Fish feel pain, or don’t they? Despite a growing body of sound evidence that fish do indeed feel pain and are sentient beings capable of all the types of cognition found in the “higher” mammals, with the possible sole exception of the ability to imitate, a group of critics seems to systematically seek to discredit this research. But for what reasons? Ila France Porcher takes a closer look at the stakes involved.
A new style of shark dive has been developed by Jim Abernethy, of Scuba Adventures in Florida. In a dramatic demonstration that “shark huggers” are right, all his guests do with the sharks now is to stroke them! Jim was the pioneer who first demonstrated the peaceful way that sharks will interact with divers, especially when their curiosity has been aroused through the offer of a snack.
It was seven in the morning and my coffee hadn’t kicked in yet. The dive guide was giving me a slightly more thorough dive briefing than normal. I wasn’t supposed to wear anything colorful or shiny, and black gloves and a hood were required. Also covered in black neoprene, he was putting on chainmail gloves and told me he’d have a pole with him. He said it was more for the potato cods though, not the sharks.
Although born in the landlocked country of Hungary in Budapest, Dr Csilla Ari fell in love with the sea as a child and has never looked back. Today, she is a research associate at the University of South Florida, where she strives to better understand the biology and behavior of manta rays. She has also set up the Manta Memories project, which aims to help end illegal manta ray fishing.
It was Dr Lynne Sneddon, at the University of Liverpool, who proved scientifically that fish feel pain and suffer. Her team found 58 receptors located on the faces and heads of trout that responded to harmful stimuli. They resembled those found in other vertebrates, including humans. A detailed map was created of pain receptors in fishes' mouths and all over their bodies.
A difficulty in obtaining information about wild animal behaviour is that detailed observations of different individuals is necessary over long periods of time, and this is especially hard to achieve with sharks. But in the shallow lagoons of French Polynesia, such observation was possible without the encumbrance of scuba gear, and without the problem of the shark disappearing into the depths.
Jim Abernethy, owner and operator of Scuba Adventures, was the dive operator who showed all of the others that sharks are peaceful animals who want nothing to do with humans as a food source.
He spends most of his time with wild sharks during dives from his liveaboard ship, The Shear Water, at remote sites in the vicinity of the Bahamas, and is on land for only about 40 days a year.