The forgotten fish: a new look at our underwater friends | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 25.08.2017
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The forgotten fish: a new look at our underwater friends

Fish are one of the most misunderstood species of the animal kingdom. Long believed to be unfeeling, primitive creatures, scientists are now discovering that fish feel pain and are sensitive social beings.

It is one of the most popular myths about fish: The three-second memory. The goldfish swims round and round in circles in his glass bowl - but he doesn't mind, does he? By the time he has swum around the bowl once he has already forgotten where he is. It's a brand new adventure for the dumb little fella every time!

But that's actually not true. Scientists have discovered that goldfish can recall information for up to five months. Other fish species, like carp, have an even longer memory span. They will avoid a certain type of bait for up to three years after being hooked just once.

The short memory span is just one of our many misunderstandings about fish. Our fin-bearing co-voyagers have a lot more going on inside their heads than we once thought. 

Researchers are only starting to discover how intelligent fish actually are. According to recent studies, fish feel pain, stress and fear. They are emotional, aware creatures and have an active social life.

Bad image

However, the dimwitted, bug-eyed fish stereotype remains persistent.

The underwater creatures are in serious need of some good PR. Animal behavior specialist Jonathan Balcombe has made it his mission to improve the image of fish.

"Fish don't trigger our sympathies the way animals on land do, especially mammals and birds. We can't see them; we don't share the same world. They are not part of our lives unless they are on our plates," Balcombe told DW. "So fish need a lot of help."

In his book ‘What a Fish Knows,' Balcome busts some of the most well-known myths about fish and explains what they can do, how they do it and why.

Scientific studies have shown that fish can recognize each other. They can even learn to recognize humans by their faces.

Many species are very social. They live in groups, go hunting together and watch out for each other when they are in dangerous areas.

But most importantly - despite a long-held belief which assumes otherwise - fish can feel pain – both physically and psychologically.

Studies have revealed that fish experience feelings of high stress when they are kept for half an hour in a bucket filled with just a few centimeters of water.

But fish also know how to relieve their pain. Researchers dissolved a pain-killer in an area of water the fish usually avoid, and they suddenly swam towards it.

Colorful fish swim around coral (picture-alliance/blickwinkel)

Fish don’t get our love and attention because we can only visit them briefly in their underwater world, experts say

It's groundbreaking knowledge, argues Balcombe, but it remains highly disputed.

"We don't want to admit that fish feel pain because if they suffer, we would need to ask questions about fishing. It is inconvenient, but we need to come to grips with this knowledge," says Balcombe,

Fish welfare

Some people already consider fish to be complex animals. One of them is Douglas Waley, Fish Welfare Programme Leader at Eurogroup for Animals.

Essentially, he is a fish welfare lobbyist at the European Union. It may sound like a bizarre job, but its one that is badly needed, says Waley.

"Several trillion fish are caught and farmed every year and their welfare issues are barely acknowledged," he told DW.

Fish missed out during a wave of European animal welfare regulations in the early 2000s as the science on their inner lives was only just emerging at the time.

Unlike cows, pigs, chickens and other animals we eat, policymakers haven't considered setting standards on slaughtering fish. Fish are often caught in huge nets and dragged along for hours. They are then dumped on board the ship and left to suffocate. 

Bildergalerie Europäischer Tag der Meere Hochseefischerei Trawler Frankreich (Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty Images)

Normal-sized trawlers can catch up to 100 tons of fish in one go

Considering that fish do feel pain, this is a cruel method, say researchers. Fish welfare lobbyists are therefore calling for international regulations that would "see fish caught quickly with a line and stunned and killed efficiently," says Waley.

He believes it will take years before EU legislation is adapted. It will also depend on how strongly the public demands it.

So far, there seems to be little public support for fish welfare.

Waley admits that it is difficult for people to identify with the underwater creatures: "They're not furry and cuddly. And because they live life underwater in a world that we can only visit briefly and occasionally."

Nevertheless, the fish lobbyist argues that fish deserve our love and attention just as much as other animals do.

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