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Eco-Friendly Totes


Fish Don’t Cry: The Catch and Release Fishery Controversy

Published 03/15/02
By Barry Kent MacKay
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 33 Number 1, Spring 2002

You are walking down the street. Suddenly two thugs grab you and pull you into an alley. One points a gun at you while the other punches you in the solar plexus. You go down, helpless, momentarily breathless and very frightened. You feel your wallet or purse being taken, and see it rifled through for money and credit cards. You look up and through a blur of tears find yourself staring into a revolver’s muzzle. You see the finger on the trigger squeeze.

The gun clicks on an empty chamber. The thieves laugh and help you to your feet. As they return your money and credit cards the thugs explain that they meant you no harm; it is the thrill of robbery and murder that they wanted to experience. They had no desire to rob or kill you.

Or maybe the gun discharges on a forgotten round, and the thieves feel badly about your death because they actually didn’t want that to happen and will take more care, next time, to first empty the gun.

Either way ...

It was Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) who wrote, in Political Precepts, “It was the saying of Bion, that though the boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.”

Comparisons between animals and humans are notoriously unreliable. And yet I can’t help but consider Plutarch’s words when considering any form of abuse imposed in the name of sport upon anything capable of being abused; anything capable of suffering that did not have a choice in the matter.

Throwing Stones at Frogs

Catch and release (C&R) fishing is widely and increasingly popular among anglers. Like my imaginary criminals who mean you no real harm, or like boys throwing stones at frogs, it is done for pleasure and sport — the pleasure and sport of the angler. All sport angling serves this purpose. However, in C&R the fish is ultimately not supposed to be harmed, but is intended to survive and to propagate and perhaps to “fight” another day.

As C&R fishing becomes increasingly popular worldwide, it generates impassioned debate. The hard-core animal rights position is that fish, whatever their differences from humans, are sentient beings capable of feeling at least some form of stress and/or pain. It is clear that, as they thrash about at the end of a line, they are not content or happy — they are fighting for their very lives and in the process being damaged, perhaps permanently or fatally. Surely this is abuse of the power the abuser has over the victim, and any pleasure the former derives can only be regarded as barbaric. Might makes right. Ironically, the very fact that the fish is not killed to be eaten testifies to the fact that only the abuse matters and the pleasure or need that is fulfilled is that of the abuser. The cost is to the abused.

On the other end of the spectrum is the angler who sees C&R as the best of all situations where angling is not only an ancient, honored, and quite legal activity, but one that provides incentives to protect the environment and all who live there while bringing income and employment into regions where there is need for such things. Done correctly, so the argument goes, the fish survives, thus no lasting loss occurs to the environment, or, for that matter, to the fish.

C&R fishing is as varied and intrusive as any other form of sport angling, and ranges from a quick struggle with a pan fish that, once brought to shore, is released, to titanic struggles with monster marlins and other large fish whose lives might reasonably continue decades longer if they survive their C&R experience.

Do Fish Feel Pain?

Do fish feel pain? Fish don’t cry or yell in pain. Yet they certainly struggle from the moment they are aware of the hook. For one who has no interest in angling, the horror of their plight seems obvious. The brain and central nervous system of a fish are really not all that rudimentary. It certainly has the equipment needed to register pain, although it is impossible to say what it “feels like” to be a hooked fish. That does not negate the possibility of pain; it is impossible to know exactly what even another member of our own species feels in response to a given stimulus, although we can make what is almost certainly a very good guess.

Pain is the method by which we know that something is wrong. It serves a useful function only to the degree that it motivates the victim to seek relief. Humans and fish are alike in avoiding stimuli that certainly cause pain in humans. In 1980 the Medway Report, sponsored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), stated, “all vertebrates (including fish), through the mediation of similar neuropharmacological processes, experience similar sensations to a greater or lesser degree in response to noxious stimuli.”

As a result of this study the RSPCA took the position that it believed “that current practices in angling do involve infliction of pain on fish.” A further report, prepared for the RSPCA by S. C. Kestin, of Bristol University, and published in April 1994, states: “There is little to support the supposition that animals with larger brains experience pain in a more meaningful way than those with smaller brains; simply that they use neural structures similar to our own to interpret it. There is no reason to believe that fish are not achieving the same processing effect in other parts of the Central Nervous System. All the fundamental structures and modulation processes necessary to achieve a perception of pain are present in fish.”

