Is Angling Cruel? by Dr Bruno Broughton
Is angling cruel? Can fish experience pain? These interlinked questions appear to fascinate sections of the mass media which, egged on by headline-grabbing claims by animal rights activists, initiate brief but intensive periods of public debate about the ethics of angling every few years.
There is nothing particularly new in this: lurid claims about angling and anglers have been made in the UK for more than two decades. The target of this publicity is the general, non-angling public, of course. The anti-angling theory is that by attacking and softening-up the sport, public attitudes to angling will change. This would pave the way to increasing restrictions on the sport until, weakened by a thousand cuts, the coup de grace could be applied by banning angling altogether.
Poor Little Animals
Any discussion on what fish do or do not feel is rarely based on the scientific evidence alone; it invariably encompasses aspects of animal behaviour and anthropomorphism (giving animals human emotions), interspersed with claims about anglers’ litter and damage to wildlife. In tacit acknowledgement that the general public feels little natural empathy with a cold, slimy animal living in a different medium to ourselves, animals regarded as more cuddly are recruited to the anti-angling cause. This culminated in the supposed campaign by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) featuring a poster of yellow labrador hooked through the mouth with the caption “You wouldn’t do this to a dog – why do it to a fish?” The actual campaign never took place; the publicity about the threat that it would gained miles of column inches.
Other common arguments usually begin with the phrase “How would you like it if…”, totally ignoring the radical differences between fish and humans. You and I could not exist underwater; we do not eat live fish or invertebrates; and we are not cold-blooded animals. A fish is a fish, not a primitive human being, notwithstanding the best anthropomorphic efforts of cartoonists, the makers of children’s films and animal rights fanatics.
The Research Evidence
It is hardly surprising that anthropomorphism is a favourite tactic employed by those who wish to campaign under the ‘angling is cruel’ banner because they find little meaningful support if they consider the research science alone. As far back as 1980, the so-called Medway Panel – established by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – was unable to prove that fish felt pain. On balance, and because of the contribution of one person (Professor Kelly), the report simply gave fish the benefit of the doubt.
Prof. Kelly was later cross-examined on his evidence, which centred on the presence of two pain-related chemicals, ‘substance P’ (a peptide which is thought to help transmit pain in man) and ‘enkaphalin’ (an opiate which blocks substance P). The mere presence of these substances in trout was said to be important and was associated with pain. When questioned further, Prof. Kelly admitted that he had used the word ‘pain’ very loosely to describe the stimulus perceived by an animal when its tissues are damaged.
A more recent RSPCA report, in 1994, stated: “We do not know, and perhaps never will know, whether animals (including fish) experience pain exactly as it is understood by adult humans.”
In 1988 research was conducted in Utrecht, Holland in an attempt to discover if hooked fish are capable of ‘suffering’. The results of experiments on fish (mostly carp) were interpreted as showing that the behavioural response of releasing ‘spit gas’ (bubbles) was proof that the fish experienced fear. The quasi-scientists then claimed that fear was an indication of pain, without any evidence whatsoever! Even so, this published research concluded that “... the pain caused to a hooked fish, if any...” is at the most basic level. Some researchers drew parallels with what a human being would experience from an injection with a hypodermic syringe, others with the sensation of being prodded on the arm.
More recently, research conducted by Sneddon and others received widespread media publicity as evidence that fish could feel pain. In a series of bizarre experiments, chemicals were dripped onto the exposed brains of live trout to measure their brain activity, and bee venom and acetic acid were injected into live fish to observe their behavioural reactions. The actual results confirmed nothing new – fish have an elaborate system of sensory cells around their mouths and when their lips are injected with poisons, fish respond and behave abnormally. The conclusions that this was evidence that feel could feel pain were and still are contested strongly by leading neuroscientists, ichthyologists and fisheries professionals.
A Bit Of Science
The scientific arguments are extremely complicated and cannot be reduced to merely comparing the process of pain registration with the mechanics of ringing a bell – press here, pain there. As humans, with our highly developed brains, we acknowledge that pain is not an absolute emotion but is related to and intrinsically part of the individual involved. If you tapped someone on the arm, gradually increasing (and measuring) the force applied, the recipient might say that he or she experienced mild pleasure, then irritability, then anger and – finally – pain. The threshold for pain would be different if the experiment was repeated with several people.
