What a Fish Knows and More: Interview with Jonathan Balcombe

We sat down with ethologist and author Jonathan Balcombe to ask him why he’s flying the flag for our fishy friends – and why you should too.

what a fish knows

Hi Jonathan! Why are you so committed to the fish cause? What was the turning point for you?

I suppose I have always been committed to the fish cause, in principle. What got me focused on fishes was simply that I was looking for a topic for my next book. When I thought of fishes I knew it had to be done. It fit my three main criteria for a timely and needed book: a) we have a lot of negative misconceptions about fish, b) there is a lot of great science that shows they do remarkable things, and c) most people are not aware of that information.

Why do fish need our help? What is their biggest threat?

Fish are in dire trouble. Commercial and recreational fishing have reduced their populations to half what they were 50 years ago, and the trend continues today. Humans consume fish at a higher rate than ever before, and aquatic habitats are facing unprecedented threats, including climate change, acidification, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, chemical pollution, and noise pollution. Experts have predicted fish will disappear by 2050 at current rates of depletion. Such is the importance of fish in global ecosystems that we would not be around to witness it because humans could not survive without healthy populations. Few even know that the oceans produce more than half of available oxygen on our planet.

What small steps can an individual take to help fish?

The best thing anyone can do is simply not to eat fish. Whenever we purchase fish we are funding the industries that supply them. There is no better way to sustain an industry than to give it money. Some people who read this will not be willing to stop consuming fish, so do some homework on the species you plan to eat. How are their populations doing? How cruelly are they killed?

Are there any ways that people can interact with fish and sea life without harming them?

My favourite is to swim among them. Snorkeling is my favourite outdoor activity. There are also live webcams where you can watch fishes on reefs and other habitats swimming free without human disturbance. Instead of an aquarium, Netflix has a virtual aquarium video, and I suspect other video providers have similar ones.

What are some of the coolest things you learnt about fish during your research?

Oh, there are so many. I think it’s cool that a pair of fish will take turns while feeding on the reef. One fish acts as a sentry, looking out for danger while the other feeds in safety. Then they switch roles. I think it’s cool that some fish are able to plan an aerial ambush, launching themselves into the air to catch flying birds. I think it’s cool that a frillfin goby can memorise the layout of an inter-tidal zone at high tide, then use her mental map to leap accurately from one tidepool to another at low tide. And I think it’s pretty cool that a Greenland shark can live to 400 years old.

Is there anything (such as a behaviour) that fish do that humans can relate to?

How about falling for the same optical illusions that we do? I present some examples in ‘What a Fish Knows’. It shows they have beliefs, and that those beliefs can be wrong. How very human of them!

Do you have a favourite fish? Why?

It’s hard to have a favourite fish when there are over 33,000 to choose from. Whenever I’m asked this question I come up with a different answer. It is hard not to be in awe of a great white shark. I like the opah, a fish that has the ability to internally warm up its body. This allows them to swim and hunt efficiently at colder depths without having to rise to the surface to warm up. They have a disc shaped profile and a beautiful peach colour. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen them being held up for the camera by gloating fishermen.

Is there any vegan ‘fish’ dish orproduct you recommend?
I never ate much fish even before I became vegetarian (then vegan) 35 years ago. These days, I enjoy an occasional fishless fillet from Gardein, which is widely available in supermarkets.

Apart from your book ‘What A Fish Knows’, can you recommend any other resources for people interested in learning more about fish?

A textbook titled ‘The Diversity of Fishes‘ (2nd Edition) was a great help to me while I was researching the book. Victoria Braithwaite’s 2010 book “’Do Fish Feel Pain?’ is a readable account of the study of pain in fishes. For anyone with a scholarly interest in the fish pain debate, there are many commentaries at the free online journal Animal Sentience.

Do you have any exciting fish projects coming up that you can tell us about?

I recently began working with a German company to develop a short animated film on fishes for online distribution. Their videos reach millions, so I am hopeful that it will have a far-reaching impact.

If you’d like to read Jonathan’s book, ‘What a Fish Knows’ (and we really recommend that you do!) then grab a copy here. And don’t forget to follow Jonathan on Twitter too!

If you’ve been inspired by this interview, why not try vegan with us, or encourage your friends to? Click here to join the vegan party!

PAGE UPDATED NOVEMBER 2020

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