My sun-toasted toddler sits on a weathered dock, clutching her pink Barbie fishing pole with grown-up gravitas. Her pigtails bounce as she dangles her bare feet above the deep emerald lake, where her cherry red-and-white bobber waltzes in sync. She takes a swig from her tyke-sized Dannon bottled water and waits for the bluegill to strike.
“Where are they?” she asks impatiently, her face as taut as her 2-pound test line.
Below, the feeding frenzy has begun. Tiny predators strike at the night crawler doubled over on my daughter’s hook. The bobber goes under. My little fisher bolts up from her summer repose and reels in her prize: a beautiful bluegill sunfish no larger than the size of my palm. We admire its markings and spiny dorsal fin, then carefully unhook and release the catch back into its warm, watery domain.
“Bye-bye! Go back to your mama and dada and get bigger!” commands my budding little conservationist. “Now, can I have another yucky worm, please? Let’s do it again!”
I can think of few things more idyllic, intimate and wholesome than introducing a young child to fish responsibly. But animal-rights activists consider my daughter and me, and millions of other recreational fishers like us, immoral barbarians for practicing catch-and-release. The latest anti-fishing attack centers on new research purporting to show that fish feel pain when hooked.
According to Lynne Sneddon, a scientist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, she has confirmed, for the first time, the “existence of nervous system receptors in the head of fish that respond to ‘damaging stimuli.'” In a study that seems far more cruel and unusual than anything my daughter and I have ever done to our neighborhood sunfish, Sneddon injected bee venom and acetic acid into the lips of captive rainbow trout.
Sneddon and her colleagues interpreted the injected trout’s refusal to eat and rubbing against tank walls as unequivocal signs of human-like emotional suffering. Maybe they just, um, wanted to get out of their barbaric aquatic cages and get back to their mamas and dadas? In all seriousness, many other scientists counter that fish are neurologically incapable of processing feelings. Fish, unlike higher and more well-developed primates, completely lack a neocortex, which produces an awareness of pain.
If little Nemo isn’t cognizant of suffering, how can you claim he suffers? Or, as University of Wyoming scientist James Rose put it in his own recently published study on fish and pain: “We know enough about consciousness to know that fish don’t have the hardware” to feel it.
Sneddon’s true agenda has less to do with establishing neuroscientific truths than with stoking fishers’ guilt — and ultimately undermining the entire sport. “Really, it’s kind of a moral question,” Sneddon sniffed after the publication of her research. “Is your angling more important than the pain of fish?”
Radical groups such as PETA have taken this “Fishing Hurts” campaign to ugly extremes. Anti-fishing activists in America and Europe have intimidated researchers, dispatched topless demonstrators dressed as menacing mermaids to upset children’s fishing programs, and thrown rocks at and sent scuba divers to scare fish away from angling waters. They’ve even tried to bully the Boy Scouts of America into dropping their traditional fishing merit badge.
“We seek to shift the ways animals are viewed, from being a resource to be exploited to that of the community of individuals that they are,” PETA’s Dawn Carr sanctimoniously explained a few years ago.
The ironic catch in protesting catch-and-release is that these environmental zealots are attacking a humane and responsible practice that allows large numbers of families to fish for sport without depleting precious resources in rivers and lakes. Anglers are among the most dedicated stewards of the environment. It’s in our natural self-interest to ensure healthy, thriving fish stocks for generations to come. Fishing license fees contribute millions of dollars every year to fund ecological and fishery management programs nationwide.
So let the PETA types empty their Kleenex boxes while their scientific sympathizers torture some poor fish in a lab to prove an irrelevant point. My daughter and I are going to soak up the sun, enjoy our lakeside views and go fishing — geared up and guilt-free.