Lobsters 'very likely' feel pain when boiled alive, researcher says

The Swiss government's recent ban on boiling lobsters alive may have had some Maritimers chuckling, but one researcher said there's merit to the move, and it's "very likely" lobsters feel pain.

Robert Elwood admits his research has been met with mixed reaction

The Swiss government has banned boiling lobster and other crustaceans alive. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

The Swiss government's recent ban on boiling lobsters alive may have had some Maritimers chuckling, but one researcher said there's merit to the move, and that it's "very likely" lobsters feel pain.

Robert Elwood, professor emeritus of animal behaviour at Queen's University in Northern Ireland, has spent more than a decade researching the issue. 

He said there's no easy answer, but he believes it's "very likely" lobsters and other crustaceans can feel pain.

"When I started work on the subject, I thought that answer would be highly unlikely," he said.

Experiments with prawns

In his research, Elwood has performed a series of experiments to determine whether crustaceans in fact feel pain, or if they're just reacting to certain actions.

During one experiment in which a light acid was placed on the antenna of a prawn, Elwood said the prawn would repeatedly rub the area for a long time.

Robert Elwood, professor emeritus of animal behaviour at Queen's University in Belfast, has done extensive research on whether crustaceans feel pain. (Submitted by Robert Elwood)

In another experiment, Elwood would have crabs choose between a shelter that shocked them, and one that didn't.

He said the crabs would consistently choose the shelter without the shocks.

"They show all indicators of it being pain, so although I can't say if lobsters experience pain ... there's always an element of doubt," Elwood said.

"None of this is a reflex and it's all consistent with the idea of pain."

Different brains, same pain

Some researchers believe that crustaceans can't feel pain because, unlike humans, they don't have the same regions in their brains that register pain.

"I think that's a nonsense argument," Elwood said. "Different animals have very different nervous systems that have evolved to do the same thing."

Elwood uses the example of lobsters, octopuses and humans, who can all see but each creature's brain has evolved differently.

"You can't discount pain simply because the brains are different," he said.

'A topic that really divides people'

Elwood has presented his findings to dozens of conferences and universities, and said he has been met with mixed reaction.

"It's a topic that really divides people, but what I say is we have to look at the evidence."

Elwood said he doesn't discourage people from eating lobster, but recommends people kill the crustaceans humanely before processing them to prevent any potential suffering.

"It seems such an easy thing to do," he said. "There's a responsibility that humans do not cause unnecessary suffering to other organisms."

With files from Mainstreet