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Do fish feel pain?

A fish's reaction to being hooked is an escape response, not an indication it is feeling pain.

Published October 22, 2004

Fish aren't stupid.

Anybody who has watched a snook follow an artificial lure to the side of the boat then turn tail and run will agree that the old linesider can be a crafty opponent.

But are fish intelligent?

"Research has shown that fish are actually quite smart," said Karin Robertson, the fish empathy project manager for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Fish have many attributes that are often associated with higher primates."

Robertson believes that there is "nothing sporting about luring defenseless animals to their deaths with the promise of food," and is encouraging anglers to "turn in your tackle."

Now, before I address Robertson's statements, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have been a veritable PETA poster child for the exact behavior Robertson and her colleagues deplore. A March 2001 column, "Confessions of a Killing Machine," which dealt with PETA's efforts to get the Boy Scouts of America to drop its fishing merit badge, was once featured on the group's Web site.

With that in mind, I called Robertson and respectfully challenged her assertions that fish are intelligent and experience pain and suffering.

"I agree that fish are smart," I told Robertson. "Probably smarter than some people I know."

But the idea that fish feel pain the way I feel pain when I smack my thumb with a hammer is ludicrous, I said.

"Fish feel pain," she countered. "There are more than 500 academic papers that fish are intelligent beings, have long-term memories and can even use tools to build structures."

I pointed out, however, that when Robertson used the term "fish," she was actually speaking about 25,000 different species.

"Not all fish are created equal," I added. "A snook is a heck of a lot smarter than a mullet."

Robertson would not be deterred.

"How would you like it if somebody stuck a hook in your mouth and then dragged you all over the place?" she asked.

I told her that I would not appreciate such treatment, but then again, I am a warm-blooded mammal with a highly-developed central nervous system, not a cold-blooded creature with the brain the size of a peanut.

Then I added that research also has shown that snook, my prey of choice, feeds primarily on pinfish. This member of the porgy family, I explained, was so named because of the pinlike spines that stick out of its dorsal fin.

"Why would a snook, one of the cagiest fish in the water, feed primarily on something that would cause it pain?" I asked. "The answer is that a snook doesn't have the same kind of pain sensors in its mouth that we do."

Robertson conceded that she was not familiar with sportfish Centropomus undecimalis or the popular live bait Lagodon rhomboides.

"I'll have to check with one of our specialists and get back to you on that," she said.

I offered one more example:

Many species of sharks, including hammerheads, feed on stingrays. Look at a set of hammerhead jaws that have been boiled and stripped of skin (after the fish was dead of course) and you will see stingray barbs embedded in the bone.

"Why would an animal that has been evolving for literally millions of years target a primary food source that it would hurt to eat?" I asked. "The answer, once again, is that it does not experience pain the way you or I would know."

Robertson, who said PETA's "Turn in Your Tackle" campaign has yielded numerous "lures, waders, fishing poles, hats and vests," was clearly at a loss for words.

"I am going to have to do some research concerning those specific species," she said. "Those questions have not come up before."

PETA, an 8,000-member organization that has success collecting fur coats from people who have had a change of heart, will have its work cut out for itself when it comes to separating fishermen from their tackle.

I, for one, won't go down easily. To paraphrase the actor Charlton Heston, who is best known for his role as Moses before he became the mouthpiece for the National Rifle Association, they can take my fishing rod "when they pry it from my cold, dead hands."

To learn more about PETA's "Turn in Your Tackle" campaign go to

[Last modified October 22, 2004, 01:09:27]


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