Like the animals many people share their homes with, fish are individuals who have their own unique personalities. Dive guides have been known to name friendly fish who follow divers around and enjoy being petted, just as dogs and cats do. Yet billions of fish die every year in nets and on hooks—some are destined for human consumption, many are tortured just for “sport,” and others are nontarget victims who are maimed or killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fish Can Communicate, Make Tools, Think, and Feel PainAccording to Culum Brown, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, “Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates including non-human primates.”(1) In Fish and Fisheries, biologists wrote that fish are “steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and cooperating to inspect predators and catch food.”(2) Many species of fish learn how to avoid predators by watching experienced fish, and according to Dr. Jens Krause of the University of Leeds, while some fish live in large hierarchical societies and others have smaller family units, all rely on these “social aggregations,” which “act as an information center where fish can exchange information with each other.”(3) Even sharks have demonstrated intelligence, curiosity, playfulness, the ability to learn through trial and error, and the ability to maintain social networks.(4)
Fish communicate through a range of low-frequency sounds—from buzzes and clicks to yelps and sobs. These sounds, most of which are only audible to humans with the use of special instruments, communicate emotional states such as alarm or delight and help with courtship.(5) Atlantic croakers, for example, are so named because they croak when they are frightened.(6) Scientists have only recently discovered the alto croaking sounds made by a rare fish believed to be similar to the deep-sea blue grenadier, a tiny fish who lives beyond the continental shelves and is in danger of being fished to extinction.(7)
While fish do not always express pain and suffering in ways that humans can easily recognize, scientific reports from around the world substantiate the fact that fish feel pain. Researchers from Edinburgh and Glasgow universities studied the pain receptors in fish and found that they were strikingly similar to those of mammals; the researchers concluded that “fish do have the capacity for pain perception and suffering.”(8) A study conducted by the Roslin Institute examined rainbow trouts’ reactions to “noxious stimulation” and concluded that fish “experience suffering.”(9) Anglers often claim that fish do not feel pain, yet they go to great lengths to hide their hooks with bait and lures, knowing that even fish who have already experienced being hooked and released will continue to seek out food and that those who do get hooked will fight to stay alive.
Hooked fish struggle because of fear and physical pain. Once fish are taken out of their natural environment and into ours, they begin to suffocate. Their gills often collapse, and their swim bladders can rupture because of the sudden change in pressure. Some deepwater species, such as red snapper, are particularly affected by the dramatic changes in pressure that occur when they are pulled to the surface. One scientist says, “The physiological stress is enormous. Even if they swim off, a lot of those fish will be easy prey because they’re in a stunned condition when they’re released.”(10)
‘Sport’ FishingWhile the numbers continue to decline compared to decades ago, more than 29 million people still went fishing in 2006, spending billions of dollars on their “hobby.”(11) According to a Florida State University study, sport fishers are responsible for killing almost 25 percent of overfished saltwater species.(12)
Many trout streams are so intensively fished that they are subject to catch-and-release regulations, requiring that all fish caught be released; the aquatic animals in these streams are likely to spend their short lives being repeatedly traumatized and injured. One fishery expert adds that catch-and-release victims “could be vulnerable to predators, unable to swim away, or if nesting, not capable of fending off nest raiders. Some guarding males could in fact abandon the nest.”(13) Biologist Ralph Manns points out that fish such as bass are territorial, and once they are caught and released, these fish may be unable to find their homes and “be fated to wander aimlessly.”(14)
Fish aren’t the only victims of sport fishing. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “[M]ore than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to ingestion of, and entanglement in marine debris.”(15) During a recent clean-up effort of the area around a fishing pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Ocean Conservancy collected more than a ton of angler debris, including hundreds of pounds of fishing line and 90 nets.(16)
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that discarded monofilament fishing line is the number one killer of adult brown pelicans, although one Audubon biologist says that “(p)retty much every type of water or shore bird can get caught up in fishing line …. We find dead cormorants, anhingas, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills … you name it.”(17) Ospreys sometimes use discarded fishing line in their nests, and both parents and their young have been found entangled in it or impaled on fishing hooks.(18) A U.K. study found that 3,000 swans are found “either directly hooked or entangled with fishing tackle” every year.(19)
One out of every five manatee rescues conducted in the 1980s and 1990s was related to fishing-line entanglement, and during a four-year span, at least 35 dolphins died from injuries that they sustained as a result of being tangled in fishing line in the Southeast.(20)
