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Human hand holds the neck of a catfish with a hook and fishing gear in mouth.

Sport fishing

Sport fishing is by far the practice that involves the most injury and death to nonhuman animals for the purpose of entertainment. Massive numbers of fishes and other sentient beings, who have centralized nervous systems that make it possible for them to suffer and feel pleasure, endure painful injuries and deaths for human sport. It is estimated that more than 10 million metric tons of marine animals are captured each year in sport fishing.1 This is a huge number that amounts to 1/8 of fishes captured in commercial fishing.

We can only understand how incredibly large this figure is if we consider the number of people who fish around the world. The number of fishers in the US, for instance, is greater than 34 million.2 It has been estimated that close to 12% of people engage in recreational fishing regularly.3 There is an entire industry providing fishing equipment, and all sorts of fishers’ associations and competitions around the world. It has been estimated that the total number of fishes captured by commercial fishing industries could range between 1 and 3 trillion animals. Based on comparing the estimates by tonnage of fishes caught, this figure would suggest that the number of animals killed by sport fishers is between 125 and 375 billion a year, which is a startling figure to think about. But this figure may be too high, as many of the fishes that are captured by fishing industries are very small. In light of this, we can consider other estimations, according to which 47.10 billion fishes wold be caught every year for sport.4 The figures exclude crustaceans and fishes who are caught and released.

In addition to the number of lives thus eliminated, this practice also causes considerable suffering to the animals involved due to injuries and anxiety. There are different forms of fishing, but by far the most popular is angling, which is done in rivers, by the sea shore, or from boats. It can target a number of different kinds of fishes living in the area where it is done.


The suffering of the animal victims of angling

Most fishes are pierced through the jaw with a hook. The jaw is a sensitive area so fishes may feel a great deal of pain when they are injured there. In other cases they aren’t caught by the mouth, but by other parts of their bodies. Injuries to their eyes, throats, or guts, among other areas, may occur. Hooks may also be barbed, thus increasing the harm they inflict. And sometimes the hooks are actually swallowed by the fish.

As we can imagine, being hooked already causes much pain. In addition to that ordeal, the animals are also dragged to the surface where they cannot breathe. As a result, they begin to suffocate in a similar manner to a human underwater. They struggle violently, desperately trying to return to water. Though common sense may tell us fishes are suffering in these situations, scientific assessments of what occurs when they are “hooked” also provide us with evidence.

One important scientific paper by Steven J. Cooke and Lynne U. Sneddon explains that fishes in this situation manifest both what are called primary and secondary stress responses.5 Primary stress occurs when hooked fishes release catecholamines (adrenal hormones). Secondary stress responses include white muscle imbalances and hematological (blood) alterations. Because we can only experience our own subjective experiences and not those of other beings, we cannot describe accurately the relation between stress and pain. However, given the level of stress these animals are undergoing, it seems unreasonable to deny that they are suffering.


“Catch and release” is also harmful for fishes

Environmentalists and fishery managers have been advocating the practice known as “catch and release” so the number of animals in the populations of fishes do not decrease significantly. However, this practice is also harmful for fishes. Animals who undergo “catch and release” experience severe physical injury, intense stress, and in many cases death.6 Many fishes who are victims of “catch and release” die. Some die during the process, but many more die afterwards. Fishers may think that most animals survive, for three reasons:

1) they fail to see the fishes dying, because their deaths occur once they are already back in the water,

2) wishful thinking, and

3) it makes their practice look more acceptable.

In reality, many of these fishes die from their injuries.7 Fishes may also die due to the stress they suffer, or from oxygen depletion and lactic acid build up, which occurs when they struggle to free themselves.8 Nets for taking fishes out of water can cause mucous loss, fin fraying and scale loss. Being handled by fishers harms them in similar ways.

As with animal victims of hunting who are injured but manage to escape, fishes are left very vulnerable because of the injuries they received during the “catch and release” process. They are more susceptible to disease, may be defenseless to predators, or may starve because they are unable to eat properly with damaged jaws. Serious damage to the jaw can also cause respiration problems. Therefore, if the jaw area is gravely injured, their survival is seriously hampered. We also saw that injuries to fishes’ eyes, throat, esophagus and gut may also occur during “catch and release.”

These animals can also suffer severe injuries to internal organs if they swallow the hook. Slow, painful deaths can result from such injuries. Even if the animals do not die as a direct result of their injuries, the injuries may make them more vulnerable to dying due to disease, predation, or starvation. Many of these harms are basically intrinsic to the very practice of angling. No matter how careful a given fisher may be, fishes would still suffer significantly, and many of them would die as a result of this practice simply because being hooked and taken out of the water is going to cause suffering and injuries and will potentially maim or kill them.

