When I was 5 years old, my dad took me fishing. I still remember the rush of seeing the bobber pop up and down, the feeling of a fish on the end of the line, and the joy of seeing my catch.
So when someone asked me many years later why I would do something so cruel to an animal, I didn’t know how to respond. Fishing is just something I did and enjoyed. I never really thought about the consequences it would have on the fish or the environment.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken account of what my impact on fish and fisheries is. And I have come to the conclusion that fishing is not as harmful to fish as people really believe it is. That said, most fishermen can do some simple things to be better. And we need to admit that we should look at some practices to be more humane.
Below, I will detail the aspects of fishing that most people believe are cruel to fish and explain the complicating factors behind them and what all anglers should do to be better.
Fish that get caught are more likely to die
One of the chief detractors of fishing for sport is PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). The first reason they list on their website that fishing is cruel is because a fish that is caught is likely to die from stress, disease, or other unintended consequences of being hooked.
Frankly, this is just not true.
PETA fails to directly point to any scientific study which validates their claim that recreational fishing has a significant effect on fish mortality. The only adjacent study I could find was this, which showed that cutthroat trout caught in the Yellowstone River had a 0.3% chance of mortality rate. Or in laymen’s terms, 3 of every 1,000 trout caught were killed due to being hooked.
Actually, many scientists track endangered species by catching them through traditional methods (fishing poles with line and hooks), implanting them with tags, and then monitoring them through radio transmitters. This article details how sturgeon have been studied in depth through this method, and the video below also shows a video of a professional sturgeon guide who does the same.
Simply put – if hooking and fighting a fish is so deadly, they would not be endangering an already waning species by encouraging this behavior. Done under the right circumstances, the chance of fish mortality of catch and release fishing is minimal.
And any fisherman will tell you that the majority of fish that are caught correctly swim away just fine. So there is no scientific evidence to support this claim, and colloquial evidence also will tell you otherwise.
But I don’t want to pretend that a hooked fish will never die – that is a real concern that many amateur fishermen should concern themselves with.
When fighting a fish larger than the tackle you are using, you likely will have to “tire them out” and basically hold on while the fish fights until it loses all its energy. This practice can actually lead to fish death as it raises toxin levels dramatically and should be avoided.
A more common occurrence in fishing is what is known as a “gut hook”, where a fish swallows an entire hook instead of it ending up in their mouth. Because most fisherman want their hook back, they will pull the hook out and leave severe wounds in the fish’s organs that cause eventual death. In small fish especially, this is a major concern.
But both of these realities can be easily avoided and make recreational fishing a much more humane practice to limit the chance of fish death.
How to limit fish mortality when practicing catch and release
First, a fisherman should always use tackle matching the size of fish they are after. You want a pole, reel, and line that are heavy enough to handle the largest fish you can catch without working them for upwards of 30 minutes. So simply using tackle heavy enough to fight a large fish will help you reel them in more quickly, giving them less time to expend all their energy to dangerous levels.
Also, if you catch a large fish that requires a long fight to get in, you should “revive” the fish by holding them in the water until they begin swimming on their own again. Many fisherman may just throw a fish back in when really you should gently reintroduce them to the water and allow them to get oxygen back in their bodies. After a few minutes, even a worn out fish will easily swim away and back home.
To prevent gut hooking, you should use proper sized hooks. A hook too small for a fish with a large mouth is much easier to be swallowed. So just look up the right sized hook for whatever fish you’re targeting and you’ll be severely limiting the chances of gut hooking a fish.
Also, don’t leave a pole unattended. The longer a fish has a bait, the more chance it ends up in it’s stomach and not it’s lips. So hooking a fish right when it bites will also help limit gut hooking.
If you do gut hook a fish, simply cut the line and let the fish swim away with your hook. Most hooks will deteriorate within a fish’s body. Even if it doesn’t, the chance of survival is much higher leaving the hook implanted and allowing the fish to heal around it than pulling it out.
A final consideration that is more humane is to eat the fish which you gut hook. This provides a quicker death and ensures that you aren’t just killing fish for no good reason and are getting use out of them. You can also choose to use the dead fish as bait, though that in itself is questionable as you are killing a fish solely to catch another. But it is better than just throwing it back to its death.
Fish Feel Pain When Getting Hooked
Another very common argument against fishing is that hooking a fish causes the fish pain that is unnecessary and is purely for human entertainment.
