Evidence that fish do indeed feel pain was published today, a finding that will reopen hostilities that have raged for decades between anglers and animal rights activists.
Earlier this year, an American study seemed to let anglers off the hook: Prof. James Rose of the University of Wyoming concluded in the journal Reviews in Fisheries Science that awareness of pain requires consciousness, which fish do not possess.
Now a study of rainbow trout suggests that they not only possess the equipment to feel pain, but react in a way consistent with suffering.
This is the the first conclusive evidence indicating pain perception in bony fish such as trout, salmon, cod and haddock, according to one of the authors, Dr Lynne Sneddon, who led the research at the Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, and is now working in Liverpool.
“The study shows that the trout not only possesses nerves that can detect pain but also shows the kind of behavioural changes that would be associated with discomfort and pain in ‘higher animals’,” said Dr Penny Hawkins, senior scientific officer of the RSPCA.
“All vertebrates should be given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to be capable of suffering.”
Not everyone is convinced. Rodney Coldron of the National Federation of Anglers said yesterday: “We believe the Prof Rose study went into more depth and supports our view that fish do not feel pain.”
Prof Rose told The Telegraph that the study “in no way justifies a conclusion that these fish have a capacity for the conscious experience of pain”, attacking it as “anthropomorphic speculation”.
The new findings are published by Dr Sneddon in Proceedings B, a journal published by the Royal Society. The work, also at the University of Edinburgh, was funded by the Biotechology and Biology Research Council.
Based on her findings, Dr Sneddon said yesterday that she had no problem with anyone who caught and quickly killed a fish for eating. But she drew the line at catching fish and throwing them back, which could cause suffering. “Some studies have shown high mortality after angling.”
Her study, undertaken with Dr Victoria Braithwaite and Dr Michael Gentle, found that rainbow trout have nociceptors — nerve receptors that respond preferentially to tissue damaging stimuli.
“We found 58 receptors located on the face and head of the rainbow trout,” said Dr Sneddon.