Berkshire Woods and Waters: Do fish feel pain?

Do fish feel pain? That's the age-old question about which we anglers wonder. Some folks say yes while others say no. We anglers certainly wouldn't want to inflict pain on our finny friends for we love them too much. If fish did feel pain, I doubt any of us would quit fishing because of it, but we certainly would feel better if pain was avoided.

The aquatic biologists at MassWildlife say this: "The best that modern science can tell us is that it's unlikely that fish can feel much, if any, pain."

They assert that that the brains of vertebrate animals vary greatly, and those of cold-blooded animals like fish, frogs, snakes and lizards are simpler than warm-blooded vertebrate animals like birds and mammals. In fact, fish have the simplest brains of all vertebrates. So, the question really comes down to brain development.     

The human brain is highly developed (the most complex of all vertebrates) and has specialized regions within the cerebral hemispheres for pain activation (a conscious awareness for the generation of the pain experience) whereas a fish's brain is primitive by comparison, and has no specialized regions for pain. Basically, a fish is a brainstem-dominated organism, while the existence of humans and other more complex animals is dominated by the cerebral hemispheres — highly developed areas to the brain where pain Is processed.

Observing a fish's behavior upon being hooked, one could conclude that the fish is experiencing pain. However, the fish is actually demonstrating a flight response, no differently from if it were trying to evade a predator. This is a protective reaction, and can occur from a range of stimuli associated with predators or other threats to which a fish automatically and quickly responds.

So, while the fish isn't likely to be experiencing pain or fear when it is hooked, this doesn't mean that it will not become stressed from the experience; we know that stress hormones are released during such times. Too much of this stress could harm the fish either initially or shortly thereafter. So, if it is your desire to practice "catch-and-release," it's a good idea not to play the fish out completely, to handle it as little as possible and to return it to the water in short order.

Well, that's certainly good news. One thing that is disturbing to me is that if the fish has such a simple brain, why is it so hard for me to fool it into biting one of my elaborately prepared and presented trout flies? I have spent thousands of dollars on equipment and endless hours trying to catch fish with a brain no larger than a pea.

As long as we are on the subject of our finny friends, MassWildlife also has recommendations for releasing fish. They recommend that if you are not going to have your fish mounted or not going to eat it, get it back into the water as quickly and with the least amount of handling as possible. They claim that the best way to release a fish is to do so without removing it from the water at all. They remind us that fish have a slimy mucus coating so when you have to handle them, remember to wet your hands first.

They advise us to never pick up a fish by the gills because it can damage them, and, if you plan to release the fish, gill damage eventually kills. Also, you can cut your hands on the gill plates of some fish and chewed up by others. Again, when you release a fish, do so quickly and with care. Don't let the fish flop around in a boat or on the bank. A properly released fish can live to grow, thrive and potentially be caught again.

This useful information was obtained from the latest Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife Fishing Guide. Its 26 pages are packed with useful information such as fishing and our aquatic resources, frequently asked fishing questions, information on rods and reels, learning to cast, fishing knots, how to fish with live bait and the use of bobbers and weights, using artificial baits and lures, fish anatomy, fish senses, setting the hook, playing, landing and handling the fish, temperature references of fish, limits imposed, a basic fishing glossary and more.

It is a great fishing resource, is free and can be obtained at your nearest DFW Regional Headquarters.

Sunfish revisited

Say, remember my article a couple of weeks ago regarding sunfishes? Well, Bob Gageant of North Adams read it and offered some more information. He was fishing Goose Pond some time back with a friend and they were fishing a tree lined shady shore. They started catching some interesting looking fish that day. They had a tab on their gills like a panfish, but they were about a foot long and shaped and striped like a bass.

He brought it to the attention of a DFW technician who thought that because the bass is a member of the sunfish family (which we noted in that column), that the fish that Bob was catching were likely the result of cross breeding between a female bass and a male sunfish. At the time, the technician said that while rare, they are not totally uncommon.

Recently, I discussed this with DFW Western District Supervisor Andrew Madden (who is an aquatic biologist) and Todd Richards who is the MassWildlife Assistant Director of Fisheries and also an aquatic biologist. Both felt that those fish were probably Green Sunfish. They can grow to one foot long and have been caught in Western Massachusetts. They believe that it is unlikely that a bass and a sunfish can crossbreed.

Life preservers

Don't forget that from September 15 to May 15 Massachusetts regulations require that anyone using a canoe or kayak must wear a life preserver. Not sit on it, but wear it.

Questions/comments: Phone: 413-637-1818.


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