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The Outdoor Narrative: Do fish really feel pain as do we humans?

Columnist and fisherman Robert Koopmans says the evidence suggests otherwise
fish pain

It was a glaring headline, the kind that immediately makes you take notice, especially if you’re an angler.

Fish can feel pain in similar way to humans, study concludes, read the headline on the online site for the Independent, a British newspaper. Research shows fish exhibit symptoms such as hyper-ventilating and behavioural changes, a sub-head added.

The story goes on to describe the research of British scientists. They said last September they discovered receptors in the heads of fish that respond to damaging stimuli.

“When subject to a potentially painful event, fishes show adverse changes in behaviour, such as suspension of feeding and reduced activity, which are prevented when a pain-relieving drug is provided,” biologist Dr. Lynne Sneddon said.

“When the fish’s lips are given a painful stimulus, they rub the mouth against the side of the tank much like we rub our toe when we stub it. If we accept fish experience pain, then this has important implications for how we treat them.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals added to the discussion, suggested fishing is cruel and calling for an end to all sport angling.

“Anglers may not want to think about it, but fishing is nothing more than a cruel blood sport. When fish are impaled on an angler’s hook and yanked out of the water, it’s not a game to them. They are scared, in pain and fighting for their lives,” said PETA contributor Michael Stoskopf, who is also a professor of aquatics, wildlife, and zoologic medicine and molecular and environmental toxicology at North Carolina University.

“It would be an unjustified error to assume that fish do not perceive pain in these situations merely because their responses do not match those traditionally seen in mammals subjected to chronic pain,” he said.

robert koopmans column head

It’s obvious the question of whether fish feel pain is central to a growing debate about the morality of sport fishing, particularly catch-and-release angling.

Anglers mostly believe fish do not feel the sting of the hook in the mouth, that the act of catching them is harmless to their survival.

Animal rights activists maintain the opposite, saying fishing is cruel and barbaric, a type of torture perpetrated on fish solely for the sadistic amusement of humans.

So, what’s a poor little fly fisherman to do when confronted by an ethical question of such magnitude? After all, no fishermen I know want to torture fish, but neither do they want to give up their passion because others don’t like what they do.

I’m sure the British research team that conducted this study is a dedicated, responsible bunch and I don’t question the legitimacy of its work.

I do wonder about their conclusion, however.

Granted, I’m not a scientist, but my observations, having landed thousands of fish, suggests trout don’t suffer agony when hooked.

There is no doubt in my mind that fish respond to the stimuli of being caught — I see and feel it every time I catch one.

A trout responds by jumping from the water or swimming hard against the pull on its mouth. It fights, one of the reasons people want to catch them in the first place.

And in that, it seems to me, is the answer to the question.

If a fish feels pain the way I do, would it react the way it does?

I know for an absolute fact that if someone jammed a fishhook in my lip and started pulling on it, I’d go with the pull — not against it. Reel me up.

A fish does the opposite. How can it possibly feel pain the way we do?

As further evidence, consider the behaviour of fish before the angler sets the hook and starts reeling in.

I’ve seen fish take a fly and swim lazily away, or not move much at all. It’s not until the line tightens that they react forcefully.

I don’t doubt trout quickly realize something is amiss, that they are in the grasp of something they need to escape.

It’s in their short- and long-term survival to have such equipment. Do such “receptors” send messages that equate to human pain? I can’t see it.

A retired fisheries biologist I know agrees.

He said a fish’s brain is small and their senses — while highly efficient for specific purposes — are limited.

The nervous system of a trout is very poorly evolved and not as intricate or advanced as a mammal, he said.

It all means I will rest comfortably with my decision to chase after Kamloops trout with small steel hooks and monofilament line.

That’s not to say I don’t see the impact on fish from fishing.

I know there can be.

I’ve long felt too many people are ignorant of the damage they can cause through poor handling of fish they intend to release, but that’s a different issue than fish pain.

Regardless, the question of fish pain is one that will haunt anglers for decades to come.

Catch-and-release fishing in parts of Europe has been prohibited because activists have convinced lawmakers and the general public that sport fishing is torturous. The truth of the issue matters little because perception becomes a reality.

The debate has crossed the ocean. Catch-and-release bass tournaments in the U.S. have come under increasing scrutiny over the years by animal rights extremists and it’s likely only a matter of time before my kind of fishing will also be under their glare.

The future of sport fishing on this continent will likely hinge on how our fellow North Americans perceive our activity.

How we react to their questions will decide in no small measure what might happen.

Anglers need to be aware of the debate and know how to respond when asked questions about fish, pain and the impact we have.

But long before that, fishermen need to take action.

This growing debate means anglers must understand all the potential impacts their fishing has on fish.

Anglers need to work hard to minimize the destructive effects as best they can.

Use barbless hooks. Release fish carefully and quickly. Kill fish you intend to eat swiftly and humanely. Don’t catch and release scores of fish on hot days, when it is likely more of them will die.

Most importantly, treat fish with respect.

Fishing is a blood sport, to be sure, but not one that is always lethal or even debilitating to the quarry.

And fishing is not torture as fish don’t feel human pain. I believe it and I hope others do as well.

Robert Koopmans is an avid angler and hunter who spends as much time as possible in B.C.’s wild places. He also hosts the Hunting & Fishing British Columbia podcast (find it on Apple Podcasts). To share a thought, send an email to info@theoutdoor