Some anglers may also put the fishes they intend to release in a “keepnet” so that they can release them later. These keepnets can cause distress to the fishes due to overcrowding and lack of oxygen. Diseases can also spread easily in these nets. Sometimes fishes will die in them, and if they don’t, their chances of surviving later are reduced.


Further victims of angling

Apart from the fishes captured by anglers, there are other animals who suffer the effects of this practice. Small fishes and other animals are sometimes impaled on hooks as “live bait.” This causes them enormous suffering; in fact, they may suffer more than the animals they are used to capture. They are eventually eaten by other fishes or die due to the injuries they have sustained. In some places dog puppies and kittens are used as bait to capture sharks. This has caused outrage among many people. While it is good that such a practice has received widespread criticism, this way of fishing sharks is a minority practice.

A much larger number of animals suffer from the regular fishing practices we perceive as normal. As mentioned above, almost 12% of the world population fishes regularly. Most of them use smaller fishes or other small animals such as invertebrates as bait. In addition to the numerous harms mentioned earlier, angling causes other collateral casualties. The nylon lines used to capture fishes are sometimes cut and left in the water because they get caught on something. Animals who pass by the remains of the nets can get entangled in the fishing line, or can get cut by the line. Some animals swallow abandoned hooks left by fishers.


Other forms of fishing

There are other ways of fishing animals for sport that do not use hooks, such as fishing with nets. There are many different techniques of using nets. Sometimes relatively large nets are used, which can be thrown directly into the water or tied to something in the water or to a weight on the shore. In other cases, smaller nets are used. They are usually small nets tied across a hoop on a stick, called hand nets, or medium size nets hanging from a stick, called lift nets. Fishes who get trapped in the nets suffer from stress, and can have their scales damaged due to abrasion from the net and from their bodies rubbing against the bodies of other fishes. After they are caught they will eventually die from suffocation just like other fishes captured from the water.

Other animals are killed by divers. The divers can capture the animals by using elastic powered spearguns or more sophisticated compressed gas pneumatic powered spearguns. If the victims of these weapons don’t suffocate first, they will die from their injuries. In some cases they are hit in vital organs and they die shortly after, but in other cases they suffer for longer before dying. Very few fishes survive spear fishing attacks.9

Other animals often fished for sport are crustacea, such as crabs, lobsters or prawns. They can be captured in different ways, such as with nets or traps. When caught, they struggle to get free, though maybe not as violently as fishes do because they do not suffocate when they are taken out of the water. Still, it’s not clear if their fate is better or worse. They will be confined in small places (sometimes kept on ice), until they are finally cooked. They are typically boiled alive, which is a terrible death. Sometimes they are frozen alive.

Further readings

Balon, E. K. (2000) “Defending fishes against recreational fishing: An old problem to be solved in the new millennium”, Environmental Biology of Fishes, 57, pp. 1-8.

Burns, K. M. & Restrepo, V. (2002) “Survival of reef fish after rapid depressurization: Field and laboratory studies”, American Fisheries Society Symposium, 30, pp. 148-151.

Chopin, F. S. & Arimoto, T. (1995) “The condition of fish escaping from fishing gears – A review”, Fisheries Research, 21, pp. 315-327.

Coll, J.; Linde, M.; García-Rubies, A.; Riera, F. & Grau, A. M. (2004) “Spear fishing in the Balearic Islands (West Central Mediterranean): Species affected and catch evolution during the period 1975-2001”, Fisheries Research, 70, pp. 97-111.

Collins, M. R.; McGovern, J. C.; Sedberry, G. R.; Meister, H. S.; Cooke, S. J.; Philipp, D. P.; Dunmall, K. M. & Schreer, J. F. (2001) “The influence of terminal tackle on injury, handling time, and cardiac disturbance of rock bass”, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 21, pp. 333-342.

Cooke, S. J. & Hogle, W. J. (2000) “Effects of retention gear on the injury and short-term mortality of adult smallmouth bass”, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 20, pp. 1033-1039.

Diggles, B. K. & Ernst, I. (1997) “Hooking mortality of two species of shallow-water reef fish caught by recreational angling methods”, Marine and Freshwater Research, 48, pp. 479-483.

