Here's some food for thought for the anglers who have been reeling in the stocked trout at recently: Fish are intelligent animals who form complex social relationships and "talk" to one another underwater. Fish can count and tell time, they are fast learners, they think ahead, they have unique personalities, and they may even have a sense of humor.
They also feel pain, as all animals do. If you wouldn't put a hook through your dog's mouth and drag him or her around, you shouldn't do it to a fish, either. When it comes to pain, there's no difference.
In her book Do Fish Feel Pain?, biologist Victoria Braithwaite says that "there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals."
After surveying the scientific literature on fish pain and intelligence, not only did researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada conclude that fish feel pain, they also insisted that their welfare deserves our consideration.
For anglers who argue that fish "lack the brains" to feel pain, University of Guelph researcher Dr. Ian Duncan reminds us that we "have to look at behaviour and physiology," not just anatomy. "It's possible for a brain to evolve in different ways," he says. "That's what is happening in the fish line. It's evolved in some other ways in other parts of the brain to receive pain."
Even "catch-and-release" anglers aren't off the hook. Fish have particularly sensitive mouths and lips that they use in much the same way that we use our hands, and removing a hook from a fish's mouth can result in debilitating injuries. Fish who are caught and thrown back into the water often die from injuries or stress. A 2006 study of a Wisconsin catch-and-release tournament, for example, found that a staggering percentage of fish who were caught washed up dead within a few days.
Given all that we know about fish sentience and their ability to feel pain, fishing can no longer be considered a benign pastime. Hiking, biking, birdwatching, and canoeing are just a few of the ways that we can enjoy the great outdoors without causing animals to suffer.