Why Should We Shed Light on Decapods?

June 23, 2021Lu Shegay


Aquatic animals, in general, are disregarded by the public for their mistaken beliefs that this category of animals is not capable of feeling pain or any emotions. Not to mention that lots of aquatic animals are not individualized and are counted in the unit of mass. Larger aquatic animals are receiving more attention from the public, but that’s not necessarily the rule. For example, sharks due to the misleading illustration of them in books, cartoons, or movies, scare off the people, while in reality, only a few species are considered dangerous. Decapods are another subcategory of aquatic animals that are receiving less consideration, lesser than fish. Some consider decapods ocean bugs that are not smart or not capable of feeling any emotions, thus are not sentient.

"Orange Crab in Shallow Photo" by Summer Li from Pexels

Sentience of decapods

Any animal, independent of their body size, brain size, or intellectual abilities, when they are crammed together, is aware of their upcoming death. But recognizing them as sentient beings, thus extending legal protections to them is a debatable topic for many communities. While, for instance, cephalopods were recognized as extremely intelligent animals, there are doubts about whether decapods are capable of having sentience. According to Professor Donald Broom, “there is evidence from some species of fish, cephalopods, and decapod crustaceans of substantial perceptual ability, pain, and adrenal systems, emotional responses, long- and short-term memory, complex cognition, individual differences, deception, tool use, and social learning. The case for protecting these animals would appear to be substantial.”

There have been lots of speculations and discussions made on whether decapods should be recognized as sentient beings and whether they actually are capable of feeling any emotions, such as pain, suffering, or fear. Despite any doubts, a lot of studies have been conducted that showed lobsters and crabs being stressed out, and their stress was caused by catching, handling, transport, and being held out of water. Moreover, it has been found that decapod crustaceans can remember painful or threatening objects. While cephalopods have been noticed for an attempt to escape and demonstrated an incredible use of tools, decapods are also able to try escaping. Lobsters and crabs, when caught, handled, taken out of the water, or put alive into boiling water, do respond, which is their response to pain and fear.

Lobsters also experience stress in confinement due to low oxygen levels and crowding. According to Jaren G. Horsley, an invertebrate zoologist, “the lobster does not have an autonomic nervous system that puts it into a state of shock when it is harmed. It probably feels itself being cut. . . . I think the lobster is in a great deal of pain from being cut open . . . [and] feels all the pain until its nervous system is destroyed during cooking.” Decapods are undoubtedly tortured when used for food; when dropped into the boiling water, lobsters “whip their bodies wildly and scrape the sides of the pot in a desperate attempt to escape.”

As for the crabs, marine biologists that are specialized in decapods say crabs are fascinating creatures. Crabs are able to learn from their own mistakes and store the information in their memory. “Crabs are capable of learning from their mistakes and retaining that information so that they don’t make the same mistakes again in the future, and they adapt to changing cues in their environment. In one experiment, researchers moved a screen over the water above crabs to mimic the cues of a seagull or other predators passing overhead. At first, the crabs ran into their burrows, but after a few repetitions, the crabs learned that the darkness didn’t correspond with danger, and they no longer fled.”

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Legal protection

While many countries do not even protect marine mammals by law, which is one of the most widespread subcategories of aquatic animals being noticed, some countries extended legal protections to decapods. There are some countries recognizing the protection of decapods under their animal welfare legislation, yet it is not certain if those regulations are actually enforced.

With that being said, Canada includes cephalopods and “some other higher invertebrates” in its Canadian Council on Animal Care.

New Zealand protects such decapods as crabs, lobsters, and crayfish in its Animal Welfare Act of 1999. Section 2 of the Act provides:

  1. In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires,—

accredited reviewer means a person accredited under section 109 to carry out independent reviews under section 105

aircraft has the meaning given to it by section 2 of the Civil Aviation Act 1990


(a) means any live member of the animal kingdom that is—

(i) a mammal; or

(ii) a bird; or

(iii) a reptile; or

(iv) an amphibian; or

(v) a fish (bony or cartilaginous); or

(vi) any octopus, squid, crab, lobster, or crayfish (including freshwater crayfish); or

(vii) any other member of the animal kingdom which is declared from time to time by the Governor-General, by Order in Council, to be an animal for the purposes of this Act;” [...]

In Norway, Section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act of 2009 says:

“The Act applies to conditions which affect the welfare of or respect for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, decapods, squid, octopi, and honey bees. The Act applies equally to the development stages of the animals referred to in cases where the sensory apparatus is equivalent to the developmental level in living animals.”

Only a very few countries list decapods in their legislative acts, but whether those regulations are actually enforced is another issue. The high demand for seafood all over the globe is raising more and more concerns for animal advocates and environmental law activists due to the objective to free animals from abuse/cruelty and to save the planet. Keeping our oceans full and healthy is a possible goal to achieve by understanding a very simple and logical thing - all inhabitants depend on one another, and if some aquatic animals begin to disappear, it causes other aquatic animals who are fed with them to disappear too due to the lack of food. A great example can be made with sharks who are at the top of the food chain in the oceans, and many species of sharks feed on small size fish and invertebrates. Sharks are able to regulate the species abundance, distribution, and diversity, which can afterward impact the health of marine habitats.


Decapods are the source of food for other aquatic animals too, and, besides so many other existing threats, natural or man-made, there is a need to protect lobsters, crabs, prawns, and others by simply decreasing the demand for seafood and/or exotic food. Pain in invertebrates is a complex question that has always required and still requires a lot of debates and studies from a scientific point of view. Definitions of pain and suffering vary, but because of the complexity of determination of pain, it is not sufficient to just observe the animals. Rather, the reasoning of whether a certain animal is capable of feeling pain/suffering derives from their physical and behavioral reactions. If decapods have demonstrated their suffering, fear, and pain reaction according to the studies, these animals are sentient and shall be recognized by the legal system.

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