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Do Sharks Feel Pain? Respect for Fish.

August 1 is Respect for Fish Day, an international day of recognition of our finny relatives who unlike mammals, never left the primordial ocean to walk the land or fly the skies. Scientists estimate that there are over 33,000 species of fish, although unknown species of fish have yet to be discovered and described, and many have already gone extinct.

What is a Fish?

Fish are predominantly aquatic living chordate animals with a cranium of cartilage or bone. They are gill bearing that in most cases have fins instead of limbs with digits. Most living fish are in the taxonomic class Actinopterygii, 95% of living fish species are in the Teleosti grouping that include tuna, goldfish and other fish familiar in aquariums and on our plates. Other fish are grouped into the hagfish, lampreys, and the cartilaginous fish dominantly represented in the shark and ray group the Elasmobranchii.

Do Fish Feel Pain?

An oft-repeated stance among fishermen, and even chefs, is that fish do not feel pain, justifying their actions dismembering fish live, gaffing them in the gills or allowing these water breathing animals to beat about the decks and piers to suffocate and bleed to death. Ethical arguments about killing an animal for sport or entertainment aside, there is a preponderance of scientific evidence that fish do feel pain.

Pain can be described at the physical perception that helps animals avoid or withdraw from stimuli like heat, piercing or penetration that can harm them and threaten their survival.

Although not like the nervous system of mammals, at the anatomical level, fish have neurons known as nociceptors. These receptors detect potential harm to the fish, such as high temperatures, intense pressure, and caustic chemicals. Fish also produce the same chemicals such as opioids that mammals do, that naturally reduce pain. Scientists have also measured brain activity during injury in fish is analogous to that in terrestrial vertebrates. In one study sticking a pin ijust behind their gills nto goldfish or rainbow trout stimulated nociceptors creating a cascade of electrical activity. This neuro-electrical response surges toward brain regions essential for conscious sensory perceptions such as the cerebellum, tectum, and telencephalon.

From an evolutionary perspective, many species of rays have venomous spines, and many sharks have sharp spines to deter predators long before humans ever entered the ocean to hunt. One would ask why, if their predators do not experience pain, would an animal adapt this protective mechanism? The most plausible answer is it hurts to bite one of these fish in the wrong place, and it keeps on hurting. Additionally, many animals that are poisonous, like the Lion fish, have brightly colored patterns and remarkable frilled rays that advertise to predators: “I am poison.” If there was no pain response, the need for this defensive adaptation would not exist or benefit this fish evolutionarily. Now that humans have entered the marine ecosystem as hunters, we have devised new methods of inflicting pain and causing suffering for fish. Fish also have been observed by scientists to learn, have memory and adapt their behavior to new circumstances, arguing for their sentience. Fish are not senseless beasts, and fish feel pain, including sharks.

Read more in this article by Dr. Carl Safina in Animal Sentience.

Sharks and Rays are an ancient lineage of fish, and more than any other group are at risk of extinction. It’s time we stopped treating sharks as commodities for trade, or resources to be extracted and recognizing them for what they are: wildlife that deserve our respect.

David McGuire, Director Shark Stewards

One of the most common examples of cruelty is the fishing of sharks. Sharks are caught by recreational and commercial fishing on lines or nets, barbed with a sharp steel gaff, dragged onto decks or piers, beat with billy clubs and left to bleed or suffocate. In many cases, such as gillnets, sharks are entangled and drown. The most egregious is shark finning, where sharks are caught and landed alive, their fins cut off and then the animal is discarded into the sea to drown, bleed to death or be consumed live.

Watch the videos with Shark Steward’s Director David McGuire in two conversations on Respect for Fish Day.

Panel 1 How Documentaries Inspire Ocean Conservation 10 Am PDT.

Panel 2 THE DARK HOBBY: Respect for Fish Essential Actions  2PM Hawai’i, 5PM PT, 8PM ET

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