Monday, 20 October 2014

Forget the Pseudoscience : All Fish Feel Pain

On Friday published one of my articles, which describes how the fisheries industry has taken control, not only of the planet's wild fish, but of how they are considered by the public as well.

My article describes a political situation which is being reported on more and more on the Internet—too much power is in the hands of the corporations. In this case, it is the fishing industry and its interests that have managed to maintain such control.

Among others, I used the article by David Shiffman and Neil Hammerschlag, that appeared recently in “Fisheries” as an example. In an effort to give the ring of scientific authority to shark fishing, it recommends “fighting” sharks through catch and release fishing, as a good way for Florida to earn money. But both cock fighting and dog fighting are illegal in Florida, so how can a student scientist be promoting the “fighting” of sharks?

It has been shown by a variety of scientific researchers who are NOT involved with fisheries, that sharks and fish do feel pain and suffer, and that shark fishing is harmful to them. The paper was a good example of how these animals are usually portrayed through the eyes of those who want to kill them, or who find it fun and exciting to brutalize them. As one who chose the route of actually observing these animals underwater in an effort to learn about them, I naturally spoke out.

Shiffman complained because his work was receiving criticism, though one wonders why he published it, if he did not want it read and discussed. By pressuring LiveScience, he managed to have the mention of his paper removed from my article, in a tirade of heated outrage in which he did not provide one bit of evidence in support of his position.

One can only hope that he will remove his fishy article from the literature as well, and analyze his data again. As long as it is online, anyone can look at it and judge for themselves if more shark fishing, or more shark diving, should have been the logical conclusion given the data. Do facts matter to fishermen? See for yourself.

As a result of my article being thus censored through pressuring from the fishing lobby, here is the full, uncensored article as it originally appeared on Live Science:

Forget the Pseudoscience : All Fish Feel Pain

Researchers at Yale Law School made headlines recently, when they suggested that people often fail to question their political beliefs in the face of scientific discoveries that contradict them. Their study showed how people reason selectively, and interpret data in such a way that it conforms with their political vantage point.

This phenomenon is evident in the pseudoscientific world of fisheries, a multi-billion dollar power that has taken control of both the planet's wild fish populations, and how these animals are viewed by the public. The result seems to be that irregardless of available facts, their conclusions are always in favor of fishermen, not fish.

Though rigorous scientific research has established beyond all doubt that the pain system in fish is virtually identical to that of mammals (Sneddon 2002), the fishing industry has maintained that fish are too simple-minded to feel pain (Rose 2002, 2012). As a result, most people seem to believe the old fishermen's tale that no matter how you brutalize fish and sharks, they won't suffer, and their abuse continues with almost no public outcry nor protest.

Yet no evidence has ever been produced to support the idea that an animal could live successfully, and survive, without the ability to feel pain, which is an important warning sensation. It would result in inappropriate behaviour, and the fish would go straight into evolution’s garbage can. Only a small percentage of fish who come into the world live to adulthood, and any weakness would doom them.

Neither do observations of fish behavior support the idea. Fish appear cautious and careful, and display cognitive behaviour in their efforts to eat food, such as sea urchins, that could sting them. Indeed, the evolution of such animals, as well as a host of other oceanic stingers, seems to have depended on the ability of fish to feel pain.

The subjective idea was dropped into the literature by the fisheries lobby, with no study done to support it, even though it failed to fit in with the facts already established scientifically, and observable to anyone.

The study of pain in fish

Since animals cannot tell us how they feel, scientists have searched indirectly for evidence about their subjective experiences, in the studies of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and behavior. Researchers have developed strict criteria, all of which need to be met, before they can conclude that an animal can feel pain.

First, there must be nociceptors — sensory neurons that respond to tissue damage by sending nerve signals to the spinal cord and brain. There must be neural pathways from the nociceptors to higher brain regions, and the signal from the nociceptor must be processed in the higher brain, not in the reflex centers in the hindbrain or spinal cord.

There must be opioid receptors within the nervous system, and opioid substances produced internally. Painkilling drugs should relieve the symptoms of pain that the animal displays, and the animal should be able to learn to avoid a painful stimulus. This should be so important to the animal that it avoids the threat of pain right away. The painful event should strongly interfere with normal behavior — it should not be an instantaneous withdrawal response, but long-term distress.

Fish meet all of these criteria, as has been shown in a wide variety of experiments. (Sneddon et al 2003, Reilly et al 2008). Their nociceptors are nearly identical to those found in mammals and humans, and the nociceptors are connected to the brain through neurons. There are also connections between the different structures of the brain, including those that are considered crucial to the experience of pain. The whole brain of the fish is active during painful events.

