Brute Ethics





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Fishing - Angling

Fisherman People are increasingly expressing concern about the welfare of fish. Criticism of angling is making fishers examine their actions, encourage welfare for captured fish and care for fish populations and habitat.

Angling (also called recreation fishing or sport fishing) is a favourite past-time, as acceptable to most people as walking and swimming. Anglers worldwide add up to millions of people and angling is claimed to make a big economic contribution to national economies.

The two basic kinds of angling are:

  • Coarse fishing
  • The most popular kind of angling. Anglers catch fish from rivers, lakes, reservoirs and canals. They keep caught fish in nets until the end of the fishing day and usually return them to the water without killing them. Most of these fish are inedible, with exceptions like salmon, trout and grayling.

  • Game & Sea fishing
  • Anglers catch fish from rivers, lakes and estuaries (game fishing) and off the coast (sea fishing). Most fish are edible and usually killed. Fish include salmon, trout, pollack, plaice, shark and cod.

    Understanding Fish - Do Fish Suffer?

    People dispute whether fish feel pain and can suffer, just as people used to disputed the same issue concerning mammals and birds (eg see Descartes and Aristotle). At least mammals are more like us than fish and so we can empathise with them better. Fish are like us in that they have a brain and nervous system and hormonal system. But they are built and express themselves very differently and therefore are difficult to understand.

    For instance, fish:

  • Breath oxygen dissolved in water which flows past their gills.

  • Taste through receptors in their lips, nose and throat.

  • Are waterproofed and protected from infection by an outer surface of tiny scales covered with mucus.

  • Detect vibrations and electric fields via sensory hairs on their surface.

  • So we do not easily recognise whether fish are suffering. However, common sense and science tell us that fish feel pain. But how much of fish behaviour is just unconscious reflex actions and how much is actual suffering?

    Scientific Evidence
    Absence of evidence that fish feel pain is not proof they cannot feel pain. Now some scientists have evidence that fish can feel pain. They found places in the faces and heads of rainbow trout which respond to harmful stimuli. The fish reacted strongly when given potentially painful experiences and their behaviour did not seem merely like reflex actions (Sneddon et al 2003: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 270, 1115-1121).

    Relevance of Pain
    But is pain perception in fish relevant to angling? Even if scientists show beyond reasonable doubt that fish are able to suffer pain, it will not stop people fishing. Many meat-eaters and hunters will acknowledge that birds and mammals suffer pain but they still eat and hunt them. So although the pain issue is important, people will not stop fishing or eating fish just because fish can suffer. However, if people recognise that the fish they have just caught may be in pain, then they might handle them more humanely.

    Claims People Make in Favour Of Angling

  • Catching and releasing fish does not generally harm fish and they recover quickly from any ill effects once back in the water.

  • Fish do not feel pain, although sometimes look as though they are reacting to pain, and are not sentient creatures.

  • Edible fish are quickly killed when landed and make good eating.

  • More people take part in angling than any other country sport; millions of people get pleasure from it.

  • Fishing satisfies a growing demand for food by an increasing human population. Animals from 21,000 species of freshwater and sea fish and shellfish worldwide are waiting to be harvested.

  • Angling instructs youngsters about nature and wildlife and is therapeutic for troubled people.

  • Angling generates billions of dollars annually, contributes lots of money to local economies and provides thousands of full time jobs.

  • Claims People Make Against Angling

  • Fish have sensitive lips and mouths and use them like we use our fingers to feel and handle objects. So fish suffer when caught on a hook or are dragged through water on a line ('played').

  • Taking a fishing hook out of a fish's mouth leaves a wound and removing a hook a fish has swallowed can injure the fish's gut.

  • Fish suffocate when pulled out of water and can dry out if not returned quickly.

  • Fish might be stressed from the sudden change in temperature and light intensity when landed.

  • The sudden reduction in air pressure when pulled out of the water might rupture organs (fish are adapted to the greater pressure that water exerts on their bodies).

  • Inept landing and rough handling can damage a fish's protective scales and mucus coat, and injure a fish's gills and deeper organs.

  • Fish may suffer when sport anglers pierce and thread their catches together in the water to prevent the fish dying and spoiling too quickly.

  • Fish returned to the water may be so injured, stressed and weak that they later die or are easily caught by predators.

  • Birds and other animals in rivers and lakes are injured, suffer and die from swallowing discarded hooks and lead weights used by anglers or are injured or die from entanglement in fishing lines. Swans, ducks and otters are among the animals in danger.

  • Fishermen think fish-eating birds and mammals, like cormorants and otters, damage 'their' fish and kill them.

  • Farmed fish are introduced to lakes and rivers to increase the number of fish for anglers to catch. They upset the resident fish. For instance, introduced non-native fish compete with and kill off native fish. And excessive fish churn up sediments thereby destroying underwater plants fish depend on.

  • For & Against: argue your case

  • Claim: Fish feel pain. Therefore we should not treat them like inanimate objects.

  • Claim: When fish respond to stimuli, activity takes place in their brain and they take action to minimise potential harm. This neither implies nor needs conscious experience or awareness. Therefore there is no evidence to maintain that fish are consciously aware and experience pain. They are simply responding to stimuli.

  • Conservation
  • Claim: Angling is important because fishermen have a stake helping to protect and conserve rivers, lakes, canals and their wildlife which are continually threatened by business and industry.

  • Claim: Many people engage in practical conservation, like walkers and waterside residents who keep watch for threatening pollution. Anglers are not unique or overly important.

  • Fishing Glossary

    Bait - food to lure a fish, eg maggots, worms, fish, human food.

    Foul-hooking - hooking a fish other than through the lips, eg through flesh or eyes.

    Hook -curved pointed spike for holding the bait and snaring a fish who swallows it.

    Hooking - ensnaring a fish through the lips with a hook.

    Keepnet - a net to keep caught fish underwater until the end of an angling session.

    Landing - lifting a fish out of water onto ground.

    Landing net - a net to lift angled fish onto the bank.

    Lead - a weight, previously made of lead, attached to the bait to make it sink.

    Line - a string for holding one or more hooks to catch fish.

    Playing - tiring a hooked fish by pulling and releasing the line to make landing the fish easier.

    Rod - a stick or pole for holding a line.

    Tackle - fishing equipment.


    Sixteen per cent of Americans - 34 million people - over age 15 went recreation fishing in 2001 and spent over $36 billion.

    Source: National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. US Fish & Wildlife Service, Arlington, Virginia.

    Seven per cent of Britains - 4.2 million people - went freshwater fishing in the last two years.

    Source: D Simpson & G Mawle (2001): Public attitudes to angling. Key findings from the Agency's R&D technical report W2-060.

    European Union
    Five per cent of the total population of twenty European countries went angling at least once within the last year.

    Source: European Anglers Alliance. July 2003:

    Also see
    Fishing - Deep Sea
    Fishing - Farming

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved