In Touch With...Victoria Braithwaite

A decade’s worth of research by Braithwaite and her colleagues suggesting that fish feel pain has had a ripple effect among fish farmers, anglers, and animal ethics groups. Braithwaite, an Oxford-educated biologist and winner of the Fisheries Society of the British Isles Medal and the Bellis Award in Ecology, is professor of fisheries and biology at Penn State. We asked her to discuss her research and its implications for the fishing and fish farming industries and the consumer.

Victoria Braithwaite
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. During your research, was there something you found that really surprised you?

A. Yes, we were amazed that nobody had ever investigated whether fish feel pain or not. It seems a remarkably simple question, but nobody had ever addressed it before. In vertebrates there are specialized receptors in the skin, and their only role is to detect damage. Do those exist in fish? We looked to see if those receptors were present and they were. Our experiments strongly suggest that the fish feel pain. When we gave an injection that would be likely to cause pain, such as vinegar, the fish found it difficult to focus and concentrate on what was happening around them. When we gave the same injection along with morphine for pain relief, we reversed the effect. Essentially, our results have shown that fish are cognitively more competent than we thought before.

Q. Did you consider the potential backlash to your research while you were conducting it?

A. We really went into this thinking we were trying to inform things for aquaculture and we hadn’t thought through the implications for angling. And the anglers were really not happy with what we found. In actual fact, anglers really care about fish, they are passionate about fish, and I think knowing they can hurt perhaps puts a conflict in there in terms of whether they should fish or not. But I think it’s better to be informed and know how to minimize that pain and suffering rather than being ignorant and just not knowing. I still get emails telling me I’m absolutely wrong and that fish can’t feel pain.

Victoria Braithwaite
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. How do you respond to animal rights groups that have shown interest in your findings?

A. When it comes to animal welfare, the bottom line is “Does the animal suffer or not?” It’s the suffering that we want to avoid when we provide better environments for the animals. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are using our research to say “This is inhumane so you should not be doing it.” That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, “The fish do feel pain, therefore you might want to change how you catch and handle the fish, the kind of equipment that you use, to try to minimize the abrasions. Or if you’re going to release the fish after you’ve hooked it, use a hook without a barb so you can quickly get it out—those kinds of things, changes in practice, knowing that they feel pain.”

Q. Has the fish farming industry responded to your research?

A. Interestingly, they’ve been really proactive about trying to find out about this. As an industry, they’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way in their relatively short history, in terms of pollution of the local environment, problems with escaping fish breeding with local populations and so forth. Their image has not been as clean as it might have been. I think they’re using this idea of being proactive about improving fish welfare as a positive step, something they can try and build into the environments they create for the fish. The way they handle them, grade them, size sort them, and particularly when it comes to slaughter. There are very unpleasant ways of killing the farmed fish, and for a long time those were traditionally used, such as putting them into vats of water pumped full of carbon dioxide which creates a very acidic environment and the fish respond—not surprisingly, with their sensitive gills—very dramatically by thrashing around in the water. Now, there’s much more effort being put into faster and less painful approaches. They’re a little bit more labor intensive and expensive, but if it’s the humane thing to do, shouldn’t we be doing it? We would for terrestrial animals, and if fish also have the capacity for pain and suffering—which we believe our research suggests they do—then we ought to be thinking about humane ways of harvesting the fish we have culled through farming.

Victoria Braithwaite
Photo: Patrick Mansell

Q. Do you believe there is a way to rear fish commercially that balances the many factors involved—economic, environmental, fish welfare and conservation, and human health, among others?

A. Yes, we can get it right, but as consumers we have to want this to happen, which means that we’ll have to be prepared to pay a little more for this higher quality product. By the year 2030 it is estimated that globally almost 50 percent of the fish humans consume will be produced through aquaculture rather than wild catch fisheries. Currently aquaculture is growing faster than any other form of farming. This increase in demand is coming at a time where we are aware of the problems highlighted by ‘factory farming’ processes, so there is also an interest in trying to get it right with aquaculture. Fish is an excellent, healthy source of protein in the human diet, so we should find ways to make aquaculture work. We can introduce welfare standards and checks and balances to ensure that we rear a safe product to eat, and one that is not creating pollution problems. Careful design of the netting and cages that we use to confine the fish can help minimize the risks associated with escaping farmed fish that potentially threaten the conservation of local, wild populations. Something we will need to watch in the future is the problem of disease and the fact that these can spill over into wild populations.

Q. To the consumer who cares about the environmental, ethical and health issues behind the food they purchase, what would you advise regarding buying fish?

A. You should ask where the fish you buy has come from. You can do this whether you are in a restaurant or in the supermarket—if they can't tell you, then don’t get the fish, they should know where the produce they serve / sell has come from. A number of different conservation groups now produce wallet size guides that quickly identify which fish are OK to eat, and which should be avoided. I have one of these that I use—and yes, I do eat fish, it is a good source of oils and protein that helps make up a balanced diet. In the future we will see changes in the fish that are available for us to choose from and we will need to adjust the choices that we make about which fish to buy.

Last Updated May 17, 2012