Amazing Animals - Lobster are sensitive animals, so why do we continue to sanction their suffering?
Lobsters are invertebrates that belongs to the crustacean family. They are divided into two groups: clawed and spiny. Clawed lobsters have claws used for catching and slicing of prey, and they inhabit cold waters. Spiny lobsters have long antennas instead of claws and they are found in the tropical (warm) waters. Their bodies are protected by an outer shell called an "exoskeleton". The shell cannot expand in size as the lobster grows and therefore it sheds periodically.
Lobsters have a brain and nervous system, heart, stomach and intestines just like people. They also have internal and external mechanical and chemical receptor cells (for the detection of pressure, odour, etc.) and their excellent sense of smell and touch are used to detect their prey. They have compound eyes that cover a wide field and are connected by nerves to the brain. They thus are well informed about their surroundings.
They can feel painful stimuli and they can recognise and remember painful or threatening objects or situations and will actively try to avoid them. They also have an ability to learn and to make discriminations. They show understanding and memory both of places and of other individuals, for example by forming social hierarchies when a number of animals are kept confined together.
Lobsters in the wild can survive for over 50 years. But a huge percent live much shorter lifes as they end up in the fishing nets and lobster pots. Physiological studies of lobsters show that they are very stressed by the process of catching, handling, transport and being kept out of water. Many lobsters arrive at factories very weak, dying or dead. Lobsters make vigorous attempts to escape when they are put alive into boiling water to be cooked. They also often shed limbs, an escape response known as autotomy, which is likely also to be a response to pain.
Accepting the fact that lobsters feel pain and experience fear and distress has far reaching implications with regards the way in which society treats them. It also means that what happens to a lobster matters to that individual. Just as much as what happens to us matters to us as individuals. What lobsters want, feel, know, and experience matters to them as much as it would matter to us.
The lives of lobsters are much more complex than we previously understood and this understanding of their sentience and cognitive abilities has far reaching implications for the way we treat them and the policies and laws we adopt.
Out of 49 lobster species, 33 are commercially exploited, many being boiled alive and served as a delicacy. An estimated 200 000 tons of lobsters are caught and treated in this appalling and shameful manner each year.
In 2018, Switzerland became the first country in the world to ban the boiling alive of lobsters.
Do lobsters and crabs feel pain?
There is good evidence that some invertebrates, such as crustaceans and cephalopods, have the capacity for fear and pain, despite the lack a vertebrate pain system.
Decapod crustaceans have a nervous system consisting of ganglia (concentrations of nerve cells) connected by nerve cords, and a brain consisting of fused ganglia at the front of the body. They have a large number of internal and external mechanical and chemical receptor cells (for the detection of pressure, odour, etc.) and they have compound eyes that cover a wide field and are connected by nerves to the brain. They thus have the potential to be well informed about their surroundings.
The likelihood that decapod crustaceans can feel pain is supported by the fact that they have been shown to have opioid receptors and to respond to opioids (analgesics such as morphine) in a similar way to vertebrates. For example, morphine is found to reduce a crab’s reaction to an electric shock or to being presented with a pseudo-’predator’. Natural opiates are found in crustaceans as they are in vertebrates. These findings strongly suggest that opioids have a role in mediating pain in crustaceans in the same way as is known to occur in vertebrates.
In addition, the behaviour of decapod crustaceans shows that they can recognise and remember painful or threatening objects or situations and try to avoid them. The animals also have the ability to learn and to make discriminations. They show some understanding and memory both of places and of other individuals, for example by forming social hierarchies when a number of animals are kept confined together.
When crabs and lobsters are caught, taken out of water and handled, they make vigorous efforts to escape. Physiological studies of lobsters show that they are very stressed by the process of catching, handling, transport and being kept out of water. Many crabs and lobsters arrive at factories very weak, dying or dead. Lobsters make vigorous attempts to escape when they are put alive into boiling water to be cooked. They also often shed limbs, an escape response known as autotomy, which is likely also to be a response to pain.
Research conducted by Professor Robert Elwood and Mirjam Appel at Queens University, Belfast, found that hermit crabs reacted adversely to electric shocks but also seemed to try to avoid future shocks, suggesting that they recalled the past ones. Prof Elwood designed an experiment to assess how crustaceans respond to potentially painful situations. He looked at the European shore crab (Carcinus maenas) - a creature that usually takes shelter under dark rocks during the day to avoid being spotted and eaten by seagulls. Ninety crabs were individually placed in a brightly lit arena, and had the option of scuttling to two dark shelters.
Once the creatures had taken refuge away from the light, half were given an electric shock in the first shelter they chose. The shocked crabs were then placed back into the tank again, but to the researchers' surprise, most of them moved back to the original shelter where they had been stunned. Those that made this decision were then shocked a second time. But now the painful experience had an impact on their future behaviour.
Prof Elwood said: "Those crabs shocked in the previous trial were much more likely to switch shelters than those who hadn't been shocked in the previous trial. Just two experiences produced a significant switch in behaviour. "They leave what is a desired place - a dark shelter - to go out into this dangerous light environment - they are giving up something very valuable. “The crustaceans were placed back in the arena another eight times, and although there were no more shocks, they continued to avoid the shelter where they had been sparked.
The researchers concluded that this was more than a simple reflex reaction to pain, and that the animals were learning from their experience and this was driving their future choices.
Earlier work by the same team has also revealed that prawns and hermit crabs display behaviour that is consistent with our perception of pain. Scientists now believe that all decapod crustaceans - a group that also includes lobsters and crayfish - would show the same response.
Prof Elwood said that there were currently no regulations to protect the welfare of these animals. He pointed to practices in some fisheries where claws are cut from live crabs before the animals are thrown back into the sea. "You see these practices and you really do have to question whether they are reasonable... Even if you are reluctant to believe the data as being strongly suggestive [that the animals experience pain], is it worthwhile imposing this on billions of animals every year throughout the world?" he said.
Cephalopods and pain
Scientists who work with octopuses typically assume that these are intelligent animals that experience pain. Cephalopods have a well-developed nervous system and a complex brain, which is relatively larger than the brains of some fishes and reptiles. They have numerous sense organs that rival those found in vertebrates in their complexity. They have good eyesight and an excellent sense of touch, and they can use both of these senses to make fine discriminations between objects. Aspects of their brain functioning have been found to be similar to that of vertebrates.
There is good evidence from their behaviour that cephalopods can feel pain; for example, electric shocks have been used in experiments to train octopuses to discriminate between objects (and they show signs of fear when subjected to such shocks). Cuttlefish quickly learn not to attack ‘prey’ enclosed in a glass tube, because hitting the glass hurts their tentacles. Octopuses try to avoid being stung by sea anemones and try vigorously to escape when they are anaesthetized using urethane, which they find aversive.
The environment and lifestyle of cephalopods means that they need to be capable of complex and flexible behaviour. As active predators they need to explore, understand and remember their environment and the behaviour of other animals. A number of the abilities of octopuses have been studies by scientists. Octopuses learn easily, including learning by observation of another octopus that has been previously trained to perform a task. They can solve problems, as when they remove a plug or unscrew a lid to get prey from a container. They use rocks and jets of water in a way that could be classified as tool use. They have been found to play with a ‘toy’ and to have individual responses and individual temperaments.
In considering which animals need legal protection, a scientific submission from the University of British Columbia to the Canadian Federal Government has stated that ‘the cephalopods, including octopus and squid, have a remarkably well developed nervous system and may well be capable of experiencing pain and suffering.’
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Still interested to read more? Click below for a great article from Crustacean Compassion