FISH FEEL PAIN?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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