Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fish Have Feelings, Too: The Inner Lives Of Our 'Underwater Cousins'

Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

When you think about fish, it's probably at dinnertime. Author Jonathan Balcombe, on the other hand, spends a lot of time pondering the emotional lives of fish. Balcombe, who serves as the director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that humans are closer to understanding fish than ever before.

"Thanks to the breakthroughs in ethology, sociobiology, neurobiology and ecology, we can now better understand what the world looks like to fish," Balcombe says.

Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy.
Amie Chou / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy.

In his new book, What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins, Balcombe presents evidence that fish have a conscious awareness — or "sentience" — that allows them to experience pain, recognize individual humans and have memory. He argues that humans should consider the moral implications of how we catch and farm fish.

"We humans kill between 150 billion and over 2 trillion fishes a year. ... And the way they die — certainly in commercial fishing — is really pretty grim, " Balcombe says. "There's a lot of change that would be needed to reflect an improvement in our relationship with fishes."

Interview Highlights

On how we can know if fish feel pain

The most elegant study of fish pain that I've ever seen ... was done a few years ago by a biologist named Lynne Sneddon ... in the U.K. She used zebra fishes, which are very commonly used in research. And what they did was they put a group of zebra fishes — I don't remember how many, perhaps 30 — in a complex tank that had two chambers. One chamber was enriched, it had rocks and vegetation, and the other chamber was barren. It was open. You can probably guess which chamber these fishes spent all their time in — it was the enriched one. Fishes like places to hide, they like stimulation in their environments.

And then they injected the fishes either with one of two things. One was with an acid solution, which is known to be caustic and presumably painful to these fishes, if they can feel pain. And then the other ... half of the fishes were randomly selected; [they] were injected with saline, which causes just the pierce of the needle and then the pain is not going to be lasting, because it's not acidic. And then they watched to see how they behaved, and they all remained swimming in the enriched tank. And then they dissolved a painkiller solution in the barren, undesirable chamber of this complex tank. And lo and behold, some of the fishes then started to migrate across and swim and hang out in that normally undesirable tank, and it was only the ones injected with the acid, and not the ones injected with the saline. I find that a pretty convincing demonstration of pain in fishes.

What animal sentience means

Sentience is like pregnancy. You're either pregnant or you're not; you're either sentient or you're not. And if an animal is sentient, which means some kind of conscious awareness, but particularly the capacity to feel pain and, I would say, by extension, to feel pleasure, then, to me, that means that animal has moral traction, or it should have moral traction — that the animal is deserving of consideration of others. Because that animal can have a good day and a bad day and can have good or bad things happen to them. And that, as I say, is the bedrock of ethics.

On some reef fish appearing to recognize individual divers

There was a new study ... showing individual recognition of human faces by fishes. So they probably do recognize individual divers. They come up to be stroked. It is almost like a dog. I don't know if they roll over to have their belly petted, though some sharks will be sent into what looks like a euphoric state when they have their bellies rubbed.

On how fish use a "lateral line" to sense water pressure and navigate at night

[Fish] have a couple of other pretty neat senses that are worth mentioning. One is a sense of water pressure or movement in the water that's very acute, thanks to a lateral line.

We're talking about bony fishes now, not the sharks and rays. ... The bony fishes have a lateral line. You may notice a dark row of scales along the center line of a bony fish, and that's actually the shadow cast by these specialized scales. Because there's a depression in each one, and in that depression are specialized little cuplike chambers with gel in them and little hairs that stick out and they detect pressure changes. So it's very useful for navigating at night, for avoiding dangerous things in limited vision conditions and that sort of thing.

On the electrical senses that some fish have

Some fishes, including sharks and I think rays as well, are electroreceptive. They can detect electrical signals from other organisms.

There's also electroproducing fishes. The knifefishes of South America and the elephant-nose fishes ... [are] both electric-producing, so they have EODs, which are electric organ discharges, and they use those as communication signals, and they communicate in some pretty cool ways. They will change their own frequency if they're swimming by another fish with a similar frequency, so they don't jam and confuse each other. They also show deference by shutting off their EODs when they're passing by a territory holder. You don't want to piss off the territory holder, so it's probably better to go "silent" during that time.

The perceptions and sensory abilities of fish, they're the product of over 400 million years of evolution, so it might not surprise us that they've got some pretty cool ways of sensing their environments.

On fish using flatulence as a means of communication

[Herrings] live in big schools and they omit gases from the anus in large numbers and it makes a sound. And they appear to use this as a communication device ...

There is one really curious example involving herrings that I can't resist mentioning. I think if you were to come up with a phrase that best captures it, at least a delicate phrase, "flatulent communication" would be perhaps the right phrase. They live in big schools and they omit gases from the anus in large numbers, and it makes a sound. And they appear to use this as a communication device to maybe signal to others that it's time we moved up or down in the water column, because it's that time of day when the predators are coming out and this sort of thing. The researchers who studied it use the more technical term "Frequent Repetitive Ticks," and I'll leave it to the listener to make an acronym out of that, which is quite appropriate to the behavior.

On the aquarium trade and the popularity of the blue tang, the fish featured in the movie Finding Dory

Some of the methods to catch [blue tang] are pretty awful. Cyanide poisoning, which often kills many of the fishes being targeted, or ones not being targeted, and explosive devices are sometimes used. And then you have the vicissitudes of transport, where they're shipped over continents and the mortality rates are quite high. ...

Dory [in the new Pixar film Finding Dory] is a blue tang. And they are probably going to be very popular in the aquarium trade because of the fact that this film will draw a lot of attention to that species. Well, unfortunately, blue tangs are caught in the wild, and they are subject to some of the ills of the industry. So we are campaigning actively to try to discourage ... people from buying these fishes, because ... when you purchase a product, you tell the manufacturer to do it again, and we don't really want that happening.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.