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Donkin on Fishing - Conservation Issues


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’ slab.

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.

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