This is maybe the most valid criticism of recreational fishing in my opinion. I have long heard from fellow anglers that “fish don’t feel pain” and there are many wives tales that will tell you they forget about pain after a few minutes. But the most recent evidence tells us otherwise.
According to this article, scientists have proven that fish do feel pain in some sense as most vertebrates do. This includes when they are hooked as well as when they are left out of the water to suffocate.
We may never truly know exactly how a fish feels pain as it obviously has no way to communicate this to humans. But scientists widely agree that all fish can feel pain. And if you’ve never been fully impaled by a fishing hook I’ll go ahead and state the obvious – being hooked hurts. Pretty bad.
So yes, fishing for sport is cruel to fish because it inflicts pain everytime a fish is hooked. Depending on how this is done, it can be simply through the lip but can accidentally go in in an eye or fin as well.
I will offer an alternative to fishermen who want to limit the pain they cause to fish as much as possible – and that is to use a barbless hook.
How to limit pain caused by fishing
When you buy the majority of fishing hooks, you’ll see they come with a barb attached. This is just a piece of metal that comes out perpendicular from the point of the hook which is meant to prevent the hook from coming loose once embedded into a fish’s mouth.
But the issue is that it also makes the hole much wider when a fish is hooked. And the barb itself can cause damage when fighting and removing the hook from the fish’s mouth. So it decreases the likelihood of losing a fish, but greatly increases the damage done.
So simply using a barbless hook is a great way to prevent the damage caused by hooking a fish. A small hole is easily recoverable for most fish and frankly, they face bigger fears under the water most every day. You will lose more fish, but it also makes the fight even more exciting.
Another way to limit the pain you cause to fish is putting them back in the water as quickly as possible to avoid their pain from suffocating. Or, if you plan on keeping and eating the fish you catch, immediately kill the fish with a knife so as to limit the time it’s in pain.
So fishing will naturally cause some pain to fish and you may think it is overtly cruel. I would argue that anglers can take some simple steps to severely limit the pain that fish encounter from fishing. And that in the scope of all things, the pain inflicted is very minimal.
Fishing gear hurts the environment and wildlife
One aspect where anglers can be cruel to fish that they don’t normally think of is that fishing gear causes damage to the environment, wildlife, and specifically fish long term.
There are many fishing lures which are made of soft plastics. When ingested by a fish, they often get stuck and never break down inside their stomachs. Resulting in many problems and oftentimes death for fish that accidentally swallow them.
Evidence also exists that plastics, which never degrade overtime, leech harmful contaminants into water sources. This could overtime lead to serious problems for all animals living in and around water. So every lure lost under the water can contribute to this contamination.
This is a serious issue that doesn’t receive enough attention. If you’re interested in learning even more about it, I recommend reading this article for more information.
But I don’t want to overstate an issue that is both easily fixed and not as massive as you may think. A lot of anglers don’t use plastic lures. Dough bait, stink bait, live bait, hot dogs, insects, and much more are used as bait for fish. Some artificial lures are even made from wood. So while plastic lures are used occasionally, there are plenty of baits available which don’t have the same environmental impact.
Some companies have even stopped shipping their baits in plastic, or limit it as much as possible. Take this example from KastKing where they have made biodegradable fishing line holders to be shipped and stored in, instead of the plastic ones. .
So while some fishing gear does absolutely harm fish and the environment – there are ways being developed to work around them. And many of the worst gear like soft plastics have competitors which work as well or better – so are not necessary.
If you are a fisherman, you should absolutely take accountability for your own long-term effects on fish and the environment. Too many anglers throw used soft plastics in the water after use, not knowing or caring about the harmful effects. These are the things we can easily fix to protect fish and fishing forever.
Fishermen eat the fish they catch
I want to only spend a brief amount of time on this aspect of fishing that can be cruel depending on your perspective, as there is an obvious personal choice that must be made.
If you are choosing to partake in the meat of any animal, you are killing that animal for sustenance. This may be against your moral code, and I completely acknowledge and respect that belief. If you simply do not believe in killing an animal to eat it’s meat, then you will believe any type of fishing with the purpose of eating the fish is cruel.
But, for the majority of people, eating meat is a part of life. Animals are slaughtered and butchered to make steaks, chicken wings, and of course fish filets. Meat provides protein and many other essential nutrients that humans need to survive.
