April 2005 - The
pain of fishing
Arthur Schopenhauer once
wrote that: “Compassion for animals is intimately
connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently
asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good
man.” Albert Einstein said: “If a man aspires
towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is
from injury to animals.” Then there was the Buddha,
who declared: “When a man has pity on all living creatures
then only is he noble.”
No wonder I feel such a
heel every time I kill my fish. I might try to assuage my
conscience in declaring that in the four months of writing
this column I have yet to knock my catch on the head. But
this would be disingenuous. There are all kinds of species
up there in fishy heaven that owe their premature arrival
to my unwelcome intervention in to their personal affairs.
Some would put this apparent
kindness down to a lack of success with rod and line. This
is partly true. But that has not prevented me in the interim
eating shop-bought fish that ended their lives gasping in
slow suffocation or bursting from the effects of decompression.
We don’t always make this link when tucking in to
our fish and chip suppers.
I have no idea whether Schopenhauer,
Einstein or the Buddha ever ate fish and chips. It seems
unlikely given their views. But I am not sure that their
attitudes are so out of line with those of conservation-conscious
anglers who have no wish to inflict unnecessary suffering
on their quarry.
There has been some lively
debate recently on the extent to which fish suffer pain.
Some scientists argue that because fish are known to have
nociceptors – the nerve endings that respond to painful
stimuli – they must suffer pain when they are hooked
in the mouth. Fish have been observed responding negatively
to bee stings. Others argue that because fish do not possess
a neo-cortex – the part of the brain that interprets
the signal – they do not suffer in the same way that
we know suffering.
Surprisingly, perhaps, my
Scottish gillie friends reject this argument. “You
can hear the fish squeaking when you’re pulling the
hook out,” said one of them last week. “I’m
sure they feel pain.” There is no doubt that a hooked
fish is desperate to get free but I suspect that the same
urge that smothers the eating instinct in a returning salmon
is capable also of inhibiting its exposure to pain. Nonetheless
I fish in the assumption that fish do feel pain.
Anglers cannot divorce themselves
from the predatory nature of the hunter. However much they
seek to protect their catches by using barbless hooks and
handling fish in the water in order to avoid removing too
much mucous, they must accept that fish can come to harm
when hooked. In fact it can be argued that some approaches,
when a fish is played to exhaustion on light tackle, for
example, cause more harm than a speedier retrieval with
more robust lines and lures.
Sometimes the best conservation
intentions of anglers can backfire. One of the first fish
caught on rod and line in the Tay this year was found down
stream, belly up, after it had been returned to the water.
In spite of such experiences, we can feel assured that there
is nothing in bank fishing to match the wholesale indiscriminate
suffering caused by commercial fishing for the fishmongers’
My relationship with the
fishmonger has been weakening recently as depleting stocks
of Atlantic cod, haddock, sea bass and halibut become unsustainable.
An experiment at Aberdeen University indicated that haddock
were clever enough to observe the dangers of fishing nets.
But the idea that the sea is full of net-dodging fish, alas,
is fanciful in the extreme, even if you conclude that fish
are more intelligent than their vacant expressions would
have us believe.
The economic case for preserving
rod and line fishing is far stronger than that supporting
mass commercial netting. For these reasons I would rather
eat a rod caught fish. Just now I am happy to put them back,
but one of my companions did catch a salmon and kill it
a week ago in breach of a voluntary code on the River Tay
that suggests returning your first fish. He is aged 79 and
it was his first catch for five years. I didn’t begrudge
his choice. Nor did anyone else.
The Tay was fishing as
badly has it has done for the past few years despite some
reports to the contrary. But other Scottish rivers such
as the Dee and the Tweed are experiencing improving spring
catches due, I am convinced, to habitat improvements and
hatchery programmes. The Tay now has a hatchery but it has
been slow to move on improving the small burns that are
important for salmon fry.
Thank goodness, then, for
conservation. But if you must kill your fish ensure you
do justice to it at the table. One of my favourite ways
of cooking salmon is to marinade stakes with olive oil,
lemon juice and soy sauce, then sear them over a hot barbecue.
First remove the guilt, then enjoy.