What Types of Pain?

The report went on to explain that under experimental conditions fish quickly learned to avoid pain (which they would not do if it were a neutral or negligible sensation) even to the degree of selecting the option of food deprivation over pain. In 1987 a Dutch researcher, John Verhijen, and his co-authors published a paper in New Scientist based on experiments which, they concluded, demonstrated that fish could also be fearful and learn to anticipate pain. Still others have pointed to the fact that fish, and even invertebrates, can generate opiate-like pain-dampening biochemicals (enkephalins and endorphins), in response to injuries that would unquestionably be painful to humans, as further proof of the ability of fish to experience pain. Why would the body produce pain-relieving elements if there is no pain to be relieved?

There are other such studies, including one published in December 1999, by the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZ News, Vol. 12, No. 4). It stated, “The neuroanatomy of fish, and their complement of neurotransmitters suggests, rather than precludes, the possibility that fish can feel pain. The appropriate question appears not to be do fish feel pain? but rather, what types of pain do fish experience?” (emphasis in original). It concludes that more work is required to provide a reliable response to that question.

There is nothing that a fish might do in response to stimuli that, in a human (the one species whose ability to experience pain is best known) would cause pain, it does not do either non-consciously, in the form of various biochemical responses, or consciously, as seen in its struggles to escape capture — struggles that can damage and exhaust the fish to the point of death but which are part of the “pleasure” of fishing.

All of this applies, of course, to any sport fishing, whether or not the fish is killed at the end of the struggle with the angler. The whole intent of sport fishing is to engage in a battle between the fisher and the fish — a battle never asked for by, or in the interest of, the fish. People who can fish for fun while remaining quite unconcerned about what the fish endure are unlikely to accept any level of proof that fish can suffer, or care even if suffering is demonstrated.

However much we may have evolved, socially, in our increasing restraint and denunciation of cruelty to fellow humans and the subsequent establishment of human rights, we are only just beginning to apply comparable consideration to animals. The concept of a fish having a self-interest that might be considered worthy of our own self-control simply does not occur to most people. Those who are concerned are thus easily dismissed as extremists — a minority easily ignored. Nevertheless, the evidence that fish suffer is compelling to those who don’t want to find pleasure or “sport” by inducing pain or fear in another individual, whatever the species.

Double Standard

Sport anglers who treat concerns about the cruelty others see as being inherent to their “sport” may ignore a great many other negative aspects to sport angling, or at least rationalize them. Thus there is an apparent double standard whereby wildlife managers who recognize the perils of introducing non-native wildlife into the environment will stock waters with all manner of exotic “game” fish for the benefit of the angler, while essentially ignoring the consequences to native species. Many populations of non-native fish first became established as a result of live bait escaping and proliferating. That most popular of freshwater bait fish, the fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), is to be found throughout many western drainage systems, but is actually native only to eastern North America.

In the May 5, 2000 issue of Science Magazine, Frank J. Rahel, Department of Zoology and Physiology, University of Wyoming, reported on an exhaustive examination of the impact of non-native fish on native fish stocks within the contiguous 48 United States. Excluding introduced fish species that had failed to establish self-perpetuating populations, he found that in the 89 pairings of states sharing common borders, those “that formerly had no species in common now share an average of 25.2 species.” Thus, although Arizona and Montana, for example, once had no species in common, they now share 33 species. This “biotic homogenization” squeezes out specialized native species; for example the harelip sucker (Lagochila lacera), was once found in only 8 states, and is now extinct. Of the 17 species of fish established in U.S. water drainages they did not previously inhabit, no less than 13 were established for the benefit of sport anglers — mostly species native to eastern North America that were intentionally set loose in western habitats, where they competed against local species, damaging biodiversity and reducing fish variety across the country.

And not just fish, but other aquatic wildlife may be affected, directly or indirectly, by sport fishing’s demands for non-native fish stocking. For example, as reported in the New York Times on November 28, 2000, the mountain yellow-legged frog (Rana muscosa), the only frog native to the California Sierra highlands, has lost more than 90 percent of its population, “primarily because it is being devoured by the introduced trout.” Some salamander species have also been lost from these unique ecosystems, while populations of still other amphibians, such as the spotted frog (R. pretiosa), have declined because of the presence of predatory non-native trout.

