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Fishing: Aquatic Agony

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 Pain
According 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 pulled 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’ Fishing
While the numbers continue to decline compared to decades ago, more than 33 million people still went fishing in 2011, 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. 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.15

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.”16 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.17 A U.K. study found that 3,000 swans are found “either directly hooked or entangled with fishing tackle” every year.18 Dolphins have also died from asphyxiation after choking on fish who had tackle still attached.19

Commercial Fishing
The average U.S. consumer eats nearly 16 pounds of fish and shellfish every year. To meet this demand, U.S. commercial fishers reel in more than 8 billion pounds of fish and shellfish annually, the aquaculture industry raises more than 700 million pounds per year, and another 5 billion pounds of seafood is imported.20

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.21 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.22

Some fishing boats use gill nets, which ensnare every animal they catch, and fish are mutilated when they are extracted from the 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.23

Longline fishing—in which 40 miles of monofilament fishing line dangles thousands of individually baited hooks to catch tuna and swordfish—drowns thousands of turtles and birds every year.24 Because of the fishing industry’s indiscriminate practices, the population of the world’s large predatory fish, such as swordfish and marlin, has declined by 90 percent since the advent of industrialized fishing.25 The population of Pacific bluefin tuna has decreased by 96 percent in the same timeframe.26 According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks for which data are available are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.27 One study conducted by 14 marine scientists concluded that continued overfishing of the world’s fish stocks will cause “100% of species [to] collapse by the year 2048.”28

Overfishing is threatening shark populations, too, with more than 100 million killed every year.29 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.”30 Many sharks 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, helpless animals back into the ocean to die in agony.31

Eating Fish Is Hazardous to Your Health
Like the flesh of other animals, the flesh of sea animals contains excessive amounts of protein, fat, and cholesterol, and 7  million Americans are believed to be allergic to shellfish.32

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.33 A study of the nation’s freshwater waterways concluded that one in four fish is contaminated with levels of mercury that exceed government standards for safety.34 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.35,36 After an analysis of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data on canned tuna, Consumer Reports cautioned that cans of tuna “especially white, tend to be high in mercury.”37 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 less than 12 ounces a week of other fish flesh.38

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 mock lobster, shrimp, and crab 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.39 Recipes for fabulous, healthy, and animal-friendly vegetarian dishes, including faux fish sticks and sushi, can be found at

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.40 Please visit for more information.

1Harry Pearson, “Do Fish Have Feelings Too?” The Guardian 21 June 2007.
2BBC News, “Scientists Highlight Fish ‘Intelligence,’” 31 Aug. 2003.
3National Public Radio, “Interview: Jens Krause Discusses Scientific Discoveries About the Intelligence of Fish,” All Things Considered 5 Sept. 2003.
4R. Aiden Martin, “Biology of Sharks and Rays,” ReefQuest Center for Shark Research, last accessed 19 Sept. 2013.
5Stephen Budiansky, “What Animals Say to Each Other,” U.S. News & World Report 5 June 1995.
6Martin 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.
7Mark Peplow, “Deep-Sea Fish Croaks for Love,” Nature News Service, 28 Apr. 2004.
8Jonathan Leake, “Anglers to Face RSPCA Checks,” The Sunday Times 14 Mar. 2004.
9John Mason, “Science Puts Finger on Pain Felt by Fish,” Financial Times 29 Aug. 2003.
10Associated Press, “Sport Anglers Said to Catch More Fish Than Thought,” 27 Aug. 2004.
11U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation” (Washington: GPO, 2013): 4.
12Associated Press.
13Dave Golowenski, “Study Shows Effects of Catch-and-Release. Research Raises Questions About Harm to Fish During Long Struggle,” The Columbus Dispatch 4 July 2004.
14Bob Kornegay, “Catch and Release Is Best Utilized Close to Catch,” Eagle 31 Aug. 2001.
15Rodney Page, “Cleanup Reveals High Amount of Angler Trash,” St. Petersburg Times 28 Sept. 2007.
16Tierra Verde, “Watch That Line,” St. Petersburg Times 13 Oct. 2006.
17U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Angler Alert: Fishing Line Can Kill,” last accessed 27 Sept. 2013.
18“Fishing Around to Combat Swan Suffering,” NFU Countryside 18 Mar. 2002.
19Megan Stolen, “Fatal Asphyxiation in Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncates) From the Indian River Lagoon,” PLoS ONE 8 (2013).
20National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Science and Technology, “Fisheries of the United States, 2010,” U.S. Department of Commerce, Aug. 2011.
21Dawn Carr, personal experience on fishing trawler, Summer 2003.
22Stephen C. Votler et al., “Changes in Fisheries Discard Rates and Seabird Communities,” Nature 19 Feb. 2004.
23Andrew 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,” June 2003.
24Janet Rayloff, “Hooking Fish, Not Endangered Turtles,” ScienceNews 11 Nov. 2011.
25Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature 15 May 2003.
26Joe Satran, “Pacific Bluefin Tuna Overfishing Has Led to 96 Percent Population Reduction, Study Says,” The Huffington Post, 10 Jan. 2013.
27Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Review of the State of World Marine Fishery Resources,” FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 457, 2005.
28Marla Cone, “Fisheries Set to Collapse, Study Warns,” Los Angeles Times 3 Nov. 2006.
29Press Association, “Sharks at Risk of Overfishing, Say Scientists,” The Guardian 2 Mar. 2013.
30Scott Bevan, “Restricted Areas to Protect Endangered Shark,” ABC News, 13 Nov. 2007.
31ress Association.
32American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, “Shellfish Allergy,” Allergist 2010.
33U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “ToxFAQs for Polychlorinated Biphenlys (PCBs),” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Feb. 2001.
34B.C. Scudder et al., “Mercury in Fish, Bed Sediment, and Water From Streams Across the United States, 1998–2005,” U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5109, 2009.
35Thomas Clarkson et al., “The Toxicology of Mercury—Current Exposures and Clinical Manifestations,” The New England Journal of Medicine 349 (2003): 1731–7.
36ffice of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, “Methlymercury in Sport Fish: Information for Fish Consumers,” California Environmental Protection Agency, 1 Aug. 2013.
37Consumer Reports, “Mercury in Canned Tuna Still a Concern,” Jan. 2011.
38Food 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.
39ally Squires, “Heart-Healthy Omega-3 May Be Good for Your Brain,” Washington Post Service, 10 Sept. 2003.