You’ll often hear us extolling the virtues of the pearling industry. Especially as compared with diamond and precious gemstone mining, pearl culturing is a model of virtuous, equitable, and sustainable business practice. But the very act of culturing a pearl does inconvenience a goodly number of oysters, so the question from the tenderhearted arises: do oysters feel pain?
This question has been vehemently argued among vegans and animal rights activists alike, but we’ll momentarily set aside (just for the sake of this discussion) any moral or philosophical arguments to instead strictly examine the scientific understanding of what pain is and how oysters might process it. Let’s steal a peek inside the oyster shell.
Reflex vs. Reflection
Biologically speaking, oysters do not have a central nervous system, like a brain or neuron-processing hub. Two ganglia (masses of nerve cells linked by synapses) serve the “stimuli response” function of the oyster, but these seem more built for reflex than reflection. Imagine a doctor tapping your knee with his small hammer. The first reaction is to jerk the leg (reflex), but an altogether separate reaction is to understand the soreness that the hammer caused (reflection).
Oysters do not seem to be able to process this second behavior, nor have they demonstrated through observation or scientific rationalization the adaptive decision-making capabilities that a more advanced nervous system would allow. Instead, the oyster may react to predation or environmental changes, but it does not have a system in place to experience pain the way a sentient organism (like a human, pig or even lobster) does. Do oysters feel pain? Likely no.
The Benefits of Oyster Farming
All of man’s activities are a give-and-take between pros and cons. Even harvesting grains or fruits requires fossil fuels to power tractors, which causes pollution. But time and again, the pearling industry has demonstrated that it is committed to the wellbeing of marine ecosystems. In fact, farming oysters actually helps the environment.
Consider that some oysters filter between 70 and 100 liters of water every hour, sifting particulates and materials from the oceans. Even after factoring in the carbon footprint of man in this industry, the net environmental outcome is positive: water quality is enhanced; over-exploitation is kept in check through intelligent farming; forests are encouraged to thrive (deforestation causes runoff, the chemicals in which threaten oysters); pesticides are unneeded; no grain or nutrient supplements are required to feed oysters; and where pearl farms move in, biodiversity increases.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice
What’s more, the byproducts of pearl farming are minimal. Shells are repurposed for mother-of-pearl (used in buttons, inlays, utensils, and rather dapper collar stays), or polished for use in the next generation’s nucleation. Still others are returned to the seabed to serve as ecosystems for organic growth. Oyster meat is consumed locally or used as natural fertilizer. Oysters, in fact, pack huge amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids.
Do oysters feel pain? Science tells us no, while giving us plenty of reasons to celebrate oysters as a sustainably farmed whole-use product, from pearl to meat to shell. Of course, if Pascal’s Wager tells us anything, we can never know for sure. But we at Spey will keep on championing our hero, the oyster.