Godoy, N.; Gelcich, S.; Vásquez, J. A. & Castilla, J. C. (2010) “Spearfishing to depletion: Evidence from temperate reef fishes in Chile”, Ecological Applications, 20, pp. 1504-1511.

Keniry, M. J.; Brofka, W. A.; Horns, W. H. & Marsden, J. E.(1996) “Effects of decompression and puncturing the gas bladder on survival of tagged yellow perch”, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 16, pp. 201-206.

Kieffer, J. D. (2000) “Limits to exhaustive exercise in fish”, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 126, pp. 161-179.

de Leeuw, A. D. (1996) “Contemplating the interests of fish: The angler’s challenge”, Environmental Ethics, 18, pp. 373-390.

Ostrand, K. G.; Cooke, S. J. & Wahl, D. H. (2004) “Effects of stress on largemouth bass reproduction”, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 24, pp. 1038-1045.

Pauly, D.; Alder, J.; Bennett, E.; Christensen, V.; Tyedmers P. & Watson R. (2003) “The future for fisheries”, Science, 302, pp. 1359-1361.

Pawson, M. G.; Glenn, H. & Padda, G. (2008) “The definition of marine recreational fishing in Europe”, Marine Policy, 32, pp. 339-350.

Pitcher, T. J. & Hollingworth, C. (2002) Recreational fisheries: Ecological, economic and social evaluation, Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Robb, D. F. H. & Kestin, S. C. (2002) “Methods used to kill fish: Field observations and literature reviewed”, Animal Welfare, 11, pp. 269-282.

Samples, K. C. (1989) “Assessing recreational and commercial conflicts over artificial fishery habitat use: Theory and practice”, Bulletin of Marine Science, 44, pp. 844-852.

Wells, R. M. G.; McIntyre, R. H.; Morgan, A. K. & Davie, P. S. (1986) “Physiological stress responses in big gamefish after capture: observations on plasma chemistry and blood factors”, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology. A, Comparative Physiology, 84, pp. 565-571.

Yue, S.; Moccia, R. D. & Duncan, I. J. H. (2004) “Investigating fear in domestic rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, using an avoidance learning task”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 87, pp. 343-354.

1 Cooke, S. J. & Cowx, I. G. (2004) “The role of recreational fisheries in global fish crises”, BioScience, 54, pp. 857-859.

2 U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service & U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau (2002) 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service [accessed on 12 July 2013].

3 Cooke, S. J. & Cowx, I. G. (2004) “The role of recreational fisheries in global fish crises”, op. cit.

4 U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service & U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau (2002) 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, op. cit..

5 Cooke, S. J. & Sneddon, L. U. (2007) “Animal welfare perspectives on recreational angling”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104, pp. 176-198.

6 Cooke, S. J.; Schreer, J. F.; Wahl, D. H. & Philipp, D. P. (2002) “Physiological impacts of catch-and-release angling practices on largemouth bass and smallmouth bass”, American Fisheries Society Symposium, 31, pp. 489-512. Cooke, S. J.; Suski, C. D.; Barthel, B. L.; Ostrand, K. G.; Tufts, B. L. & Philipp, D. P. (2003) “Injury and mortality induced by four hook types on bluegill and pumpkinseed”, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 23, pp. 883-893. Ferguson, R. A. & Tufts, B. L. (1992) “Physiological effects of brief air exposure in exhaustively exercised rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss): Implications for ‘catch and release’ fisheries”, Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 49, pp. 1157-1162.

7 In one review of studies on mortality it was found that catch and release could cause mortality rates of up to 89% in the fish that had been subjected to this: Muoneke, M. I. & Childress, W. M. (1994) “Hooking mortality: A review for recreational fisheries” Reviews in Fisheries Science, 2, pp. 123-156.

8 Wood, C. M.; Turner, J. D. & Graham, M. S. (1983) “Why do fish die after severe exercise?”, Journal of Fish Biology, 22, pp. 189-201.

9 Meyer, C. G. (2007) “The impacts of spear and other recreational fishers on a small permanent Marine Protected Area and adjacent pulse fished area”, Fisheries Research, 84, pp. 301-307. Wickham, D. A. & Watson, J. W., Jr. (1976) “Scuba diving methods for fishing systems evaluation”, Marine Fisheries Review, 38 (7), pp. 15-23 [accessed on 29 April 2014]. Barthel, B. L.; Cooke, S. J.; Suski, C. D. & Philipp, D. P. (2003) “Effects of landing net mesh type on injury and mortality in a freshwater recreational fishery”, Fisheries Research, 63, pp. 275-282.

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