Who hears the fishes when they cry?" That question was asked by a scold, iconoclast and master angler who worried about the pain he inflicted on his quarry. His contemporaries considered him very weird. His name was Henry Thoreau.
The same concern is being voiced today
by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which also
is considered very weird, and with excellent reason. For example,
PETA's 6-foot-tall mascot, Gill the Fish, flounces around at public
functions, trying to stamp out all fishing and fish eating while
studiously ignoring habitat degradation.
there is nothing weird or even incorrect in the following statement
from PETA's Factsheet N. 4: "Hooked fish struggle out of fear and
physical pain. Once fish are brought out of their environment and
into ours, they begin to suffocate ... Anglers also often impale
their victims on a "stringer" and dangle them in the water so that
they won't die quickly and "spoil." Fish who are released can
suffer such severe stress from being "played" that they may die."
Particularly loathsome to animal-rights zealots
is no-kill fishing or "catch-and-release," a phrase coined in 1939
by fishing pundit Lee Wulff who proclaimed that "game fish are too
valuable to be caught only once." Wulff was a tireless evangelist
of fisheries conservation, but he also popularized landing trout
and salmon on wispy rods and gossamer lines - a stress-inducing
practice less accurately described as "playing" than "nagging."
What so offends the animal-rights crowd about
catch-and-release is that there can be no motive other than fun. As
with the puritan view of sex, it's only evil if you enjoy it. Yet
others also have questions: "If fish do feel pain, as some evidence
has begun to suggest, what does the catch-and-release angler do
about that knowledge?" asks outdoor writer Ted Kerasote in a
thoughtful Orion magazine essay entitled "Catch and Deny."
My answer is this: land fish quickly; handle
them gently; wet your hands so as not to remove their protective
slime; and return them swiftly. That fish feel pain is news only to
those who don't know them, but worrying about unavoidable pain
caused by fishing amounts to contemplating our navels. There is
something about the American psyche that delights in donning ashes
and sackcloth and wallowing in needless guilt.
On the other hand, I am disgusted at the inhumane ways I see
catch-and-release anglers treating fish - holding trout and salmon
aloft for photos, thereby cracking their delicate ribs, waving
lip-held bass around for two or three minutes while they puff and
blow about how they caught them.
anglers are no better. I see them allowing fish to flap on beaches
and boat bottoms for the better part of an hour when all they have
to do is break their necks or club them. And I agree with PETA
about stringers. Still, I believe that humane treatment of fish
need not preclude catch-and-release or catch-and-kill.
I also believe that if catching fish caused
significant discomfort, those that were released would learn to
avoid most lures and bait. What is going through the "mind" of a
fish when it impales itself on a hook for a second, third or ninth
time? One can only guess.
But why bother? If
everybody killed all the fish they caught, fish populations would
crash. Before catch-and-release became popular in the 1970s it
happened all across America.
event in today's no-kill angling ethic occurred in 1973, when
Yellowstone National Park required anglers to release cutthroat
trout in most streams. It was a hard sell. State game-and-fish
bureaucrats ranted about how you "can't stockpile harvestable
surpluses." Guides, outfitters and fillet-and-release anglers
screamed like gulls at a freshly capped landfill.
"It was nearly as contentious
as wolf reintroduction," recalls John Varley, the regulation's main
architect and now Yellowstone's head resource
But there was no alternative. The
greatest inland cutthroat population in the world lay in ruins. At
Fishing Bridge, 50,000 anglers per year had to wait an average of
seven hours and 40 minutes between fish.
issue wasn't just fish or fishing. The cutthroats had fueled the
entire greater Yellowstone ecosystem, supplying major nourishment
to such species as white pelicans, ospreys, eagles, minks, otters
and grizzly bears. In 1975, before the cutthroat population had
time to respond to the no-kill regs, a survey revealed grizzly bear
activity on 17 of 59 cutthroat spawning streams flowing into
Now grizzlies work at least
55, and one research team observed a sow with cubs averaging 100
fish a day for 10 days. In another recent study, white pelicans in
the park were seen to consume 300,000 pounds of cutthroats in one
season; and other avian predators ate 220,000 pounds in just 100
days. Moreover, Yellowstone became the trout-angling capital of the
world with guiding and outfitting businesses flourishing around its
borders. That's what catch-and-release can do and has done all over
Never do I miss a chance to fish
Yellowstone or to thank Varley. In the West and East I release
thousands of fish a year; I kill and eat hundreds. I experience no
guilt. But once, while flyfishing a remote trout pond in northern
Maine, I did feel a certain empathy for my quarry. A gust of wind
caught my backcast, and suddenly I hooked a 190-pounder. With a
burst of expletives, I extracted the fly from my lower lip. Then I
held my head in the icy water, moving it slowly back and forth,
shuddering, recovering. n
Ted Williams is an environmental columnist and
reporter who writes frequently about the West.