Hooked on Harm: The Welfare Issues with Recreational and Commercial Fishing

Fishing, both recreational and commercial, has been a fundamental part of human culture and sustenance for centuries. However, amidst the serene allure of lakesides and the bustling activity of harbors lies a less visible aspect—the welfare issues associated with fishing practices. While often overshadowed by discussions of environmental impact, the welfare of fish and other marine animals deserves attention. This essay explores the welfare concerns arising from both recreational and commercial fishing activities.

Recreational Fishing

Recreational fishing, pursued for leisure and sport, is a widespread activity enjoyed by millions worldwide. However, the perception of recreational fishing as a harmless pastime belies the welfare implications for the fish involved. Catch-and-release practices, common among recreational anglers, may seem benign, but they can inflict stress, injury, and even death upon fish. The use of barbed hooks and prolonged fight times exacerbates these welfare concerns, potentially causing internal injuries and impairing the fish’s ability to feed and evade predators post-release.

Hooked on Harm: The Welfare Issues with Recreational and Commercial Fishing July 2024

Why Catch-and-Release Fishing Is Bad

Catch-and-release fishing, often touted as a conservation measure or a recreational activity promoting “sustainable” angling, is indeed a practice riddled with ethical and welfare concerns. Despite its purported benefits, catch-and-release fishing can inflict significant harm on fish, both physiologically and psychologically.

One of the primary issues with catch-and-release fishing is the severe physiological stress experienced by the fish during the capture and handling process. Studies have consistently shown that fish subjected to catch-and-release suffer from elevated levels of stress hormones, increased heart rates, and respiratory distress. This stress response can be so severe that it leads to the death of the fish, even after being released back into the water. While some fish may appear to swim away seemingly unharmed, the internal injuries and physiological disturbances caused by the stress can ultimately prove fatal.

Moreover, the methods used in catch-and-release fishing can cause additional harm to fish. Fish often swallow hooks deeply, making it difficult for anglers to remove them without causing further injury. Attempts to retrieve hooks by forcibly removing them with fingers or pliers can result in the tearing of the fish’s throat and internal organs, leading to irreversible damage and increased mortality rates. Even if the hook is successfully removed, the handling process can disrupt the protective coating on the fish’s body, leaving them vulnerable to infections and predation once released back into the water.

Furthermore, the act of catch-and-release fishing can disrupt natural behaviors and reproductive cycles in fish populations. Prolonged fight times and repeated capture events can exhaust fish, diverting valuable energy away from essential activities such as foraging and mating. This disturbance to natural behaviors can have cascading effects on aquatic ecosystems, potentially leading to imbalances in predator-prey dynamics and population structures.

In essence, catch-and-release fishing perpetuates a cycle of harm disguised as sport or conservation. While the intention may be to minimize the impact on fish populations, the reality is that catch-and-release practices often result in unnecessary suffering and mortality. As our understanding of fish welfare continues to evolve, it is imperative that we reassess our approach to recreational fishing and prioritize more ethical and humane practices that respect the intrinsic value of aquatic life.

Commercial Fishing

In contrast to recreational fishing, commercial fishing is driven by profit and sustenance, often at a large scale. While essential for global food security and economic livelihoods, commercial fishing practices raise significant welfare concerns. One such concern is bycatch, the unintended capture of non-target species such as dolphins, sea turtles, and seabirds. Bycatch rates can be alarmingly high, resulting in injury, suffocation, and death for millions of animals annually.

The methods employed in commercial fishing, such as trawling and longlining, can cause immense suffering to fish and other marine life. Trawling, in particular, involves dragging massive nets along the ocean floor, indiscriminately capturing everything in their path. This practice not only destroys critical habitats like coral reefs and seagrass beds but also subjects captured animals to prolonged stress and injury.

Do Fish Feel Pain When They’re Caught?

Fish experience pain and distress due to the presence of nerves, a common feature among all animals. When fish are hooked, they exhibit behaviors indicative of fear and physical discomfort as they struggle to escape and breathe. Upon being removed from their underwater habitat, fish face suffocation as they are deprived of essential oxygen, leading to distressing consequences such as collapsed gills. In commercial fishing, the abrupt transition from deep water to the surface can cause further harm, potentially resulting in the rupture of fish swim bladders due to the rapid change in pressure.

Hooked on Harm: The Welfare Issues with Recreational and Commercial Fishing July 2024
Fish feel pain, so why are they treated with so much less compassion than other animals? / Image Source: The Humane League UK

Fishing Gear Hurts Wildlife

Fishing gear, regardless of the method employed, poses a significant threat to fish and other wildlife. Annually, anglers inadvertently harm millions of birds, turtles, mammals, and other creatures, either through ingestion of fishhooks or entanglement in fishing lines. The aftermath of discarded fishing tackle leaves a trail of debilitating injuries, with animals suffering immensely. Wildlife rehabilitators emphasize that abandoned fishing gear constitutes one of the most pressing dangers to aquatic animals and their habitats.

Hooked on Harm: The Welfare Issues with Recreational and Commercial Fishing July 2024
Hooked on Harm: The Welfare Issues with Recreational and Commercial Fishing July 2024

What You Can Do to Help Fish

To assist fish and promote their welfare, consider refraining from fishing and instead exploring alternative outdoor activities that do not involve harming animals. Engage in activities such as hiking, birdwatching, camping, or kayaking to appreciate nature without causing harm to fish or other aquatic creatures. By choosing non-fishing activities, you can contribute to the conservation of fish populations and their habitats while fostering a deeper connection with the natural world. Additionally, educate others about the welfare issues associated with fishing and advocate for ethical treatment of aquatic animals. Together, we can work towards creating a more compassionate and sustainable environment for all living beings.

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