In addition to neural activity, certain genes that are crucial to the experience of pain in humans are also found in fish, and they are active throughout the fish's brain during painful events (Reilly et al 2009). This activity of the brain at both the molecular and the physiological level, indicates that these are not reflex reactions. If they were, such activity would not be seen in the higher brain. (Dunlop R et al 2005)

Fish have displayed a variety of adverse changes in their behavior after the infliction of pain, such as an extreme increase in their ventilation (respiratory) rate, rubbing damaged body parts on the surrounding environment, rocking on their pectoral fins, trying to stay upright, and no longer feeding. These, and other symptoms of distress,are relieved by the administration of morphine, which completes the circle and identifies pain as the cause of the change in behavior. (Sneddon 2003)

Like other animals tested in laboratory settings, fish have been shown to self-administer painkillers if they can, even if that means going into a location that they do not like, to bathe in water that medicates them. This is another clue that the fish was suffering, and found relief in the undesirable location.

Fish swiftly learn to avoid painful events, which researchers think indicates that they are conscious — they experience the pain so severely that they are strongly motivated to avoid feeling it again, even after just one exposure. (Millsopp and Laming 2008)

Though humans can override pain at times in certain heightened mental states, and particularly when in danger, it seems that fish cannot do so. Studies have shown that after being hurt, fish become far less alert to danger, as if their pain is too overwhelming for them to ignore it, even to escape a predator. It is thought that due to their simpler neural design and mental states, fish lack the ability to think about their pain, and put it in perspective as humans can. Pain for them seems always to be an intense experience, which suggests that they may actually feel pain more intensely than humans.

When researcher Dr. Rebecca Dunlop of Queensland University, discovered that fish learn to avoid painful experiences, she wrote, "Pain avoidance in fish doesn't seem to be a reflex response, but rather one that is learned, remembered and is changed according to different circumstances. Therefore, if fish can perceive pain, then angling [fishing] cannot continue to be considered a noncruel sport."

The best way to relieve pain in fish during surgery has been meticulously researched. Pain relief is systematically used by veterinarians who perform surgery on fish, and the pain system in fish is considered to be the same as that in birds and mammals. Given that they are conscious, and may suffer on an emotional level, fish welfare emerges as an important issue. (Chandroo et al 2004)

Yet while amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals have been protected from cruel treatment, fish and sharks have not, thanks to the domination of those who profit from killing them.

Pro-Shark-fishing Scientists

The latest assault on sharks comes in the form of a pro-shark-fishing paper which was recently published in the journal “Fisheries” by David Shiffman and Neil Hammerschlag. It was financed by fishing interests, and recommends that Florida profit from the brutalization of sharks through repeated fishing and release.

The authors begin by citing French Polynesia as having set a precedent by valuing its sharks, (Clua et al 2011) but omit the point that French Polynesia's sharks are valuable because their population is protected from fishing and is relatively healthy. The country is the biggest shark sanctuary in the world, where the people never wanted their sharks either fished nor disturbed, and divers pay to see large congregations of sharks in an unmolested community.

There is no comparison with the shark-hate culture of Florida where sharks are under fishing pressure, have been fished out of large areas, and shark diving is not favoured. To see sharks, Florida's divers are obliged to go to the Bahamas.

The evidence of the success of diving enterprises in a place where sharks are protected from fishing, points to the conclusion that shark diving should replace shark fishing in Florida, and the beleaguered animals should be left in peace.

Yet the authors state :

“ French Polynesia, a single sicklefin lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens) can be worth over $2 million in its lifetime. . . Recent conservation advocacy, termed here “ecotourism conservation,” has used the economic premise that many species of sharks can be worth more to local economies alive than dead. . .”

For one shark to earn 2 million dollars for Florida, it would have to be fished 4000 times—2,000,000 dollars divided by 500 dollars, which is an average price charged by shark fishing charters to go out and catch a shark. Yet the authors do not address the possible effects on the lives and biology of sharks, as a result of being repeatedly “fought” nearly to death, at this intensity, for the amusement of certain elements in society.

Another problem emerges on a closer examination of the fisheries data presented in the paper itself. The blacktip shark is shown to be the most frequent species caught, and its survival rate from catch and release fishing is one of the lowest of all species shown. The authors state : “Blacktip Sharks and Great Hammerheads showed high physiological disruption and low survival following release.”

Yet, they also state many times that sharks are released “unharmed.” This contradiction with their own data is ignored. They show no evidence that catch and release fishing is “harmless” and fail to mention non-fishing scientific papers that present evidence to the contrary.