Commercial Fishing and Aquaculture The average U.S. consumer eats more than 16 pounds of fish and shellfish every year. To meet this demand, U.S. commercial fishers reel in more than 9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish annually, the aquaculture industry raises nearly 800 million pounds per year, and another 5 billion pounds of seafood is imported.(21)
Commercial fishers use vast factory-style trawlers the size of football fields to catch fish. Miles-long nets stretch across the ocean, capturing everyone in their path. These boats haul up tens of thousands of fish in one load, keeping the most profitable and dumping other animals (such as rays, dolphins, and crabs) back into the ocean. Fish are scraped raw from rubbing against the rocks and debris that are caught in the nets with them. Then they bleed or suffocate to death on the decks of the ships, gasping for oxygen and suffering for as long as 24 hours.(22) Millions of tons of fish who are considered to be “undersized” are left to die on the decks or are tossed back into the ocean, where they usually die soon afterward.(23)
More than half of the world’s sharks are at risk. Eleven species are near extinction because of both targeted and indiscriminate fishing.(24) One underwater photographer says that when he works off the north coast of New South Wales, he finds that “almost every second grey nurse shark … has a hook hanging out of its mouth, with a bit of trailing line following it.”(25) It is estimated that millions of sharks every year are the victims of “finning,” in which fishers catch sharks, haul them on deck, hack off their fins (for expensive shark fin soup), and toss the maimed animals back into the ocean to suffer a painful death.(26,27)
Some fishing boats use gill nets, which ensnare every animal they catch, and fish are further mutilated when they are extracted from the tangled nets. These kinds of nets are believed to be responsible for the majority of incidents involving the accidental netting and death of hundreds of thousands of marine mammals over decades of use.(28)Longline fishing—in which 40 miles of monofilament fishing line dangles thousands of individually baited hooks to catch tuna and swordfish—is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 250,000 loggerhead turtles, 60,000 leatherback turtles, and 100,000 albatrosses every year.(29,30)
Because of the fishing industry’s indiscriminate practices, the population of the world’s large predatory fish, such as swordfish and marlin, has declined 90 percent since the advent of industrialized fishing.(31)
On aquaculture farms, thousands of fish are raised in tubs or are confined to roped-off areas of the sea or ocean where each animal has just a bit more room than the space taken up by his or her body. Farmed fish consume 12 percent of all commercially caught fish as well as a steady diet of pesticides, antibiotics, and herbicides.(32) Fish and crustaceans who could live for years in the ocean live only a few short months on fish farms.
Eating Fish Is Hazardous to Your HealthLike the flesh of other animals, the flesh of sea animals contains excessive amounts of protein, fat, and cholesterol; 6.5 million Americans are believed to be allergic to it.(33) Seafood also causes more food poisoning than any other type of food and is responsible for 37 percent of all foodborne illnesses in the U.S.(34)
The flesh of fish (including shellfish) can accumulate extremely high levels of carcinogenic chemical residues, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), thousands of times higher than that of the water they live in.(35) The flesh of farmed salmon has seven times more PCBs than the flesh of wild-caught salmon.(36) Levels of mercury exceed government standards for safety in one-third of the nation’s lakes and in one-quarter of its riverways.(37) The New England Journal of Medicine asserts that fish “are the main if not the only source of methyl mercury,” which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, fetal brain damage, blindness, deafness, and problems with motor skills, language, and attention span.(38,39) After an analysis of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data on canned tuna, Consumer Reports cautioned that some cans of tuna are “much higher in mercury than average,” while a Now With Bill Moyers report indicated that the FDA only tests about a dozen cans of tuna for mercury every year and doesn’t expect the tuna industry to test its own product.(40,41) Because of mercury levels in the flesh of marine animals, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA warn women of child-bearing age and children to refrain from eating fish such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel and to consume fewer than 12 ounces a week of other fish flesh.(42)
What You Can Do Never buy or eat fish. Grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts, and seeds provide all the essential amino acids that you need. Vegetarian products like Worthington’s Tuno (available in health-food stores) and mock lobster, shrimp, and crab (available online) have all the taste of the “real thing” but none of the cruelty or contaminants. Omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease, can be found in flaxseeds, canola oil, nuts, and avocados.(43)
Before you support a “wildlife” or “conservation” group, ask about its position on fishing. Groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Izaak Walton League, the Wilderness Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and many others either support or do not oppose sport fishing.
