by Whit Gibbons

May 17, 2009

An article in "Dive Training" magazine and another in the presumably more authoritative "Science" magazine provide food for thought about interactions between humans and fish. The "Dive Training" article discussed conflicting scientific assertions about whether fish can feel pain. The "Science" article evaluated whether recreational fishing has a negative impact on marine fish populations. Tuna will evolve wings and fly before either issue gets resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

In the studies addressing whether fish feel pain, the snouts of rainbow trout were injected with bee venom. The fish reacted negatively (big surprise). When morphine was injected into the snouts, the fish stopped responding, suggesting that bee venom was not enjoyable and the morphine offered relief. Another scientist poo-poohed the study (although the terminology used was a bit more scientific than that) by pointing out that trout do not feel emotions because their brain is the size of a short, thin piece of spaghetti. So the other position in the "do fish feel pain" debate was that whatever discomfort fish might experience, they do not feel "pain" the way humans do. Who's right?

Meanwhile, another issue is whether we will still have fish left in the ocean to feel pain if they can. Fish conservation for many species is of vital concern, and the "Science" article declares 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 Mexico; commercial fisheries account for slightly over one-third. A study of this nature will be criticized by recreational fishermen who deem their impact well below that of commercial fisheries.

I asked J. D. Willson of the Savannah River Ecology Lab 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, and recreational anglers need to be mindful of regulations and wasteful overharvesting. However, a key difference between recreational and commercial 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, young fish, and other nontarget species, in addition to fish being targeted) are dead or dying and will not recover if released. Recreational fishermen can release their catch, and most fish survive being caught, allowing size and limit regulations to be effective. Many recreational fisheries have recently moved to slot size limits, which allow fishermen to keep a few mid-sized fish, while protecting juveniles and large, spawning adults.

"These types of 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 red drum is because of previous commercial fishing pressure and the killing of young fish in nets set for other species (particularly shrimp), which prompted a near ban on commercial fishing for these species. Also, the economic value of recreational fishing should not be overlooked. Fishing is a major draw of many tourist destinations whose economies are fueled by fishermen's purchases. When you take into account money spent on fishing gear, boats, guides, and licenses, every fish caught by recreational fishermen generates much more revenue than a commercially caught fish."

Animal rights advocates are concerned about pain, and some environmentalists think recreational fishing has a negative impact on fish populations. Agreement on either topic is unlikely. One consideration in the broader ecological question is that letting people fish recreationally does more good for the environment than it causes harm to fish populations. What other group of people is going to fight so hard to assure that we have clean waters and therefore healthy, and edible, fish?

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)