For example, a scientific paper published by Dr. Carley Bansemer and Professor Mike Bennett, of the University of Queensland in Australia, states that interactions with fishing gear resulted in “debilitating disease, morbidity, and death.”

The View Underwater
When fishing slaughter began among the sharks I had been studying, (Porcher 2005) the entire community fled, and it never reformed as it had been. Those who had escaped being landed, first appeared swimming unsteadily, and more weakly than sharks I had observed within 24 hours of death from natural causes. They displayed the same symptoms of pain I had seen in birds and mammals as a wildlife rehabilitator. They were less alert, less responsive, and they swam slowly, erratically, and often as if they were off-balance. The recovery of their normal swimming pattern when they lived, took up to two weeks.

Large hooks remained stabbed into their mouths and often into the jaw itself, where they interfered with the sharks' ability to eat. Some lost weight and died in the next months. The hooks took weeks, and in some cases months, to rust out. Sharks appeared during this time trailing lengths of fishing line that had become covered with algae to a thickness of several centimetres. Some continually jerked their heads away from the drag as if the heavy weight pulling on the hook in them was a steady source of discomfort. Juveniles appeared exhausted by it and disappeared before losing the hooks.

Sharks are not trout. They are large animals that have to swim continuously forward just to keep an adequate supply of oxygen moving over their gills, and their strong horizontal undulations are like a heartbeat, a powerful automatic motion they cannot stop. Their desperate efforts to escape death while pulling with so much force against a big shark hook piercing their faces or internal organs, can cause serious internal and facial injuries. And as any wildlife rehabilitator soon learns through experience, serious injuries to wild animals are usually fatal without the benefit of treatment and supportive care.

Fishing kills

One of the most famous American shark-fishing charter boat captains, Frank Mundus, was quoted by Russell Drumm in his book “In the Slick of the Cricket” as saying:

"Feeling good about tagging and releasing sharks was folly. The cheaper hooks bought by the weekend warriors were more often than not swallowed by the sharks which then fought their final battle gut-hooked. After being released, most sank to the bottom, dead. Maybe two out of twelve are hooked in the mouth. Add it up along the coast."

Much evidence that shark fishing is harmful to sharks, was ignored by the authors in their effort to give the ring of scientific authority to the brutalization of sharks for profit. But though their conclusions may be politically welcome, they are not biologically justified, and fall into the category of pseudoscience as defined as : a set of beliefs which is presented as scientific, but lacks supporting evidence or plausibility.

If you try to profit from cock fighting or dog fighting in the state of Florida, you are guilty of a felony, and now that it has been established that fish suffer as much as dogs and birds, there is no difference in terms of animal suffering among these blood sports.

But with tagging methods as the favoured means of gaining data on living sharks, their true natural behaviour remains obscure to many researchers. Their very approach to sharks through fishing and fisheries denies an appreciation of the real animals pursuing complex lives in their natural environment.

Not only is there is a deep cultural bias against sharks, but thanks to fisheries and the media, it is not even recognized. In the case of spiders and snakes, to take another example, everyone knows that they are disfavoured. But not in the case of sharks. Most people, including those who should know better, seem to continue to believe that the way sharks are portrayed by fisheries and in the media, is the way they truly are.

It is important that people begin to appreciate the true qualities of these unusual and important animals, in order to denounce this cultural situation, and insist that they be treated humanely in the interests of continuing to build a moral society.


Bansemer, C. S., and Bennett, M. B. (2010). Retained fishing gear and associated injuries in the east Australian grey nurse sharks (Carcharias taurus): implications for population recovery. Marine and Freshwater Research61, 97–103.

Clua, E., Buray, N., Legendre, P., Mourier, J., and Planes, S. (2011). Business partner or simple catch? The economic value of the sicklefin lemon shark in French Polynesia. Marine and Freshwater Research 62, 764–770.

Kahan, Dan M. and Peters, Ellen and Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307.

Rose, J.D. (2002) The neurobehavioral nature of fishes and the question of awareness and pain. Reviews in Fisheries Science 10, 1–38.

Rose, J.D, Arlinghaus, R., Cooke, S.J., Diggles,B.K., Sawynok, W., Stevens, E.D and Wynne C.D.L. (2012) Can fish really feel pain? Fish and Fisheries, in press. DOI: 10.1111/faf.12010

Shiffman, D., Hammerschlagg N., Fisheries • Vol 39 No 9• September 2014

Sneddon, L.U. (2003b) The evidence for pain in fish. Use of morphine as an anaesthetic. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 83, 153–162.

