by Whit Gibbons

October 24, 2004

I read two articles recently about fish, one in Science magazine and the other in the admittedly less authoritative Dive Training magazine. In the former, Felicia C. Coleman and colleagues from Florida State University evaluated whether recreational fishing has a negative impact on marine fish populations. The other article discussed scientific studies that reached different conclusions about whether fish can actually feel pain. I'm betting that tuna will evolve wings and learn to fly before either issue gets resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

The question of whether fish feel pain was summarized nicely by Greg Laslo, who compared two lines of interpretation based on research with fish. One study injected the snouts of rainbow trout with bee venom or acetic acid (akin to vinegar) and found that indeed the fish reacted; responses included swaying and rubbing their noses against the tank. When morphine was injected into the snouts, the fish stopped responding, suggesting that bee venom or acid injections were not enjoyable and the morphine offered relief. This does not mean fish are smart; even an earthworm would probably respond in a similar way, if you could decide which end the snout was on.

Anyway, another scientist poo-poohed the study (although that may not have been the scientific terminology used) by pointing out that trout do not feel emotions because their brain is the size of a short, thin piece of spaghetti. Therefore, whatever discomfort fish might experience, they do not feel "pain" the way humans do.

But a more important issue is whether we will still have fish left in the ocean to feel pain if they could. Fish conservation for many species is of vital concern, and the Science article takes a position that recreational fisheries can sometimes have a negative effect on certain species, such as red drum and red snapper. The authors note that recreational fish management regulates the number of fish a person can catch each day but does not restrict how many people can go fishing. According to their assessment of fish species of concern, recreational anglers are responsible for almost two-thirds of those landed in the Gulf of Mexcio, whereas commercial fisheries account for slightly over one-third. A study of this nature will receive criticism from recreational fishermen who view their impact as far below that of commercial fisheries.

I asked J. D. Willson of the University of Georgia to offer his opinion on the recreational fishing study. J. D. is both an objective scientist and a consummate recreational fisherman. Here is his position on the topic.

"Recreational fishing certainly affects fish populations. However, these impacts are minor compared to the effects of commercial fishing. The key difference between the two fisheries lies in the ability to effectively implement regulations such as size or bag limits. Most commercial fisheries use trawl nets that scour the sea floor, capturing everything in their path and destroying habitat. When the net is retrieved, most animals captured (including dolphins, sea turtles, and other nontarget species, in addition to fish) are dead or dying and will not recover if released. Recreational fishermen can choose to release their catch, and most fish survive being caught (some studies show a nearly 100% recovery rate), allowing size or limit regulations to be effective.

"These regulations are virtually useless in commercial fishing because most fish are dead long before they can be `released.' The Science article fails to mention that the reason for a high proportion of recreational landings of snapper, rockfish, and drum are due to previous commercial fishing pressure and the killing of young fish in shrimp nets, prompting a near ban on commercial fishing for these species. Also, the economic value of recreational fishing cannot be overlooked. Fishing is a major draw of many tourist destinations whose economies are fueled by fishermen's purchases."

Recreational fishing may have its detractors, both from the animal rights perspective concerned about pain and from ecological assessments claiming a greater impact of fishing than suspected, but I maintain letting people fish does far more good than harm for fish populations. What other group of people is going to fight to assure that we have clean waters and healthy fish populations?

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