Green Room

Frying Nemo

Do fish feel pain?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Here we go again. There is a new study out that contends fish feel pain. A professor at Purdue and his Norwegian graduate student attached small foil heaters to goldfish. Half of the goldfish were injected with morphine, half with saline, and then the researchers turned on the attached micro-toasters. After the heat was gone, the fish without painkillers “acted with defensive behaviors, indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety.” They had also developed a lovely brown crust. These results echo a 2003 study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh who shot bee venom into the lips of trout. The bee-stung fish rubbed their lips in the gravel of their tank and generally seemed pissed off.

Whenever one of these studies about fish pain appears, animal lovers start glaring at me and my fellow fishermen. If fish can experience pain, then angling must be a cruel sport, right up there with deer hunting, bear baiting, and eating hot dogs. Why can’t we just leave fish alone and do something else?

The online reaction to the goldfish pain study was both typical and funny—especially in the United Kingdom, where they seem to take animal news more personally. The assembled mob at the Daily Mail got very rowdy. In one corner, you have comments like this: “Every time I see an angler, I say a little prayer that he will get his fishing hook lodged in his body, and then perhaps he will give some thought to the barbaric ‘sport’ he is pursuing.” In the other corner, comments like this: “I’m a trout fisherman and I can tell you all with 100% accuracy that the trout I catch feel absolutely no pain after I’ve smacked them over the head with a cosh.” The pro-angling side rattled off some good jokes about whether or not carrots feel pain when they are peeled. They also directed a surprising amount of vitriol toward lentils and those who eat them.