Book Review: What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

In Animal Behavior, Animal Rights, Book Publishers, Nonfiction, Oceans by Midge Raymond0 Comments

Midge Raymond

Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.

It’s difficult to think of another title that is more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction.

While fishes aren’t usually at the top of the list of animals that elicit human sympathy (“We hear no screams and see no tears when their mouths are impaled and their bodies pulled from the water”), Balcombe writes that it is only because of their differences that we do not see their suffering: “Crying out in pain is as ineffective for a fish in air as crying out in pain is for us when we are submerged.” Fishes do feel pain, of course; they just express it in very different ways, and we must adjust our way of thinking in order to see it and acknowledge it.

And of course, fishes feel so much more than pain; What a Fish Knows is divided into sections about what a fish perceives, feels, thinks, and knows as well as how it breeds and how it suffers. (Balcombe chooses to use the word fishes rather than fish to acknowledge that they are individuals with personalities and relationships.)

Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. The facts about fishes’ uniqueness and diversity are fascinating in themselves—for example, that ocean sunfishes carry 300 million eggs while sharks reproduce via one live birth at a time—but what’s most interesting are the scientific and anecdotal stories of how alike fishes are to other animals, shattering any misconceptions readers may have about fishes being dull or unperceiving. In fact, Balcombe writes, “A small squid can learn mazes faster than dogs do, and a small goby fish can memorize in one trial the topography of a tide pool by swimming over it at high tide—a feat few if any humans could achieve.”

Fishes not only have excellent hearing (which makes them sensitive to human-generated underwater noise), they can tell the difference between classical music and the blues. Their keen sense of smell allows them recognize one another and warn other fishes of danger. They have more taste buds than any other animal, and they enjoy the touch of one another and of humans, as Balcombe shows in several anecdotes, including one about a fish who “even rolls side to side to be petted properly, as a dog or pig will do.”

In addition, What a Fish Knows portrays the ways in which fishes form close bonds (goldfishes, for example, should never live alone in a bowl or tank), as well as how they learn, play, parent, form relationships, and problem solve. They have good memories and express flexibility, curiosity, determination. They cooperate and they deceive.

Of note in this book is something that is all too frequently missing from other books about animals’ sentience: the irony of the impact of the scientific experiments that prove to us that these animals experience the range of emotions that they do. As Balcombe writes, “Fishes show the hallmarks of pain both physiologically and behaviorally,” and he acknowledges the cruelty of the experiments fishes endure for us to gain this knowledge. He writes of the “pain, distress, and ensuing disorientation caused by blinding salmon” and assures us, after one experiment, that “the surgeonfishes were returned to their homes on the reef.”

Perhaps the most important part of this book, especially after reading everything up to this point, is the section on humans’ exploitation of fishes—not just because it is shocking but because we have the power to change it. The number of fishes killed by humans each year is between 1 and 2.7 trillion (which does not include the great numbers of fishes caught illegally, recreationally, as bycatch, in “ghost nets,” or as feed for fish farms). After learning so much about the individual personalities of fishes, this number is especially staggering.

And, Balcombe points out, the fishes “do not die nicely.” They are crushed to death in nets; they are suffocated; they suffer decompression, in which the esophagus turns inside out, the eyes bulge from their orbits, organs are displaced, and hemorrhaging occurs, among other horrors. Fishes raised in captivity fare no better—they are electrocuted or decapitated and left to bleed out. Even if the amount of toxins in fishes (“Fish flesh is the most contaminated of all foods”) isn’t enough to prevent one from eating fishes after learning about their emotional, intellectual, and social lives, the brutal practices of an industry that subjects them to such torture should offer more than enough incentive.

Balcombe also addresses the fact that recreational fishing and farmed fishing are not better alternatives to the commercial fishing industry, as well as the problems of “ghost nets” (the up to 640,000 tons of netting and other equipment lost by fishing boats) and “bycatch” (those fishes and other animals caught unintentionally by the fishing industry). The main victims of ghost nets are dolphins, seals, turtles, and seabirds, and bycatch (whose victims include seabirds, whales, seals, and penguins) is responsible for 40 percent of the global fish catch. All of these animals are, because they are unwanted, thrown away. Because we have reduced predatory fishes (the ones humans like to eat) by more than two-thirds, Balcombe likens eating fishes to eating wildlife, and he quotes Sylvia Earle: “Think of everything in the fish market as bush meat. These are the eagles, the owls, the lions, the tigers, the snow leopards, the rhinoceroses of the ocean.”

This powerful, accessible book will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again, whether it’s a pet or one in the sea—and it will certainly inspire us to keep them off our plates.

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