Blue Planet II and the quest for a global recognition of fish sentience: Joining the dots…

Posted on the 22nd December 2017

Animal Aid's Farming Campaign Manager, Tor Bailey, looks at why the astonishing scenes revealed in Blue Planet II should make people re-think eating fish...

So Attenborough has captured hearts, now we need to change minds!

With the nation still mourning the end of Blue Planet II, it’s time to add a slightly different piece to the library of articles celebrating the runaway success of the flagship series, which was created by the BBC’s Natural History Unit and thoughtfully hosted by David Attenborough.

The series proved a huge success, being the UK’s most watched TV show of 2017. The ratings are the highest ever recorded for a nature show, with the first part in the series attracting a staggering 14.1 million viewers, eclipsing even Planet Earth II!

Wasn’t it enthralling to gain such an insight into the mysterious lives of such a wide variety of underwater creatures? Many of these marvels were previously known purely ‘anecdotally’ or had only appeared in academic journals. They were previously so very much out of public sight and mind before now.

Some of the sound effects proved so alien, that viewers have challenged their validity, but the executive producer has defended the sounds as being representative of nature and some of the sound was reportedly recorded by an expert sound recordist with good knowledge of life under the water.

A very determined black tuskfish was filmed on the great barrier Reef, picking up a clam in their mouth and cracking the shell open, on a coral. In the accompanying series podcast the assistant producer states ‘When he couldn’t crack open a clam on one anvil site, he’d go to another… and he was locating said anvil sites. These fish are fortunate enough to have both the insight and dexterity plus supportive environment to demonstrate such prowess. I would argue that this constitutes tool use, as they are employing objects in their environment as tools to make their lives easier.’ Fish may well be as intelligent as primates, and you certainly didn’t hear it here first.

Conditions for farmed fish are truly atrocious with thousands of farmed fish confined to crowded cages unable to escape the water that is filthy from their own waste. They suffer from a range of welfare issues such as fin erosion, eye cataracts, skeletal deformities, soft tissue damage, sea lice infestation in the case of Atlantic salmon (whereby they are quite literally eaten alive) and high premature mortality rates generally due to a range of causal factors.

The government’s own Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) stated in a 1996 report on fish farming that fish have all the nerve chemicals and cell receptors necessary to experience pain and stress.

In the early eighties Dutch researchers found that fish carp hooked on a tight line were prepared to starve themselves of food for quite some time afterwards in order to try to prevent the associated painful experience from happening again. Whilst these experiments were clearly horrific and morally deplorable, they have highlighted the complex emotional lives of fish.

Fish have a whole host of sensory adaptations from both water pressure and movement detection, geomagnetism and even communication via electricity as per the black ghost knife fish. They even omit a fear chemical response to warn others of ‘schreckstoff’, translated from German as ‘scary stuff’.

Fish even exhibit playful and joyful behaviour, from small domestic aquarium-dwelling fish riding the bubble jet in an aquarium for fun to sharks and groupers approaching familiar divers for ‘petting’.

Groupers have been known to recognise and approach known divers for petting, purely it is supposed, because it feels enjoyable to the fish, despite the lack of food reward.

A very rudimentary form of sign language coupled with inter species co-operation was demonstrated through an unlikely hunting collaboration between a coral grouper and a reef octopus in episode three. The grouper indicates the presence of small fish darting in and out of the coral and hiding in crevices which the grouper cannot access. After chasing a fish into a crevice, the grouper turns slightly paler to attract the octopus’ attention, turns on his/her head and tail shimmies to signal to the octopus to access the fish through a small opening. The prey is flushed and taken by a lucky recipient.

But with so much insight we really are forced to question the use and consequential abuse of our underwater friends. To reduce such complex lives to barren aquariums to be gawped at offers no real educational insight into their natural lives. To confine them in underwater ‘prisons’ to intensively farm them for the plate is damaging to them and wholly unnecessary, since we don’t need to eat fish. To conduct invasive laboratory research on the tiny bodies of zebrafish for the misguided notion of a benefit for humans is also deeply unnecessary. Reference terms such as ‘stocks’ or ‘tons’ of fish caught conveniently reduces them to figures on a balance sheet in our minds.

The lives of fish matter a great deal to them and they should certainly matter far more to us. With the huge recent public outcry at the perceived elimination of animal sentience from UK post-Brexit law, perhaps it’s the right time for us to truly embrace fish sentience more widely. Perhaps this recent surge in awareness and fascination with our underwater friends will mean that more of us will seek to protect rather than harm them. ‘The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and mammals’ – Professor Donald Broom, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Cambridge University. Studies have shown time and again that fish will take action to avoid or relieve pain. We can only begin to imagine the pain when fish are killed by suffocation, clubbed over the head or have their gills slit so they gradually bleed to death. Other species are hugely affected, too; an estimated 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) die in fishing nets every year, with an undocumented number escaping but suffering resultant stress or injuries.

We have the opportunity to remove ourselves from this grisly equation… Quite simply, stop the suffering, stop eating fish!

It’s never been such an easy time to go vegan. If you’re not already, please do order a FREE vegan pack with recipes and nutritional information.

Why not order some of our ‘killed in Cold Blood’ leaflets today and help spread the word to others about fish sentience and suffering? You can do this by emailing


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