Evolution at Risk

Even the very course of evolution is at risk from the introduction of non-native fauna and flora. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol. 98, Issue 10, May 8, 2001, H. A. Mooney and E. C. Cleland, of the Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, address this issue. In the summary of their paper they say: “There are examples of invasive species altering the evolutionary pathway of native species by competitive exclusion, niche displacement, hybridization, introgression, predation, and ultimately extinction.”

Sport angling is a primary source of invasive species of fish into our waterways, and far from contributing to conservation, it contributes to loss of species variety and native fish populations. This is contrary to the goals of true conservationists, and yet without such destructive practice American freshwater sport fisheries could not be sustained at anywhere near current levels.

A visit to any wildlife rehabilitation facility near a popular fishing hole will give some indication of the damage wrought by abandoned fish lines, toxic lead weights, hooks, and nearly invisible monofilament. Many times I’ve cursed some unknown angler whose abandoned monofilament has cut deeply into the wing or leg of some hapless duck, goose, or gull I’m seeking to rescue or to heal. Of course anglers find the agony of the birds and mammals that painfully encounter such things to be acceptable. It is not they who suffer. And it can be pointed out that the fact that most governments commit themselves to sustainable use of renewable “resources” is meaningless when it comes to sport fisheries, which are augmented by fish hatcheries that are essential to generate enough fish to amuse all who want to enjoy angling.

Not Enough Fish to Go Around

No fishery is inexhaustible, as so many were once thought to be. Increasingly there are not enough fish to go around, hence the destructive practice of game fish introductions, and even that does not fulfill demand, which brings us to C&R as a means of allowing fish to serve increased demands. Anglers blanket their fishing activities with platitudinous layers of emotive rhetoric about the joys of nature and their devotion to conservation. Its devotees thus present C&R as one form of conservation that will allow more “fights” with hooked fish.

But does it work in any way that can be deemed positive for fish, anglers, conservationists — or even animal rights advocates opposed to all angling for sport or profit?

“Study says catch-and-release anglers are killing more fish,” said a headline in the Virginia Pilot, on February 21, 1999. “Catch-and-release fishermen may be killing as much as 16.4 percent of the stripers they hook,” claimed the article, referring to striped bass (Morone saxitilis). The study referred to indicated that mortality in part depended on the temperature of the water, with more fish dying in warmer water. There were still enough variables to allow for the interpretation that C&R fishing still killed fewer fish than more traditional fishing methods.

Many anglers seem to love adopting the persona of the plain-spoken, easy-going, nature-loving, close-to-the earth quasi-philosopher who finds, in fishing, apt metaphor for the way human relation to the planet “should” be. C&R fishing fits right into all this. What’s the harm if only the fish that is to be eaten in a shoreline lunch is killed and all others are released?

Determining Mortality Rates

One possible source of harm is to the fish that were released. How many fish actually survive being caught and released varies enormously, and depends on interlocking multitudes of factors. In C&R studies the methods of assessing mortality to released fish varies. Some studies count a fish who swims away upright as a survivor, while others track the fish for hours, days, or weeks to determine mortality rates; some use anglers adept at the best way to handle the fish while others reflect survival in fish handled with less such training and care. Some post-release fish are monitored in holding tanks while others are checked after being tagged and released.

Nearly all studies show that there is at least some mortality in fish that are caught and released, as a result of the experience. There is a practical concern that anglers, thinking that each fish caught and released will almost certainly survive, actually wind up killing more fish than the angler who catches and kills enough fish for food, but no more. Thus a fisherman who catches and kills five fish, having one mounted and four eaten, has done less damage than a fisherman who catches and releases a dozen fish, of which seven die, unseen, a short time after they are released. Fishing tournaments, which require fish to be handled, are much less likely to see captured fish survive after release.

There are ongoing efforts to try to reckon mortality rates in C&R angling. Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted one such study, with a draft summary published in March 2000. The work sought to analyze mortality of caught and released coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) over a 20-day period in October 1999. Adults and young (jacks) were tabulated separately and it was found that the average mortality, judged on the basis of the health of the fish held captive for 24 hours after capture and release, was 19.7 percent for adults, and 30.6 percent for the jacks. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization has estimated mortality in a study of salmon in Iceland at 2 to 4 percent.

