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Kinder school of thought

Bestseller "What a Fish Knows" by Jonathan Balcombe takes a deep dive into how fish think and feel

All Animals magazine, September/October 2016

An archerfish has the fascinating ability to catch insects with a single shot of water. Photo by Kim Taylor/NPL/Minden Pictures.

Musician Ani DiFranco once sang of goldfish and their supposedly all-too-short memories: The little plastic castle is a surprise every time.

“It’s a nice quote,” admits Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, with a laugh. “But I hope that Ani doesn’t actually believe that.”

After four years researching the lives of fish, Balcombe sure doesn’t. And he spends a few lines debunking the popular myth of a goldfish’s “three-second memory” in his new book, What A Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins.

The book is rich in studies and stories that shed light on the fascinating capabilities, dynamics and senses of fish—what they smell, where they play, who they recognize, how they relieve stress.

There are the archerfish, who can shoot water 10 feet into the air to knock an insect into a stream. There are the tigerfish, who can leap out of the water to catch a swooping swallow. And, of course, there are the remarkable cleanerfish, who pick dead skin, algae and parasites off other fish. They have regular clients, a unique rating system of sorts (potential clients tend to avoid cleaners who nip a little too much) and even customers— such as groupers—who will gently protect them in their mouths should danger happen to swim by.

  • Photo by Mary O'Malley.

Balcombe spoke recently with All Animals contributor Michael Sharp for this edited interview.

Why fish? What inspired you to tackle this topic?

Two main reasons. One is there’s just a really exciting amount of science coming out on fishes and their inner lives, and most of it’s buried away in scholarly journals and the public doesn’t get to see it. So, I thought, well let’s make this stuff visible and accessible to the public.

Reason number two is that, collectively, fishes are the most exploited group of vertebrates on earth. And my hope is that by writing about them and bringing to light the emerging science—the complexity and richness of fishes’ lives—that people may change their attitudes, and that will ultimately result in changing their behavior and their relationship to fishes.

Was there an anecdote or a study that you read early on—before starting the book—that inspired you to think, hey, there might be a lot more here?

There’s so much to choose from. I think a good example would be the remarkable feat of the frillfin goby. It’s a little fish of intertidal zones that actually, as a defense mechanism or an escape from danger, can jump from one tide pool to another.

The question was always: How can they do that accurately without getting stranded on the rocks? And it turns out that they memorize the topography of the tide pool at high tide, when the water’s in and they’re swimming over it.

They can do that once, and they can remember it 40 days later. And those studies were actually done decades ago. So that, to me, says, hey, these animals are capable of doing incredible stuff, that we really sell them short.

What were you most surprised to learn?

Groupers and moray eels engage in cooperative hunting forays, where the grouper recruits the moray by using a head-shaking or body-shimmying signal. They have a higher success rate when they work together as a team than if they each hunt individually. The gist of it is that a big fat grouper can’t chase a fish into the nooks and crannies of the reef, whereas an eel can. And if the eel goes in and catches the fish, well, that’s good for the eel. But if the fish escapes, the grouper’s waiting to pounce when the other fish comes out.

Suffice to say, pointing gestures are rarely found in animal behavior, and groupers do it. They can point at a hidden fish to get the attention of a moray eel to come over and try and catch the fish.

  • Jonathan Balcombe studies the unique behavior of a wide variety of animals. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS.

How exactly does a grouper point?

They use their body like an arrow. So they’ll swim vertically, or close to vertically, with their head pointing down toward the space where they last saw the fish disappear into a cranny in the reef.

You write that the question of whether a fish can experience pain is of “cardinal importance.” Can you explain why?

I regard sentience, the capacity to feel, as the bedrock of ethics. The reason we have moral systems, the reason we have a sense of right and wrong, is because others have lives that matter. They can have good days and bad days. They can feel pain, and they can feel pleasure, or they can suffer. And so for that reason, the question of pain in any animal is always of cardinal importance in my mind, because that’s where ethics begins. If somebody can feel hurt, then they have an interest in not hurting, in not suffering. So they, in my mind, deserve moral consideration.

Science shows that fishes experience pain. There are a wealth of published studies supporting this—anything from looking at the anatomy of the nerve cells and how they respond to heat, mechanical injury and electrical stimulation, to behavioral studies to see how they behave differently when they have a choice to avoid pain or to relieve pain.

Your final chapter discusses modern day fishing practices—from shark finning, to bottom trawling, to fish farming. How serious of a problem is all of this?

It’s a terrible problem. Our technology has advanced to the point that we can locate large schools of fishes using sonar or radar, and then we can have helicopters fly over and confirm the location—and essentially do what the grouper fish does for the moray, point to where they are, and then the fishing boat comes over.

When it’s a 100-ton fishing boat, with nets that are miles long and can circle that school—which may include dolphins as well, if it’s over a school of tuna for instance—everybody gets scooped up. And mortality is high. Huge numbers of fishes are killed each year. Depending on who’s estimating, anywhere from 150 billion to over 2 trillion. As I point out: Enough to stretch to the sun from the Earth, if you line them up end to end.

So it’s easy to forget that each one is an individual—a thinking and feeling being.

But it seems like you also point to signs of hope, and shifting attitudes, as well.

Just in general, broadly speaking, humans are showing an unprecedented moral concern for animals over the last few decades. And inevitably, fish are getting swept into the current. They’re latecomers to the table, but there are signs of change.

And then there are a million acts of kindness that individuals do each and every day in different locations—just picking up a stranded fish on the beach after a big wave came in and taking the fish back into the water.

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