Weber EP, Weisse C, Schwars T, Innis C, Klide AM Anesthesia, diagnostic imaging, and surgery of fish, Compend Contin Educ Vet. 2009 Feb;31(2): E11.

Every point I made above is supported by rigorous scientific research--I have included some of the most prominent, but it is easy to find more once one begins to research the subject in the literature. Countless studies on fish pain and their welfare have been done.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Shark Week 2014

Once again, Discovery Channel has followed its tried and true formula of using sharks to generate millions of dollars, by presenting them as monsters just waiting to get their teeth into the viewers. 

Discovery's angle seems to hinge on the fear people have of the unknown, and especially the unknown in the water where they swim. Shark Week has been so good at tweaking and magnifying this fear, that generations of viewers who grew up watching the show are afraid to go in the water.

Yet, all over the world wild sharks are welcome visitors during shark dives. How is this possible, without the divers being torn apart?

I asked divers to describe what they felt on finding themselves deep in the sea, surrounded by sharks, and they used similar words to describe their feelings. In every case, they spoke of being thrilled by the experience. Not frightened. Many expressed having a transcendent experience on meeting sharks for the first time, saying that nothing had prepared them for the riveting reality.

They spoke of feeling touched by the supernatural in the silence in which the sharks appeared, and of the sensation of being absolutely present and aware:

“You are part of their world for a moment—you enter their territory and they don't attack you. They come and swim around you, and they display perfectly. There is no aggression, but instead a feeling of communion, of really being together.”

“They move so slowly, yet you can see the power in their movements—they have incredible qualities you can sense.”

“They are your size, and you are there, one on one! You're looking, and its looking back, and you can see its response to seeing you, as if you have shared something—its a real encounter with an intelligent wild animal. Because of that communion you feel that sense of respect—you want to respect these animals because they respect you.”

“Its just magical to see them.”

What is wrong with this picture? How can they be talking about the same animal that is featured on Shark Week?

Strange to say, Shark Week isn't about sharks. Its about shark pornography (a Discovery term).

With shows entitled, “Shark of Darkness : Wrath of Submarine,” “Megalodon : The New Evidence,” “Air Jaws : Fin of Fury,” “JAWS Strikes Back,” “Alien Sharks : Return to the Abyss,” “Monster Hammerhead,” and “Zombie Sharks,” Shark Week is not about reality or science, in spite of frequent mentions of the word. It is about making money with a horror entertainment show.

When confronted about what they were doing by representatives from The Shark Group in a meeting in 2008, Discovery executives said that they were happy with their shark pornography. They bragged about the multi-billion dollar profit that their shows had generated since 1987, and claimed to be giving the audience exactly what they wanted by presenting horror shows. They were unconcerned that it was they who had made sharks the subject of that horror by showing little but stories featuring their open jaws, and bloody teeth.

They were also unconcerned about the ethics of demonizing endangered marine animals, while claiming to be presenting scientific facts. Their web-site claims to be presenting “quality non-fiction.”

Sharks have paid a terrible price for the riches made by Discovery. Along America’s east coast, the slaughter of sharks is obscene. The hatred launched against sharks over the decades has fuelled shark hate killings and monster shark tournaments, which, year after year, filled the landfills in countless towns and cities with mountains of decaying sharks.

Though catch and release has been claimed as the solution to this cruel massacre, expert eye-witnesses claim that the excited and malicious monster hunters fight more than 80% of the sharks gut-hooked—their fragile internal organs are sliced and torn apart, and upon their ‘release’ they simply sink.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), two million, seven hundred thousand sharks were killed by sports fishermen in the U.S. in 2011. This figure could be low if those killed on private boats, and not reported, were added in.

Nevertheless, many shark NGOs have joined in to capitalize on the exposure and the chance for donations, and even some scientists continue to go along for the ride. With tagging methods as the favoured means of gaining data on living sharks, the true natural behaviour of these important marine animals remains obscure to many researchers.

The problem is not only that there is a fatal prejudice against sharks, but that it is not even recognized. In the case of other animals, such as snakes, everyone knows that there is a deep bias against them, but in the case of sharks, the stark contrast between sharks as they are portrayed, and sharks as they really are is unseen. The public actually believes that sharks behave the way they are shown on Shark Week.

And Shark Week audiences are unlikely to try to find out the truth about sharks for themselves, because, of course, they are scared of them!

(c) Ila France Porcher 2014
photo credit : Tanya Izzard

Monday, 21 April 2014

Author's Website Now Online

With the second edition of my book, The Shark Sessions in pre-release mode, I got busy and put a website online. It gives some more information about how I began writing about animal behaviour, and the strange true story of the lost sharks that drives my efforts to protect the ones that remain from extinction. 