A very different study of a quite different species, conducted off the shores of Virginia, demonstrated that the mortality of caught and released summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) was considerably lower than the 25 percent allowed for in fishery management models, not exceeding 12 percent.

Estimates of C&R Mortality

In September 2000, James A. Bohnsack, of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, did a literature review and presented data on estimates of C&R mortality from a variety of sources for many different species. Among reef fish he found that mortality for black sea bass (Centropristis striata) ranged from 0 to 10 percent; for red grouper (Epinephelus morio) it ranged from 17 to 100 percent; for red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) it ranged from 1 to 44 percent; for yellow stripey (L. carponotatus) it ranged from 1.8 to 5.1 percent; and for scamp (Mycteroperca phenax) it was 33 percent.

Among other species considered there were reports of mortality rates for Chinook salmon (Onchorhyncus tshawytscha) of 18.5 to 26.4 percent; for red drum (Scianops ocellatus) of 0 to 50 percent; for smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieui) of 0 to 11 percent (fresh water); for striped bass (Monroe saxatilis) of 0 to 33 percent; and for vermilion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens) of 5 to 100 percent. This huge range reflects differences in sizes and ages of fish; the depth at which they were caught; the degree to which they struggled; the methods by which they were caught and released; and various other such factors.

Absurd Suggestion

On its website, the Catch and Release Foundation states: “Clearly, there is no area of effort in our overall program more important, or having greater potential for the future than helping our young people to develop a fundamental awareness and understanding of our basic natural resources. We believe the best way to initiate this learning and appreciation is to enable a young person to spend a day fishing with friends or family and enjoy the bountiful rewards this experience has to offer. For a youngster the simple act of returning a caught fish to the water to fight another day represents a beginning in the process of discovery and awareness that leads to an understanding of the inter-relatedness of all living things and the importance of mans [sic] wise stewardship of his environment.”


Cruelty toward others, even within our own species, is commonplace. What forms of abuse against others — human or animal — society will tolerate varies enormously through time and place, with there always being rationales for abuse that is legally sanctioned. The argument that urban children, all of us, are moving ever farther from nature is valid. But to suggest that only by dominating other animals, by hurting, or even taking the risk of hurting them, in the interest of pleasure will somehow lead to a reversal in our destructive nature seems absurd.

“I Could Not Catch a Fish”

I can recall fishing with my father and two of his pals when I was a small boy. Perched in a boat on the calm, evening waters of a northern lake, amid the grandeur of the Precambrian shield and boreal forests, I was thrilled by the impossibly haunting notes of a hermit thrush, singing vespers in the crystalline air. How beautiful the ragged tops of white pines against the glowing clouds of sunset. I was fascinated by nature, but while the adults filled me with lore on the best way to hook a fish, they really knew little of the larger world of which those fish were a part.

As I sat quietly, my line in the water, I found myself thinking from the perspective of the fish. I did not want to seem a sissy in the eyes of these adult role models, and in those youthful days I enjoyed a meal of fresh fish fillets cooked over an open fire as much as anyone. As a naturalist and budding artist the chance to examine, close up, a fish “specimen” was rewarding. But what of the fish? Was I wrong to think they were better off without me? After a few nibbles by some unseen creature that one might hope was a fish of worthy size, I pulled my hook up and saw, while it was still fairly deep in the water, that the bait was gone. The adults had not noticed. Smiling with contentment I slowly lowered the empty hook, and in that way enjoyed fishing, knowing that now I could not catch a fish.

I grew up with a lifetime passion for nature and the environment; have written books about it; have for 24 years written a nature column for Canada’s largest newspaper; and have helped animals and the environment all my life. My life is dedicated to “discovery and awareness that leads to an understanding of the inter-relatedness of all living things.” One does not have to make a fish fight for that to happen, whether the fish is killed or released with the hope that the fish will survive.

There is, I believe, no ultimate answer to the question of whether C&R fishing is more or less destructive than traditional sport angling. The best way to treat an individual fish, a population of fish, or a species of fish is to protect its home and leave it alone. Motives that come from caring are at least as strong as those dependent on whatever pleasure is derived from the plight of a hooked fish. One can still enjoy nature and not kill the wonderful things living there.

Let’s not mug a fish just for the fun of making it struggle.

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