Killing Nemo. On the Ethics of Fishing & Eating Fish

I’ve just finished reading “Do Fish Feel Pain?” by fish biologist Victoria Braithwaite (Oxford Uni, 2010). Braithwaite is one of the few people in the world who has conducted research on fish pain. Her conclusion? Fish do feel pain and there are significant ethical implications. As someone who loves fishing I think I need to pay attention.

Anyone who sees a fish flapping around on the deck of a boat would think it obvious fish feel pain, but the obvious, in this instance, isn’t necessarily the case. It turns out fish have receptors all over their bodies that detect injury and induce a reaction. Humans do too – that’s why we pull our hand off a hot oven before our brain registers pain. The question is whether fish have the consciousness that enables them to feel pain. Are they more like jellyfish, whose receptors lead them to react physically to danger yet, because they have no brain, feel no pain? Or are fish more like dogs, who because conscious, are able to feel pain? Braithwaite’s answer is that they are more like dogs and other vertebrates. She describes a number of tests that suggest fish have a level of consciousness required to feel pain.

Braithwaite admits there are many unknowns. Fish cannot talk to us, so all we can do is join the dots based on less direct evidence. And assuming we have joined the dots correctly, what does pain feel like to a fish? Given fish have very different brain structures to us and other mammals we cannot assume their perception of pain will be similar to ours. Does a hook through the jaw create intense pain like it would for us or a dull ache? We simply don’t know. Nonetheless these unknowns should not mask the reality that fish feel pain.

So if fish feel pain is it wrong for me to go fishing? Recreational angling inflicts much suffering on fish. Barbed hooks pierce the jaw of the fish, are ripped from the fish’s mouth upon capture, and the fish is often left to suffocate in the open air. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Commercial fishing is far worse. Fish caught on ‘long lines’ can be left on hooks for hours on end. Fish trapped in a net get crushed under the weight of the fish above them when the net is lifted from the water. Fish hauled up from the bottom of the ocean experience the bends, just as divers do if they ascend too rapidly. All these fish are left on open decks, which suffocates them.

It seems I am caught in an ethical dilemma. Is it wrong to cause suffering to animals? If so I really should give up both recreational fishing and fish eating, for I could exist quite happily and healthily without either. Or do I accept that fish are a food source, that this will involve some suffering, but do everything I can to minimise that suffering?

I think both positions are defensible. The Bible imagines the first humans as vegetarian and life in the new heavens and earth as vegetarian. Meat isn’t eaten until after the ‘fall’. The animals are fellow inhabitants of the earth in which God delights and the mandate to ‘rule’ over the animals (Genesis 1:26-28) was given to humankind when imagined to be vegetarian. Rather than emphasising the utility of animals for us it emphasises our utility to them – to protect their interests and secure their welfare. So, a strong case for vegetarianism exists on the grounds that this is how we were created to be and will be and on the grounds that, with regard to fish at least, it is not possible to harvest them in a way that is loving to the fish.

Alternately, l could argue that in a fallen world meat eating is part of life, that it is permitted by God, and that pain is unavoidable (fish predate upon other fish, fish get injured, etc). In this instance animals, though not created as a food source, now fulfill that purpose, setting up a tension between animal welfare and human welfare. Fishing would be ethically permissible but I should seek to minimise their suffering.

The second approach leaves me feeling uncomfortable, for I have to admit that it means I am willing to inflict suffering on a creature God made and loves when there are other viable food sources available. Yet I am not yet willing to commit to vegetarianism. Should I then abandon fishing in favour of meat sources that don’t involve any pain and suffering? Are there any meat sources that satisfy this criteria? At the very least I should fish in a way that minimises fish pain So here’s a list of guidelines I am adopting:

1. I will only eat fish I catch. Commercial harvesting of fish involves extensive and prolonged suffering for fish that recreational fishing need not;

2. I will not use live baits. This involves extensive and prolonged suffering for the bait;

3. I will use barbless hooks. This will minimize damage to fish that are under size and need to be thrown back;

4. I will land fish with a smooth rather than knotted net. This will reduce damage to fish that are to be returned;

5. I will kill fish immediately on capture, following the RSPCA ‘s advise as to the most humane method.

6. I will not fish for sport but only for food sources.

This seems to me to be the minimal ethical position. I suspect a maximal approach would be to give up fishing and eating fish. What do you think?

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Colin Moore
Colin Moore
4 years ago

Thank you. I have long been curious about Christian and Buddhist ethics and on the whole follow these though I am not a dogmatic person and try to use reason an logic where I can. I have not fished for around 40 years when as a young man I became aware that fish are to some degree conscious – they have some kind of an experiece of what it is like to be. Buddhists go into this quite a lot actually. However recently, on retiring, I have once again begun to fish partly because I realised that I should not… Read more »

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