I began writing about wild animal intelligence and cognition after getting to know sharks, of all animals. Not expecting to see much of interest in such an ancient line of animals, after years of observing bears, raccoons, cougars, and the other large mammals of North America, I was intrigued to find strong signs that sharks were using cognition in their daily lives, and were more alert and quick thinking than people. Faced with an unanticipated richness of community into which the sharks had accepted me, I hung out with them for years, writing down everything that they did, everything that happened. It was they who convinced me that animals have unknown capacities, understanding, and intelligence, that has been overlooked for too long, in this world that exploits them. And when they were finned, I wrote down their story.

See :

Please help broadcast the news of the coming book by sharing the link if you like it! This strange true story will appeal to all who love nature, and especially those who have seen what it is like at the bottom of the sea. The main theme is wild animal intelligence, and many accounts are given of surprising cognitive behaviour in birds, and even a sea turtle, all told against the background of the uneasy society surrounding it.

The release date for THE SHARK SESSIONS is June 17th, and it can be ordered from the publisher now.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What Are Sharks Aware Of?

More and more divers are meeting sharks for the first time, and wondering, “What do they see when they pass, gazing at us gazing at them?”
Sharks have a very different set of senses than we do, yet the eye-sight of the free swimming species is good, so passing sharks who have approached to look at you, are really seeing you. But you may have the impression that they are using senses other than their eyes most often, and indeed, apart from our shared good eye-sight, it is impossible for us to imagine how sharks experience their liquid realm.
Sound and vibration are very important to them. Sound travels far in water, spreading out in a uniform spherical pattern, and sharks hear well. They are particularly sensitive to low-frequency vibrations, such as those caused by movement in the water, and crashing waves. And they can detect pressure waves with the sense organ called the lateral line.
The lateral line is found in fish, sharks, and some amphibians, and is made up of a series of receptors in a line along the length of the animal. The receptors consist of a sensor within a cupola of jelly, which is directly affected by pressure in the water, just as the hair cells in our inner ears, which keep us balanced, are directly affected by movement. It is thought that the lateral line and the inner ear have a common origin far back in evolutionary time when life was selecting the basics. A complex nervous system analyses the incoming information in each tiny receptor, enabling sharks to perceive events beyond visual range through these pressure vibrations. They are aware of a person or animal moving in the vicinity, while remaining unseen, beyond the blue curtain of the visible range. The view of their environment that sharks gain through this sense, with receptors mounted the length of their bodies, is quite unimaginable for us.
Some of the sharks present at a shark feeding dive may have come to investigate, after hearing the submarine uproar caused by other sharks feeding. On their first approaches into visible range, you will see that these late comers generally pass just barely into view. A few minutes later, they will come again, probably closer.
Then there are the electro-receptive organs, the ampullae of Lorenzini. They detect voltage―electrical potential across a barrier. This is not the same as the ability to detect current flowing through a conductor, such as along a nerve—sharks cannot detect brain waves. But they can hear the beating of your heart, and sense other signals about your subjective state.
The ampullae of Lorenzini can pick up the voltage emitted by working muscle tissue. Sharks easily detect such voltage down to the microvolt range, the range emitted by most sharks’ prey. Since sea water is saltier than blood, the difference in ionic concentration produces an electrical potential between the inside and the outside of fish. The animal’s skin shields most of it, but there are places, such as the gills, that emit a faint electric field that sharks can detect.
It has been calculated that in a perfect ocean, a typical shark could detect a one-and-a-half-volt AA battery from a distance of hundreds of kilometres, but the ocean is full of background noise that limits the range to about a metre. Sharks and rays use their electro-sense to detect living prey at close range. This works even when the prey is hidden in murky water, or when it is buried in sand.
Lastly, a shark can taste and feel its prey with its sensitive mouth, which is the only part of its anatomy designed by nature for contact with the solid environment.
All of these senses are used in different combinations, depending on species and circumstance, just as we at times use hearing more than sight, and at other times are focused on an odour or touch sensation. The more than four hundred seventy species of sharks, diversified across eight orders, inhabit a wide variety of environmental niches, so their senses are adapted accordingly, and doubtless vary widely, just as birds adapted to different habitats are very different.
Sharks are aware of a very different reality than we are, yet underwater they appear as peaceful and very rational animals as they pass, looking at divers looking at them. It is possible that they can sense whether you are stressed or frightened, or completely relaxed, which could indicate to them that you are not in attack mode. Shy sharks will avoid you most when you are purposely finning and looking for them, for example, and if you want one to approach, stay very quiet in the water, and it might come closer for a look.