Book Review: Do Fish Feel Pain – Victoria Braithwaite
Reviewed by Paul Goulbourn
I must admit, it was with some degree of trepidation that I first opened this book, believing that its content may have a significant impact on my hobby of angling, or my culinary love of fish and seafood.
Bearing in mind the book is written by “a dispassionate marine biologist”, I immediately found it disappointing that the publishers should choose to have the cover showing a number of lures with large hooks, as this gives a wrong first impression about the content. Whilst it is obvious to anyone picking up the book that recreational angling will get more than a few mentions; bearing in mind the effects of commercial fishing having a significantly greater effect on world fish stocks, I would have considered something on that aspect to be more aligned to the content.
At just under two hundred pages, split over seven chapters, the book is at times very dry reading, however, it is a review of scientific research, therefore the reader shouldn’t really be expecting anything else! The first chapter is simply a synopsis of the rest of the book, explaining to the reader the path of the author from a clarification of what is meant by “pain”, through review of the research, to animal welfare, and finally exploring some of the avenues regarding the decision-making in the future, of mankind interaction with the other inhabitants of planet Earth. Subsequent chapters take the reader deeper into the scientific world of animal research, raising some very valid discussion points, one of the most significant to me, covered in the fifth chapter, as to where we should be drawing the line in respect of animal welfare. Recent research appears to indicate that perhaps humans should be giving the same level of respect/care as is proposed to fish, to also such as prawns, squid, octopus etc.
The book is on the whole, clear and concise, giving some very interesting insights into the world of animal experimentation, but that in itself does lead to a question of my own…what right do we have to conduct such investigation into the other inhabitants of the environment in which we live, just to pursue our own agenda? The chapter documenting the interaction between grouper and eel was very interesting reading and I look forwards to a video documentary from David Attenbrough!
Throughout the book the author does very well to try and remain purely subjective around the topic, as in the first chapter “My goal is to provide you with sufficient information that will allow you to make up your own mind”. However, being that the whole topic is about whether or not fish feel pain, a word that describes an emotion, not simply a reaction to an event, there are times when I wondered on which side of the fence the author was sitting.
Whilst commercial fishing has a far larger impact on world fish stocks, the book in its latter stages does tend to focus more on recreational angling, perhaps explaining the cover picture, leading to the thought in my mind that maybe the author is not as dispassionate as she would like to be seen.
The book is very much written on Western World thought processes, and as such it would be very interesting to read a review from the likes of a fisherman from a village in the Far East, or a butcher from a town in the Indian sub-continent.
The final chapter, Looking to the Future, is worth reading even if you don’t read anything else in the book. Asking the question, “What would be the consequences of banning angling?”, the author concludes “It may not improve fish welfare.” The answer being clarified by detailing many of the positive effects of anglers, of which there were a good number! This chapter also looks at an area I had not considered in the past as being influential in fish behaviour, the keeping of fish in tanks, discussing fish movements and territorial behaviour.
The changes around commercial fishing are only briefly covered throughout the book and I will certainly be looking at some of the references around this area to gain a better understanding of the relevant research.
One point, noteworthy in its absence, was around the fact that fish knowingly eat food with sharp spines or hard shells. I regularly fish the river Kennet, and am convinced that overall fish sizes are increasing due to a number of factors, the most significant being the amount of Red Signal crayfish available as a food source. Anyone who has encountered one of these will agree that they are very aggressive in defence, and are equipped with a very hard shell, along with a pair of extremely powerful pincers…not the easiest course on the menu! With this major behaviour not covered in the book, I feel the author, and her associates, have missed one of the key aspects in the entire project scope.
Now that I have finished the book – will I be giving up angling or ceasing to eat seafood? Simple answer, no. Just as I continue to eat meat and eggs, drink milk, and wear leather shoes, I will still enjoy a fillet of sea bass or a smoked salmon sandwich. However, I feel that I have a much better appreciation of the impact of human race on the other living creatures in this world, be they fish, animal, insect or crustacean. The book shows clearly the advances in recent years with respect to scientific research capability, but, as early as on page 8…. “Can we ever really know what another animal actually experiences?”
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