Moreover, the context in which a potentially painful action takes place can greatly influence whether or not the subject feels pain. Our bodies are capable of over-riding pain during ‘fight or flight’ situations. During the height of battle, for example, soldiers can tolerate severe injuries which, in a different situation, would incur excruciating pain. Conversely, it is commonplace for leg amputees to experience phantom ‘pain’ in their artificial limbs.
Brains For Pain?
It is important to realise that there is a distinct difference between an animal’s unconscious reaction to noxious stimuli – known as nociception – and the conscious feeling of pain. Nociceptive responses are those types of behaviour that follow from injury or disease. Just because an animal reacts to a potentially harmful stimulus is not an indication that it is experiencing pain. Nor is it the case that unconscious behaviour is merely simple or reflex – a sleepwalker can navigate through a building, open doors and even speak
In order to show that any organism experiences pain, it is essential to demonstrate that the organism has consciousness because, without it, there can be no pain. The parts of the brain which involve pain are quite specific, namely the neocortical regions of the cerebral hemispheres. In fish, the neocortex is absent whereas, by contrast, it is huge in humans. Thus, it could be said that fish simply do not have the brains for pain!
In advancing his argument that fish are incapable of feeling pain, neurobiologist Prof. James Rose has gone on public record by stating that pain perception in fish is an anatomical impossibility. His argument is that most of the functions associated with the neocortex in higher animals are undertaken subconsciously by the brain stem in fish. And as the fish is not conscious, it cannot perceive pain, notwithstanding the lack of any mechanism for doing so. They are capable of nociception, of course, with the lower, subcortical levels of the nervous system being involved, but these operate at an unconscious level.
It is illuminating that there appear to be no aquatic organisms that inflict physical injury, or are capable of injecting venom or producing a sting, as a means of self protection against predation by fish. In every known case, the stimuli that we might consider painful are either ignored by fish or are capable of killing them. The infliction of pain as a defence against predation – a warning signal – is absent underwater.
This finding explains why fish are able to eat sharp food items, including crabs, molluscs, spined fish and even sea urchins, which cause lacerations to their mouths and which would certainly cause pain were fish capable of experiencing it! It also helps us understand why a hooked fish will pull away from an angler whereas we would be able to pull a bull towards us were we to fix a rope to a ring in its nose.
It should come as no surprise to any angler that a fish which seizes a bait but which is not hooked - a pike with a bait trapped within its jaws, for example - fights in exactly the same way as one which is hooked.
We can deduce from these observations alone that fish do not need to feel pain to survive. In fact, the logical conclusion is the reverse: in their underwater world, pain must be absent because fish would be unable to survive otherwise. In an angling context, it is by no means unusual for a caught and returned fish to be re-caught in the same day… sometimes with the next cast. Whatever the fish felt when it was hooked originally could hardly be important if it ‘forgot’ the experience almost immediately.
Summary & Conclusions
We can summarise that fish lack the parts of the brain necessary for the registration of pain and, as such, they operate at the unconscious level. They are still capable of complex behaviour and can react to noxious stimuli, but they cannot experience pain. Common sense – and our knowledge of fish behaviour – leads us to exactly the same finding. The inevitable conclusion is that angling is not cruel.
That leaves our opponents with their anthropomorphic parallels, their lurid images and their vitriol. It is pertinent to observe that the way in which they often elevate animals usually goes hand-in-hand with their demonisation of humanity – as animals are ‘humanised’, humans are ‘animalised’ and reduced to monsters or elaborate machines.
A perfect illustration of this are the oft-repeated claims by some animal rights campaigners that anglers are merely evil abusers and immoral torturers who delight in inflicting immense suffering and indescribable pain on defenceless, sentient animals.
Such statements reveal more about the mental state of those who make them than they do about any examination of the ‘feelings’ of fish.
Some Further Reading
Do Pain & Fear Make a Hooked Carp in Play Suffer?, by F J Verheijen & R J A Buwalda
Published in 1988 (English translation of a Dutch report)
[please ask me if you need a copy]
Do Fish Have Nociceptors: evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system, by L U Sneddon, V A Braithwaite & M J Gentle.
Published in Proceeding of the Royal Society (2003), Series B Volume 270, pages 1115-1121
The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain by James D. Rose.
Published in ‘Reviews in Fisheries Science’ (2003), Volume 10 (1), pages 1-38, CRC Press LLC
Hook, Line and Thinker – Angling and Ethics by Alexander Schwab.
Published by Merlin Unwin Books, Ludlow, England (2003). ISBN 1-873674-59-7
Dr Bruno Broughton B.Sc. (Hons.), Ph.D., F.I.F.M.
28th September 2005