While many Americans will be spending the first day of the New Year with their old friends Alka-Seltzer and BC Powder, customs differ in other parts of the world. In Japan, it is customary to eat soba noodles-the long buckwheat noodles are said to bring longevity-on New Year’s Eve, while revelers in Colombia burn effigies of “Mr. Old Year.” During New Year celebrations in Thailand (which take place in April), some caring people release live birds from local markets or collect small fish stranded in pools of water and free them in the river.
We don’t need to wait until April to practice similar acts of kindness toward animals. We could start now, with fish – by liberating them from our plates.
We know that fish, like other animals, are smart, can feel pain and even have their own distinct personalities. In a paper published in November, University of Guelph biologist Rob McLaughlin found that brook trout can be sociable or aggressive, risk-takers or risk-avoiders. Some tend to stay put, while others actively explore their surroundings.
When McLaughlin and his colleagues collected fish from a local river and took them back to their lab, the fish’s personalities didn’t change even though their environment had. For instance, when the researchers put the fish in a dark tube in the aquarium, the bolder, more active fish always emerged first. Shyer fish were more fearful of unfamiliar objects and tended to stay near the bottom of the aquarium.
McLaughlin’s research backs up work done by Lynne Sneddon of the University of Liverpool, who found that “Rainbow trout certainly have contrasting personalities. Some are bold and some are shy. The bold fish take risks, they are quick to learn, more aggressive and active. Shy fish are cautious and timid, and spend more time under cover.”
She added, “They also learn from their experiences: they adjust their behaviour according to what they pick up from others.”
Scientists at Stanford University discovered that fish have the reasoning capacity of 5-year-old children. The Stanford scientists allowed “bystander” fish to watch a series of bouts among several African cichlids, small fish who regularly fight to establish territory. By using observation and logical reasoning, the bystander fish were able to deduce who among the other fish was “top dog” and, when given a choice, would always choose to commingle with the weaker – less threatening – fish.
It’s also a fish story that fish have three-second memories. In fact, they can probably remember more than many New Year’s Eve revelers do the morning after. Dr. Culum Brown of the University of Edinburgh found that Australian crimson spotted rainbowfish who had learned how to escape from a net in their tank could still remember how they did it 11 months later. That’s like you or me remembering something from 40 years ago.
Some fish use tools, such as the South African fish who lay their eggs on leaves and then carry them to safety. Some like to play – Oscars will toss and push ping pong balls floating on the surface of their water – and some might even be able to crack a joke: According to a U.K. study, 60 percent of fish owners said their fish “have a very good sense of humor.”
And of course, all fish feel pain and they suffer horribly when they are impaled on hooks or sliced open by the thin mesh of a fishing net.
Even if we’re not ready to leave fish and other animals off the dinner table completely, let’s at least acknowledge that they, like us, feel pain and joy, love and grief, fear and longing. The New Year is the perfect time to toss out old notions – including those governing our relations with other animals. And if you find yourself having a little trouble stomaching your next fish dinner, may I suggest a steaming bowl of soba noodles?