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The Angelfish in the Room, Part II: Aquatic Communities

The Angelfish in the Room, Part II: Aquatic Communities

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

Some months ago, Chris Palmieri reached out to me to submit his amazing blog post about fish.  I promised him that I would eventually post a Part II, as I, too, have been disappointed by the Animal Liberation Movement’s consistent neglect of ocean life (other than whales and dolphins—the ones with whom most people already identify).  This week, the Daily Pitchfork also posted a poignant article about fish, telling me that perhaps these guys’ moment in the watery sunbeam has finally come.

I am happy to present to you the following excerpt from my book, Until Every Animal Is Free. This is from a section of Chapter Five: Where to Draw the Line? entitled “Nirvana Was Being Sarcastic: The Truth about Fish.”

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In a 2003 issue of the journal Fish and Fisheries, biologists Calum Brown, Kevin Laland, and Jens Krause asserted that there had been huge changes in science's understanding of the psychological and mental abilities of fish at the turn of the century, and that fish were in fact highly intelligent—and highly social—creatures. The experts hail from the universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Leeds in Europe.

 

Now, fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.

—Bshary and Wurth 2001; Bshary et al. 2002

 

What these biologists published was essentially a collection of essays (including the two quoted above) written in the Nineties and early 2000s regarding intelligence, socialization, and overall sentience in fish. They then proceeded to summarize important points about fish, using these studies to support their claims. Among the points for which this tremendous trio was able to find ample justification in recent research are:

  • That fish are able to identify individual shoal-mates and monitor the social prestige of others (Yes, apparently it is possible to be a prestigious fish.) (McGregor 1993; Bshari et al. 2002; Griffiths 2003);
  • That fish use tools (Bshary et al. 2002);
  • That fish build complex nests and bowers, similar to the bowerbird discussed in Chapter Two (Paxton and Eschmeyer 1998).

Dugatkin’s 1997 book, Cooperation Among Animals, explores various social behaviors observed in fish. Among these are cooperative foraging, intraspecific cleaning, schreckstoff, and mobbing behavior.

Sergeant major damselfish.

Sergeant major damselfish.

Cooperative foraging is typically the result of territorial defense, in fish as well as in many other species. A good example in the fish community is the relationship between sergeant major damselfish and those who prey upon them—members of the Labridae and Serranidae families, such as cleaner wrasses, sea basses, and groupers. Male sergeant major damselfish become hyper-aggressive when tending eggs, changing color from white to dark blue or indigo. They also defend their territory by nipping at fish and divers who invade their space. While these activities do not require cooperation, foragers of damselfish eggs (such as sea basses) must cooperate in order to succeed against these formidable foes.

What this boils down to is that fish are not only capable of cooperating with one another—proof positive that their lives are not solitary but social—but also possess sufficient intelligence to discern when cooperation is necessary for success. Fish do not always cooperate in order to forage, but when confronted with a daunting obstacle between themselves and a desirable resource, they will team up for the sake of achieving a common goal. Humans behave much the same way; on a daily basis, we typically do things by ourselves, with minimal cooperation amongst our friends, relatives, and coworkers. When trying to achieve something too difficult for just one person, such as curing a disease or constructing a building, we form large teams—organizations, companies, committees, and so forth. An individual can “go vegan” without anyone else’s help, but it will take the strength of a community of animal liberationists to end speciesism once and for all.

Guppies.

Guppies.

Intraspecific cleaning refers to the practice of cleaning the bodies of others. Many mammals, for instance (such as monkeys), remove parasites from each other’s bodies. This behavior has been observed among carp, guppies, Panamic sergeant majors, bluegill sunfish, and other species of fish.

Sea urchins.

Sea urchins.

Schreckstoff was originally observed by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch in 1938, as a chemical alarm signal emitted by minnows. R.J.F. Smith defined this chemical signal in a 1992 study as “A response produced by an individual—the ‘sender’—reacting to a hazard that warns other animals—the ‘receivers’—that there is danger.” Since von Frisch’s original discovery, shreckstoff has been detected in other fish species besides the minnow, as well as among sea anemones, sea urchins, tadpoles, and even rats. Whether or not this is a social behavior is debatable, as it remains unclear whether fish actually choose to sound the alarm or it occurs naturally when a fish is under duress. Still, Smith argues that aside from chemical signals there exist certain auditory, tactile, and visual forms of shreckstoff that require intent to produce.

Whitebar gregory damselfish.

Whitebar gregory damselfish.

Mobbing behavior refers to the act of multiple potential prey coming together to attack or harass a potential predator. Dugatkin cites numerous studies in which this behavior has been observed among members of at least five groups of fish: bluegill, butterfly, threespot damsel, blue and gold damsel, and whitebar gregory (yet another subspecies of damselfish). A simple, individually minded creature would merely flee from a predator as quickly as possible once he or she has determined that a physical confrontation would be unwise; these guys stick together, teaming up against an individual bully. Their concern is not limited to their own safety but extends to that of their community.

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In closing, it would appear that many fish take DxE's Fourth Organizing Principle to heart; they form communities in which they cooperate with and care about other members. They are not swimming carrots.  In Until Every Animal Is Free, I also explore the physiological aspects of fish and how they are capable of both suffering and experiencing fear.

