What a Fish Knows

Book review: What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Under Water Cousins

Reviewed by Linda DeStefano
Translated by Rob English

Written 2016 by Jonathan Balcombe, Director of Animal Sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy.

Some of the fascinating fishes Balcome features are shown in colorful photos in this hardcover book ($27).

Balcombe uses both anecdotal and scientific findings to reveal the complicated and varied lives of fishes. We learn about their ability to feel pain, pleasure, fear, stress, and fun, similar to other animals. It is easy for people to discount fish as they live in another element from us – water – and do not scream in a way we can hear in air. Their communication in water reveals their reaction to pain.

Balcombe explores how fishes perceive their world, their social lives, their varied means of reproduction. “The main conclusion we may draw from these aspects of what a fish knows is that fishes are individuals with minds and memories, able to plan, capable of recognizing others, equipped with instincts and able to learn from experience. In some cases. fishes have culture.” (pp. 176-177)

Fishes not only are capable of forming bonds with each other but with people. One of several examples is the relationship between Grandma, a wild shark, and Cristina Zenato, an ocean explorer, conservationist and certified dive instructor. Zenato says:

(Grandma) has a soft nature, and a way of approaching me with the desire to be petted and touched. She is usually very keen to come to me. Even when somebody else is down there with food and I am some distance away she will approach me before anybody else. Sometimes when I let her go she quickly turns and comes back into my lap. (p.145)

An example of the complicated nature of fish reproduction is that some can transition from male to female or vice versa. Others assume both male and female identities simultaneously. And seahorses carry fertilized eggs in their pouch and then give birth to the babies.

Fishes have many different ways to make a living. For example, archerfishes squirt a sharp jet of water up to ten feet through the air to capture an insect perched on a leaf. On the other hand, anglerfishes use their luminescent stalk and lantern as a lure for unsuspecting prey.

Balcombe reports on many scientific experiments using fishes, such as, their intelligence, problem-solving abilities, even kindness to a tank mate not doing well. I have a big problem with those experiments which inflict pain on fishes to scientifically prove that they feel pain. Typical humane arrogance to think science has the right to use other beings in whatever way the researchers choose.

Balcombe too has ethical concerns about some of these experiments. In the “Epilogue,” he makes an eloquent, well-reasoned argument for respectful, compassionate treatment of fishes.

I’ve barely touched the surface of the information provided in this valuable, groundbreaking book. See for yourself by borrowing from the Onondaga County Library system or buying from your favorite bookseller.

Linda is President of People for Animal Rights, P.O. Box 15358, Syracuse, NY 13215-0358, people4animalrightscny@gmail.com, (315)488-7877 (8 a.m. – 10 p.m.), peopleforanimalrightsofcny.org