Fishing: Aquatic Agony

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The Painful Reality

The poet Byron said it best: "[T]he art of angling [is] the cruelest, the coldest, and the stupidest of pretended sports." "Sport" fishing generally refers to fishing with a rod and reel, but may include the use of bows and arrows, small nets, spears, or guns. It survives partly because of the misconception that fish don't feel pain. While fish do not express pain and suffering in ways that humans easily recognize, they do gasp and struggle when caught. Moreover, fish have been known to go out of their way, and even risk their own lives, to aid others in trouble.

Scientific reports from around the world substantiate the fact that fish feel pain. For example, a U.K. inquiry into angling and shooting, known as The Medway Report, concluded: "[T]he evidence suggests that all vertebrates (including fish)... experience similar sensations to a greater or lesser degree in response to noxious stimuli." Fish feel pain out of biological necessity, just as mammals do. Without the ability to feel pain, they would not be able to survive.

Hooked fish struggle out of fear and physical pain. Once fish are brought out of their environment and into ours, they begin to suffocate. Often their gills collapse and the swim bladder can rupture due to the sudden change in pressure on their bodies. Anglers also often impale their victims on a "stringer" and dangle them in water so that they won't die quickly and "spoil."

Fish who are released can suffer such severe stress from being "played" that they may die even though they manage to swim away or may be so weakened that they are easy prey for predators. The "fight" to survive during catch and release can cause a buildup of lactic acid, making the fish stiff and sore, lessening their chances of survival.

Many trout streams are so intensively fished that they are subject to "catch and release" regulations requiring that all fish caught must be let go; the aquatic animals in these streams are likely to spend their entire short lives being repeatedly traumatized and injured.

Terry Hill, a former angler, recalls: "On several occasions, I caught fish who had hooks actually embedded in their lips. What had happened was, earlier in that fish's life, a hook had been lost by a fisherman and had embedded itself in the fish's lip. As the fish had grown, the lip had actually grown over the hook. [In some cases,] the hook had actually been swallowed by the fish and become embedded in the fish's stomach. The fish was actually pulled out by the gut. The fisherman would normally become frustrated and would pull the hook out, actually pulling the fish's guts out through the mouth."

Health Food?

Eating the flesh of fish causes health problems for people. Like the flesh of other animals, it contains excessive amounts of protein, fat, and cholesterol, and can cause food allergies. Naturally occurring toxins (e.g., "red tides") can even be fatal to humans.

Fish (including shellfish) can accumulate extremely high levels of chemical residues, as much as 9 million times that of the water in which they live. Fish flesh may store contaminants such as PCB's, strongly suspected of causing cancer, nervous system disorders, and fetal damage; dioxins, also linked to cancer; radioactive substances like strontium 90; and toxic metals like cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium, and arsenic, which can cause health problems ranging from kidney damage and impaired mental development to cancer.

Commercial Carnage

Today's commercial fishers use vast "factory" trawlers the size of football fields and advanced electronic equipment and satellite communications to track fish. (Large operations also use airplanes or helicopters.) Huge nets, sometimes miles long, stretch across the ocean, swallowing up everything in their path.

Factory trawlers are emptying the oceans of sea life at an alarming pace. Thirteen of the 17 major global fisheries are depleted or in serious decline. The other four are "overexploited" or "fully exploited."

Nearly one-third of all species of fish have declined in population in the last 15 years and many species may be wiped out in the next decade. The decline in fish populations is leading to increasing conflicts between fishers and wildlife who eat fish. Some fishers intentionally kill or maim seals, birds, and marine mammals whom they perceive as a threat to their catch. Some species are in decline as a result of overfishing. The number of Steller's sea lions in the Bering Sea has declined by 80 percent since the 1950s. In areas of Scotland where sand eel fishing has now been banned due to overfishing, puffins and terns, whose diet is largely composed of sand eels, failed to produce any young between 1984 and 1987.

Each day during fishing season, almost 1,700 ships worldwide set more than 20,000 miles of large-scale monofilament plastic gillnet, or driftnet, in the open ocean. Much of this net is abandoned in the sea and kills countless animals beyond those it is intended to catch. An estimated 100,000 seals, whales, and porpoises and a million birds every year become entangled in nets and drown. Because factory fishing nets are so vast, huge numbers of fish and other sea animals are caught "by mistake." Factory trawlers haul up tens of thousands of fish in one pull, keeping the most profitable and dumping the rest back. Each year, this adds up to half a billion pounds of dead and dying fish, a number equal to the combined fish catches of Japan and the U.S. in 1990.

Because dolphins habitually swim with schools of yellowfin tuna, the tuna fishing industry "accidentally" drowns at least 20,000 of these sensitive, intelligent marine mammals in its nets annually. Critically endangered sea turtles are killed incidentally by the thousands by shrimp trawlers.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, is now big business. In fact, most of the trout, catfish, and many other fish consumed in the U.S. are raised in fish factories. Factory-farmed fish are kept in shallow concrete troughs. The intensive crowding as many as five fish per square foot spreads infection and parasites, so, like their counterparts in the meat industry, factory fish farmers use antibiotics and growth hormones to get more fish fatter faster.

What You Can Do

Awareness of the sentience of fish is growing. In Germany, the district court in Hamm fined two organizers of an angling contest for cruelty to animals. The judge noted that it's a sad statement about society if "fish are only considered some sort of sports equipment like a football."

Get hooked on compassion: Never buy or eat fish, and, instead of fishing, try hiking, canoeing, or bird watching.

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