DO FISH HAVE RIGHTS?

by Whit Gibbons

July 17, 2016

The 2-foot-long fish flopping on the boardwalk was the biggest chain pickerel I had ever seen. After a few photographs with the angler, my grandson, we put it back in the stream and watched it quickly disappear. We wondered if we might see it again.

Catch-and-release fishing has become the norm for many recreational anglers. The fish gets hooked, landed and perhaps measured or photographed, then released alive. Some environmentalists think catch-and-release fishing has a negative impact on fish populations, because a captured fish may be more vulnerable to predation from being stressed or be less effective at capturing prey. I have heard one suggestion that its mating success could be affected.

No doubt some fish do not fare well after being hooked, examined and released. But extensive research suggests that most recover and many that have been tagged for identification in research programs are recaught weeks or even years later. I know of no convincing evidence that recreational hook-and-line fishing affects fish populations in any appreciable way or that the health and well-being of most released fish are compromised. But, as with most environmental issues, the answers are complex and have not been resolved unequivocally with scientific research.

Does a fish feel pain as we know it? Scientific research has led to two lines of inquiry and interpretation. In one study the snouts of rainbow trout were injected with bee venom. Not surprisingly, the fish reacted negatively. When morphine was injected into the snouts, the fish stopped responding, suggesting that bee venom was not enjoyable and that the morphine offered relief.

Again, this does not seem surprising, more surprising would have been no reaction to the venom or morphine. And the reaction 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.

Some scientists have bashed the study by pointing out that trout do not feel emotions because their brain is smaller than a red wiggler worm that anglers use for bait. Their conclusion is that whatever discomfort a fish might experience, they do not feel "pain" the way humans do.

Many anglers and professional ichthyologists concur. In fact, an international team of scientists that included not only fisheries biologists but also neurophysiologists who study the brain came to the same conclusion in 2013. In short, fish and humans differ dramatically in their physiology and brain (as well as body) anatomy. For one thing, fish do not have a neocortex, the portion of the human brain that feels pain.

PETA, however, cites research papers "proving that fish are smart," that they are "interesting and intelligent animals" and that "fish feel pain." I agree with the part about fish being "interesting animals."

Fish will be able to speak English before full agreement is reached on the conflicting positions being taken by animal rights groups and anglers on the specific issue of whether fish feel pain. My suggestion for anyone concerned with fish discomfort: don't go fishing.

Far more important than the health and comfort of a single fish is the environment in which fish live. Natural freshwater and marine habitats are threatened around the world every day. Recreational anglers fight against aquatic habitat destruction resulting from lax or nonexistent regulations that allow environmental pollution.

Anglers are among the most ardent supporters of clean water in rivers, lakes and coastal habitats. Recreational fishing creates a strong environmental advocacy group that helps protect aquatic ecosystems. It also stimulates the economies of tourist sites through angler purchases and fishing licenses.

Recreational fishing does more good for the environment and the participants than it does harm to individual fish or fish populations. Anglers are dedicated to the battle to ensure that we have clean waters and therefore healthy fish. With that in mind, I'm looking forward to my grandson catching that big chain pickerel and photographing it again, when it's even bigger.

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