Coming in June, it's "Free Fishing Day"--your "one chance during the year to get hooked for free!" (exclamation point courtesy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife). Anglers across the country are being encouraged to take advantage of states' upcoming license-free days by introducing friends and family members to their favorite blood sport.
Sorry, does that sound harsh? We don't like to think about it, but there's no longer any doubt that fish can feel pain. We should stop pretending that hurting animals for "fun" is an acceptable way to spend an afternoon.
I haven't always felt this way. Like most people, I grew up thinking that fishing was a normal pastime. My father fished, and when I was a kid, I often accompanied him on fishing trips. I loved talking to my dad on the long drives to the lake and back--although, admittedly, my favorite part of these outings was stopping by the bait shop, because the man who owned the shop had a "pet" skunk. I played with the skunk while my father purchased items for our trip.
And my least favorite part? Fishing. Hooking worms was gross, and I always felt uncomfortable when we'd pull a fish out of the water. Adults said that fish don't feel pain, but that was hard to believe while watching a fish struggle and gasp for air as my father removed the hook. I was always secretly glad when we didn't catch any fish.
Science has caught up with what I knew instinctively as a kid: Fish do feel pain, and they suffer greatly when they are impaled in the mouth by a sharp hook.
In her new book Do Fish Feel Pain?, biologist Victoria Braithwaite says that "there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals--and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies."
After surveying the scientific literature on fish pain and intelligence, not only did researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada conclude that fish feel pain, they also insisted that their welfare deserves our consideration.
For anglers who argue that fish "lack the brains" to feel pain, University of Guelph researcher Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we "have to look at behaviour and physiology," not just anatomy. "It's possible for a brain to evolve in different ways," he says. "That's what is happening in the fish line. It's evolved in some other ways in other parts of the brain to receive pain."
Fish are "brainy" in other respects too. According to recent studies, fish can count, tell time and recognize individuals--including individual humans. The assistant curator of the London Zoo's aquarium says that fish there know the difference between an aquarium worker (who might have food) and a visitor (who doesn't).
Fish also have complex social relationships and "talk" to one another underwater. They can use tools and learn by watching what other fish do. And they have impressive long-term memories: In one study, fish who had learned how to escape from a net in their tank could still remember how they did it 11 months later. That's like you or me remembering something from 40 years ago.
But, you say, fishing can help parents get their kids to go outside, away from the computer. So can hiking, biking and canoeing. When I went fishing with my dad as a kid, the actual fishing was always the least important--and least enjoyable--part of our trips. Children want to spend time with their parents, and there are certainly better ways to do that than inflicting pain on small, defenseless animals. Instead of participating in your state's free fishing day this year, why not get your kids hooked on compassion?
Paula Moore is a research specialist for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.