To combat fishing in your area, post “no fishing” signs on your land if you have a pond or a lake, join or form an anti-fishing organization, and protest fishing tournaments. Encourage your legislators to enact or enforce wildlife-protection laws. In the U.K., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has the authority to check and prosecute fish farms and sport fishers for cruelty to fish.(44)
References1) Harry Pearson, “Do Fish Have Feelings Too?” The Guardian 21 Jun. 2007.2) BBC News, “Scientists Highlight Fish ‘Intelligence,’” 31 Aug. 2003.3) National Public Radio, “Interview: Jens Krause Discusses Scientific Discoveries About the Intelligence of Fish,” All Things Considered 5 Sep. 2003.4) R. Aiden Martin, “Biology of Sharks and Rays,” ReefQuest Center for Shark Research, last accessed 21 Aug. 2008. 5) Stephen Budiansky, “What Animals Say to Each Other,” U.S. News & World Report 5 Jun. 1995.6) Martin A. Connaughton et al., “Characterization of Sounds and Their Use in Two Sciaenid Species: Weakfish and Atlantic Croaker,” An International Workshop on the Application of Passive Acoustics in Fisheries, 8–10 Apr. 2002.7) Mark Peplow, “Deep-Sea Fish Croaks for Love,” Nature News Service, 28 Apr. 2004.8) Jonathan Leake, “Anglers to Face RSPCA Checks,” The Sunday Times 14 Mar. 2004.9) John Mason, “Science Puts Finger on Pain Felt by Fish,” Financial Times 29 Aug. 2003.10) Associated Press, “Sport Anglers Said to Catch More Fish Than Thought,” 27 Aug. 2004.11) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation” (Washington: GPO): 8.12) Associated Press.13) Dave Golowenski, “Study Shows Effects of Catch-and-Release. Research Raises Questions About Harm to Fish During Long Struggle,” The Columbus Dispatch 4 Jul. 2004.14) Bob Kornegay, “Catch and Release Is Best Utilized Close to Catch,” Eagle 31 Aug. 2001.15) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Facts About Marine Debris,” Marine Debris Program, 9 Nov. 2007.16) Rodney Page, “Cleanup Reveals High Amount of Angler Trash,” St. Petersburg Times 28 Sep. 2007.17) Tierra Verde, “Watch That Line,” St. Petersburg Times 13 Oct. 2006.18) Sierra Club and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, “Angler Alert: Fishing Line Can Kill,” Watershed Radio, 12 Mar. 2003.19) “Fishing Around to Combat Swan Suffering,” NFU Countryside 18 Mar. 2002.20) Billy Bruce, “Fishing Line Left Behind by Anglers Is Killing Seabirds,” Naples Daily News 2 Jun. 2004.21) National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Science and Technology, “Fisheries of the United States, 2006,” U.S. Department of Commerce, Jul. 2007.22) Dawn Carr, personal experience on fishing trawler, Summer 2003.23) Stephen C. Votler et al., “Changes in Fisheries Discard Rates and Seabird Communities,” Nature 19 Feb. 2004.24) United Press International, “Study Finds 11 Shark Species Endangered,” 22 May 2008.25) Scott Bevan, “Restricted Areas to Protect Endangered Shark,” ABC News, 13 Nov. 2007.26) John McIntyre, “Sharks Endangered by Fin Trade,” BBC News, 22 Feb. 2001.27) Peter Popham, “Sharks Hunted to Extinction in the Mediterranean,” The Independent 9 Mar. 2007.28) Andrew J. Read and Phebe Drinker, “By-Catches of Marine Mammals in U.S. Fisheries and a First Attempt to Estimate the Magnitude of Global Marine Mammal By-Catch,” Jun. 2003. 29) “Duke Study Gives First Worldwide Measure of Sea Turtle Casualties by Longline Fishing,” EurekaAlert, 8 Mar. 2004.30) David Greenwood, “Bird Haven Highlights Plight of Albatross,” Daily Post 27 Apr. 2007.31) Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature 15 May 2003.32) Kendall Powell, “Eat Your Veg,” Nature 27 Nov. 2003.33) Mount Sinai Press Office, “Study Reports Seafood Allergies Often Begin Later in Life,” EurekaAlert, 8 Jul. 2004.34) J.H. Diaz, “Is Fish Consumption Safe?” Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society 156 (2004): 44–9.35) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “ToxFAQs for Polychlorinated Biphenlys (PCBs),” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Feb. 2001.36) Marian Burros, “Where Salmon Is Sold, Playing the Wild Card,” The New York Times 14 Jun. 2004.37) Elizabeth Weise and Traci Watson, “Mercury in Many Lakes, Rivers,” USA Today 4 Aug. 2004.38) Thomas Clarkson et al., “The Toxicology of Mercury—Current Exposures and Clinical Manifestations,” The New England Journal of Medicine 349 (2003): 1731–7.39) P. Elizabeth Anderson, “Benefits of Eating Fish Remain, but Health Officials Warn Against High Levels of Mercury,” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, 28 Oct. 2001.40) Consumer Reports, “Mercury in Tuna. New Safety Concerns,” Jul. 2006.41) Now With Bill Moyers, “Reports FDA Tests Only a Dozen Cans of Tuna a Year for Mercury,” PR Newswire, 16 Jul. 2003.42) Food and Drug Administration, “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mar. 2004.43) Sally Squires, “Heart-Healthy Omega-3 May Be Good for Your Brain,” Washington Post Service, 10 Sep. 2003.44) Leake.
Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights? Read more.