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Books

Fish are not so cold-blooded after all

Jonathan Balcombe’s disquieting book shows just how intelligent and sentient fish are, and how scandalously we abuse them

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

What a Fish Knows Jonathan Balcombe

One World, pp.288, £12.99

The recent furore over a freakshow ice rink in Japan, with hapless fishes embedded beneath the skaters’ feet, was inexplicable to some. The fish were dead already, weren’t they, bought from the market? What’s the difference between eating them and gliding over their artlessly strewn bodies, posed as if in a frozen shoal like the porpoises Virginia Woolf’s Orlando glimpses in an iced-up Thames?

The difference is us. In a world sensitive to every nuance of use and consumption, fishes, like the sea in which most of them swim, are the new frontier. As the queer theorist and Sydney-based academic Elisabeth Probyn notes in her new book, Eating the Ocean (Duke University Press), our modern sensitivities — and the middle-class-driven search for ethically-sourced food — have resulted in a remorseless expansion. We are eating twice the amount of fish now that we were eating in the 1960s; the same period has seen a 50 per cent fall in fish populations.

It is ironic that as the acidifying, warming oceans rise, we look increasingly to their denizens to sustain our unsustainable populations. Probyn writes evocatively of the ‘fork-wavers’ who turn meals into political battlefields, as if our allegiances and all the world’s wrongs were embodied in a mouthful. But if that wasn’t enough, along comes the American scientist and author Jonathan Balcombe to challenge our preconceptions about fishes — to the extent that he declines to employ the collective plural, seeing them as sentient individuals rather than a resource.


When it comes to empathy, fishes have a marketing problem. They’re cold-blooded, seemingly simple creatures, occupying an element that seems far removed from ours. That alien quality, Balcombe intimates, allows us to treat them the way we do. We do not, apparently, shudder at the sight of their gasping bodies thrashing in pain as they suffocate in a net or on the deck of a trawler. Recreational anglers seem self-excused by virtue of the fact that they return their catch to the water, but their catches are traumatised by the experience, and often blinded by the hooks. In this disconnection, even some so-called vegetarians (such as this reviewer) eat them, hypocritically, ‘as if there were no moral distinction between a cod and a cucumber’.

Yet we are all fishes in the womb, with residual gills and fins instead of fingers, swimming in our amniotic seas. Fishes were the first to develop hearing, and colour vision. They can ‘taste’ with their entire bodies, and appear to enjoy being touched. ‘Your life a sluice of sensations,’ as D.H. Lawrence wrote in his 1921 poem, ‘Fish’. Far from the cliché of a three-second memory span ascribed to a goldfish in a bowl (a denuded environment now outlawed in parts of Europe), fishes remember the humans that feed them, and can accomplish cognitive mapping. They can even point to objects in referential gestures seen elsewhere only in primates and corvids: Red Sea groupers have been observed indicating prey to moray eels, with whom they co-operatively hunt.

Crucially, they also feel and remember pain, as the sometimes gruesome experiments that Balcombe describes demonstrate: he recognises the paradox that his book draws on science that has purposefully blinded, maimed and otherwise ill-treated its subjects to solicit responses which prove, or disprove, how like us they may be. Fishes show fear and consciousness. In one experiment, trout subjected to injected venom would show visible signs of distress — increased gill beats — which was ameliorated by the administration of morphine. Indeed, these trials really did point up their closeness to us: dosed with cocaine, other fishy subjects begin to abuse the drug.

Balcombe’s chapters on fish behaviour are remarkable. As socially organised creatures, fishes demonstrate ‘an attunement that goes beyond mere co-existence’. Cleaner wrasse service their clients — fellow fishes whose parasites they eat — in order, like the queue in a barber’s shop. They even recognise returning customers and allow them preferential treatment. Such behaviour indicates culture, to Balcombe: traditions transmitted by learning, rather than instinct or genes. Mating pufferfishes will create intricate patterns in the sand, decorated with shells, to attract mates, much as bower birds assemble similar structures. Other fishes’ adaptability extends as far as changing sex (‘with no need for expensive surgery’, as the author quips). It’s a useful technique for those fishes that occupy the benthic, sunless depths where it’s difficult to tell who’s a boy or a girl. They simply switch from being sperm provider to egg producer, depending on the demands of the situation.

Fishes are ‘not just things, but beings’, Balcombe concludes. ‘A fish feels and knows.’ They experience pain and pleasure, they play and perceive. Yet we continue to treat them as slimy extensions of the food chain, ignoring their increasing rarity. To eat a tuna, Balcombe says, is equivalent to eating a tiger. Below the ocean’s skin, in Herman Melville’s phrase, fishes constitute the most polluted food we eat, with up to 85,000 of the 125,000 new chemicals we have produced since the industrial revolution found in their bodies. It may indeed be their final revenge for all those fish-and-chip suppers.

Philip Hoare’s books include Leviathan, or the Whale, and The Sea Inside.

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