Fish is uncomfortable. What now?
Earthbound pets receive gentle treatment as well as legitimate protection, but until now, fish disease has been largely overlooked.
When Culum Brown was a young child, he and his grandma used to visit a park near their home in Melbourne, Australia. He was interested in the park’s large ornamental fish pond, which twitched with goldfish, mosquitofish, and loaches. Brown would certainly walk along the edge of the fishpond and peer into the transparent shallows to stare at the fish. One day he and his grandmother arrived at the park and also discovered that the fish pond had been drained – something the park authorities seem to do every few years. Piles of fish fluttered onto the exposed bed and suffocated in the sun.
Brownish sped from one bin to the next, exploring them and collecting all the discarded containers he could find – mostly plastic soda bottles. He loaded the bottles at drinking fountains and imprisoned a number of fish in each one. He pushed various other stuck fish into areas of the pond where there was some water. “I was going insane, running around like a maniac trying to save these pets,” recalls Brown, who is now an aquatic biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. Inevitably, he took care of the rescue of numerous fish, of which he took about 60. Some of them lived in its native aquariums for more than a decade.
I also kept fish when I was young. My actual favorite dogs were 2 fish, bright as freshly minted pennies, in an unadorned glass bowl the size of a melon. They died within a few weeks. I later upgraded to a 40 liter storage tank lined with rainbow gravel and a few plastic plants. Inside I kept various small fish: neon tetras with bands of fluorescent blue and red, guppies with bold, billowing tails like solar flares, and glass catfish so translucent they appeared to be nothing more than silver-topped spines floating with the water. Most of these fish lived much longer than the goldfish, but some of them had a habit of leaping in delighted arcs straight through the gaps in the aquarium cover and onto the living room floor as well. My family members and I spotted her behind the TV, covered in dirt and lint.
Should we care how Pisces feels? In his 1789 treatise An Intro to the Principles of Morals and Regulations, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham – who founded the concept of utilitarianism (essentially the best good for the best variety of people) – formulated a proposal that would support the argument has been central to animal welfare ever since. When considering our ethical responsibilities to various other pets, Bentham says, one of the most important questions isn’t, “Can they reason? Conventional wisdom has long held that fish cannot – that they do not feel pain. An exchange in a 1977 issue of Area & Stream shows the regular disagreement. In response to a 13-year-old girl’s letter about catching fish, writer and fisherman Ed Zern initially accuses her of having mom and dad or teachers write the letter because it’s so well made up. He then clarifies that “Pisces don’t really feel uncomfortable like you do when you skin your knee or stub your toe or have a toothache because their nerves are much lighter. I’m not sure if they really feel pain, since we do feel pain, but most likely they’re feeling some kind of ‘fish ailment.’ Is part of the wonderful food cycle and moreover, “If ever something or anyone forbids us to fish, we will suffer terribly.”
This argument is still widespread today. In 2014, BBC Newsnight invited Penn State University biologist Victoria Braithwaite to discuss fish pain and welfare with Bertie Armstrong, Chair of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Armstrong dismissed the notion that fish should have laws of well-being as “sulky” and also adamantly insisted that “the balance of scientific evidence is that fish don’t feel pain like we do”.