demand for this practice to continue and puts many species at risk for extinction.
It is due time that public perception of fish sentience aligns itself with scientific consensus. Fish are deserving of our respect and protection and should be afforded the same compassion as other animals. Practice kindness by leaving these sensitive and clever creatures off your plate. There are amazing fish-free alternatives that are incredibly delicious—these are our favorite! If you are concerned about omega-3’s, consume flax and chia seeds or an algae omega-3 supplement.
Photo 1: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Photo 2: Jordi Chias
Photo 3: Jeff Rotman/Getty Images