So the question then becomes – do fisherman who eat what they catch cause any more harm to fish than commercial fisherman do? And the answer from my research is not only no, but fisherman who catch their own food are actually much less cruel to fish than commercial fishing is.
The recreational fisherman who eats the fish from his local lake catches a fish that has spent its entire life in its natural habitat. They are born, bred, and live throughout their lives freely. This is quite the opposite from the majority of fish bought at the supermarket.
Over 50% of all fish you’ll find in grocery stores is farm raised rather than wild caught. This means the fish never lived a natural life – they were bred in a very small farm pond crowded with other fish. Then eventually butchered, usually in very inhumane ways, and shipped out to consumers.
Not only does this create poor environments, disease, and low quality of life for fish. It also produces fish that are often thought to taste worse, be less nutritious, and more likely to contain diseases that humans can catch.
It’s also very cruel to raise an animal in this environment and takes them from the natural habitat they were meant to be raised in. So I actually find the fisherman who catches and eats wild fish to be providing a service for fish.
The more fish that are wild caught and eaten, the less fish that are raised unnaturally in overpopulated fish farms. Simply put – if you’re going to eat fish, you’re much better off eating a fish that comes from the wild than from a farm. It is better for you and for the fish. So recreational fishermen are really supporting fish in this way.
Using fish as bait for other, larger fish
A final subject I want to discuss is how some fishermen use smaller fish as bait for larger fish.
This provides another level of cruelty than what we talked about above. If you are killing a fish to eat, then you are just participating in the natural circle of life. But killing a fish solely so you can get the enjoyment out of catching a bigger fish? Seems a bit cruel.
Depending on how this is done – it can be quite cruel but can also be very necessary in some fisheries. A fish that is in low supply, harvested solely for use as bait for larger fish, is very cruel. Killing a needed species for entertainment is not something most anglers should participate in.
However, there are many fisheries which are simply overpopulated by smaller species. Almost all ecosystems require a certain amount of prey and predators. Big fish need little fish to eat. And little fish need zooplankton and insects to feed on. One of these gets out of balance, and you have a real issue.
For many fisheries – the overharvesting of predatory or big fish is a real problem. As the big fish get eaten or made as trophies (also very cruel, please don’t do that. All taxidermists can make a replica from measurements and photos), little fish begin to overtake the environment.
As this happens, they often run out of food sources and it causes a strain on the entire ecosystem. More insects and zooplankton get eaten, limiting their numbers. As their numbers are limited, the small fish run out of things to eat. So they also starve and die off. Then that limits what the bigger fish have to eat.
So in some ways, the use of smaller fish as bait is actually helping fisheries thrive by providing a natural balance in the amount of different species which can thrive.
This is why it’s important for anglers to check local regulations and limits when trying to fish for bait. Make sure that the fishery you’re in does have an abundance of bait fish that need to be thinned out periodically before tying them on a hook to catch a monster. After all, if you use all the small fish as bait then the big fish will never grow to a trophy size.
But it’s always a good idea to use imitation or artificial lures whenever possible – as long as they aren’t soft plastic of course. Stink bait, dough bait, or biodegradable lures all are great for catching fish, won’t kill fish unnecessarily, and won’t hurt the fishery either. So opt for those baits whenever possible.
If you’ve made it to the end, you realize that “is fishing cruel?” is actually a really hard question to answer.
Some fishermen may partake in practices that are just plain cruel to fish. I believe this is because most anglers aren’t taught the consequences of their actions and have just had fishing techniques passed down to them for generations. But things like using small fish as bait, keeping fish out of water for long periods of time, or throwing used soft plastic lures in the lake need to be stopped to preserve our beloved pastime.
But there are also many anglers who are really great at keeping fisheries thriving and respect the fish they catch. As mentioned, barbless hooks can limit damage to fish. Eating what you catch is actually more friendly to fish than buying supermarket farmed versions. And fishing gear is being made in new innovative designs that actually help the environment.
So like all things – it’s complicated. If you want to get into fishing, you will naturally cause some damage to the fish you’re catching. But you can take a few simple steps to severely limit the harm you cause on fish. Ultimately, many types of fishing are legal and it’s up to your conscience as to what level you want to participate in.
I hope if nothing else this article made you think of some things you hadn’t fully considered. If so, please leave a comment. Or tell me of another aspect I missed that you think is important to discuss. I’m always happy to hear your opinions!