It's time we stop ignoring the plight of ocean life and put the nonsense term "pescatarian" to bed. A fish is every bit as sentient and deserving of our care and compassion as a cow is.

The Mammal Rights Movement: The Angelfish in the Room

The Mammal Rights Movement: The Angelfish in the Room

By Chris Palmieri

A blowfish saying 'hello' to the camera.

A blowfish saying 'hello' to the camera.

Historically, the Animal Rights Movement may well have been more accurately referred to as “the mammal rights movement,” despite the fact that the vast majority of nonhuman animals that humans harm and exploit are birds, fish and invertebrates. Now, after years of hard work by dedicated activists, birds (the most exploited land animals by number of individuals) are finally starting to be recognized as the sensitive, conscious beings that they are.

Fish, who are by far the most exploited group of animals on the planet, continue to be ignored not just by the general public but also by our movement as a whole. Estimates for the number of individual sea animals killed yearly by our food system are as high as 2.77 trillion. That means for every one land animal we kill, we also kill forty-six wild-caught individual fish. Even more are killed in what the industry terms “by-catch," wherein non-target fish and other marine animals are caught, killed and thrown back into the ocean. A further 37-120 billion are killed on farms, and we hunt millions more for sport. Fish are also the most exploited animals in the pet trade (totaling another 1.5 billion per year) and are quickly becoming one of the most utilized animals in experimentation. (Read more here.)

To make matters worse, there are essentially zero welfare regulations for fish—whether they are wild-caught, farmed or in the pet trade; and there are hardly any adoption or sanctuary networks for aquatic creatures.

How many times have we heard pescatarianism touted as an ethical step away from speciesism? How often do we hear the phrase “60 billion animals per year,” completely excluding the most exploited group? If we see a demonstration, protest, poster, or leaflet, how likely is it to focus on our aquatic brothers and sisters—to give them more than a passing mention? Given the objective number of lives at stake, it’s hard to understand why we don’t talk about them much, much more.

Trout is a species of freshwater fish. Trout are commonly exploited for food commercially, and hunted for sport.

Trout is a species of freshwater fish. Trout are commonly exploited for food commercially, and hunted for sport.

Is leaving fish out in favor of birds and mammals justified in some way? The general public sees fish as unfeeling, cold-blooded automatons; but is this true? Not according to the available evidence. In his recent paper entitled "Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics," Dr. Culum Brown writes:

The review reveals that fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates. A review of the evidence for pain perception strongly suggests that fish experience pain in a manner similar to the rest of the vertebrates. Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioral and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.

Fish- as well as cephalapods, crustaceans and insects- also have individual personalities.  Fish have right and left “hands” like we do, and prefer to be with fish with whom they are already familiar. They can solve problems and learn tricks, display excellent long-term memory, and have large, sophisticated social groups on par in complexity with those of birds and mammals. They are not the stupid, mindless, three-second-memory-possessing creatures the media has led us to believe they are. They neither belong nor fare well in tiny, stagnant bowls but require large tanks of moving, filtered water if not an actual pond, river or ocean. In my own experience, when I play and interact with fish, they follow my finger around, excitedly come to the water’s surface and eat right from my hands.

So how do we explain the animal rights community’s staggering lack of focus on humanity’s most exploited victims? A few possibilities come to mind. One is that humans have a harder time empathizing with those who look less like us. Another is simply negative stereotypes and lack of exposure. Most people-even people who spend their lives in the company of other animalssimply don’t get a chance to know who fish are, and so what they go through in such large numbers is harder to access. 

In an effort to help others better understand who these beings are, I offer Julia’s story:

Julia getting acquainted with her new home.

Julia getting acquainted with her new home.

Julia is a common goldfish. Given her size and where she came from, she is clearly a babyalthough of her exact age I cannot be sure. I found her in a pet store. The conditions in which fish are kept in pet storesall pet stores I’ve seen in my twelve-plus years’ experience caring for aquatic animalsare nothing short of horrendous.

Julia was in a small tank overcrowded with dozens of her brothers and sisters, many of whom were dead or dying. If cats and dogs had been in comparable conditions, we’d consider it a crime. Julia had been deemed a “feeder fish,” meaning she was to be bought, dumped suddenly into a new environment (which is extraordinarily stressful for fish) and eaten alive by a larger predatory “pet” fish. I felt I had to do something. While I avoid giving money to exploitative industries whenever possible, when I looked at Julia swimming actively and in better health than most of her cell mates, I decided to get her out of there.

Julia’s life was valued at 19 cents. For under the value of two dimes, I was able to take her out of the hands of those who caused her harm and give her a chance at life. In her new home, she swam freely in a spacious tank, playing in the bubbles, foraging for food in the gravel and socializing with other fish. She was curious, active and friendly.

Unfortunately, just a few days later, her health began to decline. Despite medical treatment, she passed away in the night about a week after her new life had begun. As is so often the case with beings whom society values so little, the conditions and treatment to which humans subjected Julia deprived her of the opportunity to live a healthy life.

To make animal liberation a reality, we must look beyond the shortcomings of our ethical intuitions. We must challenge ourselves to feel for those who look less like us. We must not forget, and not let others forget, that fish are equal in sophistication, sensitivity and cognitive ability to the mammals with whom we more readily empathize. We must stop leaving them out of our conversations- even if we already leave them off of our plates.