Some say the hiss that sounds when crustaceans hit the boiling water is a scream (it's not, they don't have vocal cords). But lobsters and crabs may want to since a new report suggests that they could feel pain.
In a British lab experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, European shore crabs were likely to avoid dark shelters in a tank that delivered electric shocks to the crabs. The data "are consistent with key criteria for pain experience and are broadly similar to those from vertebrate studies," the authors say.
Robert Elwood, a biologist with Queen's University in the United Kingdom and author of the report, says it is impossible to know whether or not an animal feels pain because humans are unable to experience it for themselves. It has long been known that crustaceans and other animals experience something known as "nociception," a reflexive action—moving away from a toxic chemical or fire, for instance—that has evolved as a survival skill but is not necessarily unpleasant. But the crabs' behavior in his study—crabs who were initially exposed to shocks in a certain shelter avoided that shelter in future trials—suggests they may feel true pain.
"They're consistently showing that this is more than just a reflex," Elwood says. "Infuriatingly, I cannot conclude for certain that they feel pain, because it is a logical impossibility. … But their behavior has given me data that is consistent with pain."
Elwood says he won't lobby for the seafood industry to make changes to the way it does business—lobsters are kept in small tanks, some crabs have their claws removed at sea before they're tossed back into the water, many crustaceans are boiled or steamed alive—because he doesn't want to lose his objectivity as a scientist. "I'm a scientist, not a campaigner," he says.
But he also says it might be time for people to, as novelist David Foster Wallace once wrote, "Consider the lobster." In a 2004 essay for Gourmet Magazine, Wallace asked: "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" Elwood says it might be time to make some changes.
"Whether my experiments will change how the seafood industry works, I doubt it very much, but it might be the first step," he says. "Animals should have a good life and a good death, and I think in many cases these crustaceans don't have a good death."
A representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that much of the success they've had lobbying for better treatment for crustaceans has come on the consumer end.
"There's no scientific reason to treat sea animals differently because they're not as familiar to us as dogs and cats or pigs and cows," says Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist with PETA. "I think people are learning that sea animals do feel pain and are deciding not to eat them."
Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, which represents more than 70 seafood processors in Maryland, says the news is unlikely to change anything.
"They've been cooked since the [Native Americans] first started doing it many years ago and it's not going to stop now," he says.
Sieling says some high-end restaurants will soak crabs in ice water before they're boiled so that their claws don't come off during boiling, and others will kill crabs with an ice pick immediately before they're cooked. But the vast majority of them are boiled alive.
"Crabs don't have a brain in the way we have one—they have a collection of nerve cells so they have some ability to decide what they want to do," he says. "But I've never heard of anyone raising issues about how they're treated."