Politics & Policy

Hooked! Ouch?

Fish, they say, feel pain.

Marin County, California, may conjure up images of hot tubs and peacock feathers, but Marin’s secret is that there are five pristine lakes on the north side of Mount Tamalpais. The lakes hold much of the county’s fresh water, and all are stocked with rainbow trout, as well as bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

On a weekend visit to one of these lakes — Lake Lagunitas, which is managed for flies-only, barbless-hook trout fishing — I watched an osprey shoot down out of the sky, pluck a plump trout out of the water with its talons, and laboriously carry its prey back to the top of a tall fir tree where it would dine on the still-thrashing fish.

“Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate, and fools to pass by without consideration.” Izaak Walton made this declaration in his 1693 treatise on piscatorial philosophy, The Compleat Angler.

Aside from being envious of the osprey’s success, the event caused me — following in Izaak Walton’s wisdom — to ponder an ethical position currently being promoted by animal rights activists. Fishing, they say, is a cruel sport because fish feel pain when hooked. Hence, it should be banned.

In the U.S., the anti-fishing campaign is led by media-seeking PETA, which launched its anti-fishing campaign in 1999 when the late Linda McCartney appeared in a nationwide TV commercial declaring September 25 “National Fish Amnesty Day.”

PETA has used TV and radio commercials, newspaper ads, billboards, protests involving costumed characters, and other media-attention-seeking tactics to get its message out.

In England, anti-fishing proponents are a little more serious. Fishermen have been attacked on land, buzzed by boats on the water, and sabotaged by scuba divers underwater. According to the Countryside Alliance, a nail-mail bomb was sent by activists to a fish-and-chip shop in North Wales.

On PETA’s special anti-fishing website, it is argued that people should cease fishing because it is cruel, as fish feel pain when hooked. To get their point across they show a dog hooked through the mouth like a bass.

Like the osprey, man has been catching fish for millions of years. I doubt if the bird has ever given much thought to whether catching a fish is ethical or not. It is food-gathering. Survival stuff. Predatory animals do not care about inflicting pain on their prey. Why should man? Nonetheless, spurred on by charges that fishing is sadistic, scientists have recently been studying whether or not fish feel pain.

According to James Rose, a professor of zoology at the University of Wyoming, and an admitted fisherman, “Awareness of pain in humans depends on specific regions of the cerebral cortex. Fishes lack these brain regions and thus the neural requirements necessary for pain experience.” Rose believes that a fish’s reaction to being hooked is an “escape reaction.”

Countering Rose’s view is a recently released British study that claims fish do in fact feel pain. Lynne Sneddon and Michael J. Gentle of the Roslin Institute (the place that gave us Dolly the sheep), and Victoria Braithwaite of the University of Edinburgh, injected bee venom, or acetic acid, into the lips of some trout. They concluded the fish had polymodal nociceptors receptors that respond to tissue-damaging stimuli. Therefore, Sneddon and company state that fish feel pain.

No fishhook that I know contains bee venom or acetic acid — two caustic chemicals that would cause a biochemical reaction independent of any physical sensation. But the scientists’ results pleased animal-rights activists around the world. (It’s fascinating how it is okay to do things to hurt fish to support the anti-fishing position, but not okay if the results are supportive of fishing.)

Anyone who has ever hooked a fish knows that fish don’t like it. In fact, the fight that the fish puts up when hooked is part of the excitement of fishing. But, is such a contest between man and beast automatically “cruel”?

Predators in nature do not show any remorse for catching and killing their prey. Human fishermen, in contrast, usually dispatch a fish quickly upon catching it, unless the fish is kept alive on a stringer so the flesh does not spoil. Each of these are humane gestures, as well as a practical ones. They show respect for the fish. Wasting the flesh of an animal you catch and kill is the real ethical issue for a fisherman, aside from making the choice of whether or not to kill it in the first place.

Nature is cruel. The food chain is a who-eats-who world. Fish commonly eat young ducklings, mice, frogs, snakes, tadpoles, crabs, crawfish, and other fish. Big fish often impale themselves on the spines of the smaller fish they are eating, thus inflicting pain on themselves as well as their prey.

The eminent psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out in his masterful study of the human shadow, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, fishing and hunting (fishing is really a form of hunting) cannot be sadistic because the motivation of a sadist is anger and revenge, while the motive of the sport fisherman is pleasure.

Certainly, sadistic individuals can hunt or fish. They might catch their prey and then delight in prolonging the animal’s suffering as much as possible. However, to say all sportsmen are psychopaths is like saying all sexual intercourse is rape. Thus, if all sex is cruel, brutal, and sadistic, then all of it should be banned.

Over 35 million fishermen in the U.S. enjoy their sport because it involves challenge, leads to communion with nature, and hopefully produces some fresh, tasty, healthy food. Fishing also enables people to take a responsible place in the web of life. Contemplation of the basic law of life that “flesh eats flesh,” as Joseph Campbell put it, leads one to develop a true reverence for life. This is why sportsmen are among the most ardent of conservationists.

In Samoa, they have a saying: “The fish seem to do the will of the chief fisherman.” On my weekend outing to Mount Tamalpais, the osprey must have been the chief fisherman because I got skunked. So, on the way home, I stopped at the fish market and bought some fillets of sockeye salmon. They were fresh in from Copper River, Alaska. Their bright-red flesh has the highest oil (good oil) content of any fish, which makes it the most flavorful.

Modern civilization gives us the security of the fish market. We do not have to catch our food to survive. But someone else does catch and kill it. It does not magically appear in the back of the market. But those who abstain from eating the meat and fish in their stores — because they do not want to be a part of causing pain or suffering in another living thing — are deluding themselves. They have stepped outside of the natural chain of life. And they have no other target than those who remain a part of the natural order.

It kinda makes you think. If the normal, average, mentally strong fisherman or hunter derives pleasure from what they do, aren’t the antis really saying, “Hey. You can’t enjoy yourself doing that because I can’t enjoy myself doing that”? To me, that sounds more a little more like jealousy than concern over another species.

— James Swan is a contributing editor of ESPNOutdoors.com. He also writes for the Outdoor Channel’s Engel’s Outdoor Experience, which just won a Golden Moose for the category “Best Waterfowl Shows 2002.”

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