This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
Do a quick search for "New York Times" and "fish" and, aside from a roasted bass and fennel recipe, you'll find some pretty foul news. Recent reports suggest that fish are, among other things, mislabeled, on the verge of extinction, saturated with toxins, banned from being caught in certain regions, genetically modified, trapped with dragnets, infected with lice, flowing with mercury, and labeled as "sustainably" caught when, alas, they're not.
But what you won't find is perhaps the most important recent discovery scientists have ever reported about fish: they're smart.
Ethically, fish swim in grey territory. Most decent people agree that that the land-based creatures we domesticate for food not only feel pain but live with some level consciousness. Based on this quality, many people have decided to think seriously about how to handle them, or even whether or not we should handle them at all, much less eat them.
Whatever ethical pricks we experience rarely extend to fish. Partly because they literally lurk beneath the surface of our observation, fish have yet to enter this privileged category of analysis. Could it be that the distinction drawn between, say, fish and pigs is as morally capricious as the one drawn between dogs and pigs? Could fish matter more than we've ever considered?
Considerable evidence indicates they do.
a. The oceanographer Sylvia Earle writes, "I wouldn't deliberately eat a grouper any more than I'd eat a cocker spaniel." Fish, she explains, "are sensitive, they have personalities; they hurt when they're wounded."
b. The German neuroscientist Stefan Shuster agrees, saying that, "people don't expect much from fish but that's where they're wrong." "Fish," he claims, "are capable of much more than people think."
c. The fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite told a reporter, "We're concerned about the welfare of chickens, pigs, and cows on farms. Why not fish?" Her recent book, "Do Fish Feels Pain?" answers that question with clear implications for those who think eating fish, ethically speaking, is a done deal.
Research on fish sentience is new. But in a short period of time - say 20 years - a welter of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that fish teach each other tricks, are savvy social learners, make situational (rather than just instinctive) decisions, and can adopt the perspective of other fish - something serious enough to be deemed a "theory of mind" by those who evaluate such things. These animals swim the seas with a certain level of intellectual sea cred.
It's important to note that scientists who study animal cognition - not to mention the journalists who write about it - are professionally wary about attributing consciousness to the animals they study. It's can be a dangerous move, an unflattering mark of sentimental anthropomorphism and, regrettably, it can have dire consequences for one's reputation.
It is, therefore, all the more significant that a team of animal scientists, writing in Applied Animal Behavior Science, surveyed the evidence and declared, "This review of the anatomy, physiology, and behavior of fish suggests that they are more likely to be sentient than not."
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