Their Wonder, Their Plight, and How It Affects Us All

By Mary Finelli

For as far back as I can remember, I've been enamored with animals. After reading a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, I decided if he could do it I could, too, and stopped eating meat, except for fish. I later rejected fish as well and subsequently became vegan. I also devoted myself to animal rights advocacy, focusing on farmed animal issues. Although fishes are by far the most numerous type of farmed animals, I paid them very little attention. It's ironic because, in addition to being the largest number of harmfully exploited vertebrate animals, fishes suffer some of the most horrific abuses. I attribute this inattention in part to cultural influences that cause us to consider fishes as being lesser animals.

I grew increasingly annoyed at hearing people state the number of animals killed for food without even including fishes (or other aquatic animals). Since there was so little concern for fishes, even within the animal rights community, I came to realize that by bringing attention to them I could do the most good for the greatest number of animals. So I founded Fish Feel: the sole organization devoted exclusively to promoting the recognition of fish as sentient beings deserving of respect and protection. Although I knew relatively little about them, as I researched it became quickly apparent what amazing and admirable beings they are!

Fishes are far more sentient and perceptive than most people realize or, until recently, than even science has credited them with being. They have complex social interactions and can recognize other fishes by subtle facial markings. They can also differentiate human faces from one another. They learn by watching others and pass knowledge from generation to generation, which is the basis of culture. There are fishes who use tools, which scientists consider to be a sophisticated behavior. Some fishes are known to communicate and cooperate with other species. There are fishes who build nests for their young, vigilantly caring for them and valiantly protecting them. Some even incubate their babies in their mouths! These and many other characteristics are explored in the recently published book, What a Fish Knows, by Jonathan Balcombe.

Most importantly, science has shown that fishes are sentient. They enjoy physical interaction, and they suffer fear and pain. Fishes have a central nervous system and pain receptors throughout their bodies, including in their sensitive mouths. They react to pain the way one would expect an animal in pain to react, they respond to painkillers in a way that indicates their pain has been alleviated, and they quickly learn to avoid painful stimuli. In her book, Do Fish Feel Pain?, Victoria Braithwaite, professor of Fisheries and Biology at Penn State, eloquently lays out compelling scientific evidence of fish sentience. "I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals — and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies," she states. It is well acknowledged by the scientific community that fishes are sentient. Despite this, and although they are among the most common victims of scientific experimentation, fishes are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Slaughter Act, or any other laws to protect their well-being. Billions of fishes are also harmfully exploited for the aquarium industry each year.

Fishes are, in fact, gateway animals to animal abuse. What other animals are considered not only acceptable to kill but admirable to torture? That's what fishing is: torturing fishes. They are impaled, hauled through the water by a hook, manhandled, suffocated and/or killed in some other inhumane way. Even if released, many perish as a result of the injury and trauma they've suffered. It's not a sport; the fishes are victims, not willing participants. Children are taken fishing to introduce them to nature, but instead of learning to respect it they are taught to harmfully exploit nature and are praised for abusing animals.

Commercial fishing employs even crueler methods to catch billions of fishes every year. This doesn't include countless non-targeted fishes and hundreds of thousands of dolphins, seals, turtles, whales, and even birds who are unintentionally caught. As much as forty percent of the global catch is estimated to be tossed back overboard, dead or dying. Coral reefs and other fragile aquatic habitat are also destroyed. Marine populations are said to have been halved in the past forty years, with larger species down by ninety percent and more. Our oceans are fast being desertified.

Humans are also harmfully exploited by the fishing industry. Human slavery is rampant in it, with boys and men trapped at sea, some for years. The 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report identified 54 countries with instances of human trafficking in their fishing fleets. Much of the catch is sold here for human consumption and as cat food, and is essentially untraceable. A large amount of the global catch is used as feed for farmed chickens, fishes, and pigs, propping up those harmful industries. People in impoverished countries who are dependent on fish for survival are being deprived of their sustenance. Other animals are, too, and many who need to eat fish are intentionally killed for competing with humans for it. Others, such as the cownose rays of the Chesapeake Bay, are scapegoated and targeted in killing contests:

All of the nutrients we need to thrive can instead be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally responsibly from plant sources. There are vegan versions of virtually every type of food imaginable, including seafood. Good vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed oil and flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and, for concentrated doses, algae supplements (algae being how fishes obtain their omega-3s). On the Fish Feel website we have hundreds of recipes and links to companies that offer vegan seafood products. The Vegetarian Resource Group has available the Vegan Seafood cookbook. It's amazing how creative people are in replicating flavors and textures.

Please opt for an animal-free diet and let others know that fishes are sentient beings who deserve our respect and protection. The Fish Feel website has fact sheets, videos, and other resources to help you learn about these wondrous beings and how their plight affects us all. We also have a dynamic presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Be a friend to fishes and be vegan — for everyone's sake, including your own!

Mary Finelli is the president and founder of Fish Feel, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring, Maryland. See Mary can be contacted at: