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I Am A Fish

7 min read from miscellaneous on 2020-05-06

Fish can become depressed.

I was diagnosed with depression in 2018.

Therefore, I am a fish.

I think this is sound logic, enough for you to forgive the fact that the title was actually clickbait because today on this comedy gaming blog, we’re going to talk about fish feelings.

Fish are very complicated animals, much more then most people normally think.

Fish have an ancient lineage – they have existed for over 500 million years and all other vertebrates can be traced to a fish ancestor that lived around 360 million years ago – but ancient does not equate to primitive. They have continued to evolve, and most fish species alive today emerged around the same time as humans. Evolution tends to be highly conservative, preserving important traits through time, so it is not surprising that fish and humans have many features in common, including in our brains and behaviour, due to our shared ancestry.[1]

Fish have very good memories, live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another; a process that leads to the development of stable cultural traditions. They recognise themselves and others. They cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation. They build complex structures, are capable of tool use and use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as we do. For the most part, their primary senses are just as good, and in many cases better, than our own.[2]

That’s all well and good, but why am I talking about it?

Understanding the cognitive capacities of animals is important for animal welfare, for intelligent animals are more likely to suffer from mistreatment because they can remember and anticipate stressful and painful events. And unfortunately, there isn’t very much being done for fish welfare.

To learn more about this I asked Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University and the author/co-author of the papers I’ve cited, a few questions regarding fish intelligence and how we treat them.

What methods do you use to study fish? I’d assume, for example, that it would be a bit more complicated than going to a lake and just looking with your eyes at how guppies inspect predators.

”Studying fish cognition and behaviour is done in pretty much the same way that we study these things in all animals. Most of the techniques are adapted from primate and rodent research. Of course we have to account for the fact that fish live in water and don’t have hands to manipulate things. Nonetheless, their cognitive skills are much the same. So for example we can teach them to learn mazes or differentiate between different cue cards.”

One of the ways I judge an animal’s (and other people’s) intelligence is by how well they communicate with each other. This may be too broad a question as I’m unsure of how it differs between different types of fish but, how do fish communicate their intentions with each other to allow for cooperation?

”Intelligence is not just about communication. Most of it is about solving problems and most of that is about learning from past experiences and applying knowledge to novel situations. Some of intelligence relies on communication to be sure. Fish don’t talk like we do, but the vast majority of species do make meaningful sounds. They also communicate using smell (like many mammals) as well as visual displays. There is loads of evidence of complex communication in fishes including gestural displays (even between different species). Cooperation is wide-spread and is based on individual recognition.”

Fish being left out of animal welfare laws seem like a huge ethical concern. I’ve never been very active in the space but do you know if there are many animal rights groups working to get this rectified? And what could the average person do to help out?

”Yes in many states in Australia and elsewhere in the world fish are exempt from animal welfare legislation. It largely comes down to the definition of “animal” as written in the legislation itself. In Western Australia, for example, fish (and humans) are specifically excluded from the definition of animal. In the Northern Territory, wild fish are exempt, but captive fish are included. In NSW fish are included in the definition of animal no matter where they are from. The European Union has been pushing this issue very strongly. Myself and some of my colleagues are always trying to make this an issue that the public should pay attention too. While many of the animal advocacy groups admit to dropping the ball on fish welfare, they are gradually moving into this space. The Humane Society and others are starting to work on education programs to promote fish welfare. Similarly the RSPCA has started to work with the aquaculture industry to develop a compliance scheme as have others in the EU. I work with several of these NGOs to come up with welfare certification standards for aquaculture.”

On that same note, what is your opinion of recreational fishing? Commercial fishing looks pretty dreadful with all those fish cramped in nets, but recreational fishing is on a much smaller scale and many people let the fish go after it’s caught. Although, I can’t imagine getting hooked on a fishing rod is a very pleasant experience, so maybe it’s still a problem.

”Commercial wild fisheries are an absolute catastrophe from an animal welfare perspective. We kill trillions of individual fish annually in the most horrendous way through commercial fishing operations. Only some (like rod and real capture of tuna) are remotely ok from that perspective. But equally recreational fishing is a massively popular pastime which realistically is no different from other forms of hunting. In Australia and elsewhere this practice is actively encouraged by state and federal governments because the industry is so huge. (ie its worth a lot of $$$ and some of that goes to the gov). If done well, rec fishing can be humane. But there are several issues: first, you have little control over what you catch. So there is a bycatch issue and the survival chances of those fish is generally low post-release. Second, most people do not kill the fish fast enough or effectively. Third, catch and release is simply unethical. People should not be hunting for fun or recreation. They should do it to get a feed period.”

I’ve also noticed that you often uses the term “fishes” when talking about multiple fish. This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone not use “fish” as an invariant. Not saying it’s incorrect, I was taught that it was fine to use it as a non-invariant noun by suffixing “-es”, but I would just like to ask: why?

”Fish is a funny word. Fish = singular. Fish = plural one species, Fishes = plural multiple species.”

Finally, can fish(es) get social anxiety?

”Yes fish can suffer from anxiety and stress and feel pain. Their physiology is almost identical to ours. In fact we inherited most of that hardware from our fishy ancestors. So when people take drugs, much of the active ingredients pass through us and down our toilets. Our waste-water treatment plants are not build to deal with drugs so the active ingredients pass through unchanged. They remain active in sewage discharge and have impacts on fish behaviour and physiology. This is a huge area of research in ecotoxicology. There are loads of papers on the impacts of anti-depressants (eg Proxac) in fish. Note I can go also to a hospital and take a cortisol test kit off the shelf and use it to study stress in fish.

People may be reluctant to accept it, but the reality is that we are not very different from fish.”

Thanks a lot to Prof Brown for answering these, in hindsight, admittedly not very good questions.


[1]: Brown, Culum & Vila Pouca, Catarina. (2016). How fish think and feel, and why we should care about their welfare.

[2]: Brown, Culum. (2014). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal cognition. 18. 10.1007/s10071-014-0761-0.