Before discussing whether any fishing is a cruel practice, it is important to denounce the commonly held belief that fish are incapable of feeling pain and have little awareness or intelligence.

There are over 27,000 known fish species, more than all the other vertebrates combined. Fish are also the most ancient of the major vertebrate groups. The fish world is substantially larger and more complex than the world that exists on land.

The misconception that fish are unintelligent and do not feel pain is slowly being debunked by accumulating scientific studies that support the contrary- that fish are indeed intelligent and sensitive creatures. That despite their small brains fish do feel pain, are actually quite smart and do have emotional and social awareness.

It is hard to arouse compassion for fish. They can't display their agony by screaming or crying for help. They can't express their feelings or thoughts through easily recognizable behaviours. They aren't cute and furry, nor have sad eyes like a puppy. What makes it even more difficult is their aquatic environment being so foreign to humans and people having little contact or knowledge of their true natural behaviours.

Let's take a look at the evidence that supports the truth about these sentient beings.

Physiology and Biology

From a scientific perspective fish have nerve structures which are anatomically similar to mammals.

"The scientific literature is quite clear. Anatomically, physiologically and biologically, the pain system in fish is virtually the same as in birds and animals." - Dr. Donald Bloom (Professor of Animal Welfare, Cambridge University)

Neurobiologists have long recognized that fish have nervous systems that comprehend and respond to pain. Just like us, fish have neurotransmitters like endorphins that relieve suffering - therefore they must feel pain for their nervous system to produce such chemicals.

Nociception refers to the detection of noxious stimuli by the nervous system. The peripheral nervous receptors, called nociceptors, sense stimuli and report to the central nervous system where motor responses are initiated and the sensation of pain is perceived.

In one famous study led by Dr Lynne Sneddon, from the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh, mechanical, thermal and chemical stimuli were applied to the heads of anaesthetized fish and the neural activity was recorded.

Results found that 58 receptors were located on the face and head of the trout and responded to at least one of the stimuli.

Dr Sneddon reported, "Of these, 22 could be classified as nociceptors in that they responded to mechanical pressure and were stimulated when heated above 40 Celsius. Eighteen receptors also responded to chemical stimulation and can be defined as polymodal nociceptors."

These polymodal receptors are the first to be found in fish, and resemble those that can be found in mammals, including humans.

However, the mere presence of nociception in an animal is not enough to prove that it can feel pain, because its reaction may be a simple reflex.

Therefore, a second study involved injecting bee venom or acetic acid into the lips of a group of trout, with control groups receiving only saline solution injections or simply being handled. Prior to the injections, all the fish had been conditioned to feed at a ring in their tank, where they were collected for handling or injection. It was found that the trout that had been subjected to bee venom or acetic acid showed anomalous behaviours. The fish displayed post-traumatic stress reactions, such as a "rocking" behaviour, much like people do when they are in shock after a near death experience. Other fish refused to eat for a long time after an injury, while others rubbed their lips in the gravel of the tank as if relieving the discomfort, something they would not normally do and not something that is a mere reflex.

Other observed reactions showed that when injected with nasty stimuli the heart rate increased by up to 30%, and they started to beat their gills at an alarmingly increased rate.

Are fish intelligent?

Recent research has shown that fish display social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, showing stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to watch out for predators and catch food. Fish have also been observed at recognizing "shoal mates", social prestige and even tracking relationships. Other studies have found that fish can even use tools!

For more information about the various evidence and studies supporting intelligence in fish, check out this webpage

Is fishing cruel?

There seems to be a never-ending debate between animal rights advocates and the fishing community, in particular those from the sport fishing sector. The argument that fish feel pain is becoming stronger with growing scientific research supporting this claim. Other behavioral research support the notion that fish do show signs of intelligence and complex social relationships. These findings are supporting the view that fishing can be cruel.

Apart from the physical pain, it must be remembered that once out of the water, fish suffocate rather like we do if drowning in water. When caught and hauled onto land, fish can be seen writhing, gasping and flapping their gills as they desperately try to get oxygen.

But it's not only fish that are victims when it comes to fishing. Hundreds of other sea creatures are affected by the different methods of fishing. Apart from the mass killing of so much marine life, the increase in demand for seafood means that some sea animals are being ‘over-fished' and their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. Furthermore, commercial fishing practices not only kill a lot of sea life, but also causes a great deal of environmental damage, in particular erosion of the sea bed.

Commercial fishing

This can involve net fishing which large schools of fish are netted and hauled through or up and out of the water. This type of fishing affects more individual aquatic animals than any other form of human-based industry. The number of animals affected is incalculable since statistics are only kept on the quantity of tonnes captured and marketed. Unwanted fish - known as ‘by catch'- are excluded from the count. In Australia up to 800 different marine and freshwater ‘seafood' species' are sought by the commercial ‘wild capture' fisheries in set fishing zones.


This is one of the most common methods of commercial fishing in the world. A trawl is a large, heavy, open-mouthed net that is pulled either along the seabed (demersal trawling) or through the water above the seabed (midwinter trawling) by heavy boats. Trawling is non-targeted, meaning that it will catch any living creature that happens to be in the net area. Hundreds of different life forms are killed as demersal trawl nets grind over the ocean's bottom. It has even been reported that hundreds of turtles and dolphins have been caught in the nets. Deep-water fish may also be captured and when dragged up from the ocean depths the change in pressure, known as barotraumas, causes their eyes to balloon and their swim bladders to burst. Many fish and other aquatic animals drown under the weight of all the other fish and creature. Any unwanted catch is simply thrown back to the sea where many will subsequently die.

Purse Seine Nets

These nets form a circle around shoals of fish and scoop them all out of the water. The size of the mesh sometimes allows smaller fish to escape. However, this method also catches other marine life such as turtles, dugongs and dolphins. It's only been in the past decade that modifications have been made to the nets to allow larger animals to escape.

Drift Gill Netting

This has to be one of the most destructive methods of fishing.This practice involves the use of a very strong but very fine net made of nylon. This fine net is almost invisible in water and forms a wall beneath the waters surface to the seabed. It catches all the fish over the size of the net spaces by their gills. Many dolphins, small whales, seals and sharks swim into the net and either get pulled up or drowned in the process. Since the wanted catch is either salmon or tuna fish, all other creatures are just discarded. A typical drift net can stretch as far as 30 kilometers or more. When storms occur, they can sometimes break free and drift around the ocean capturing and killing many sea animals.

Long Line Fishing

Thousands of baited hooks are attached to lines behind a boat and stretch tens of kilometers. Known as snoods, these hook lines hang from the main line - and may reach to the bottom (demersal) or near the surface (pelagic). The demersal method can be used over rocky areas that would normally tear nets. With concern to the pelagic longlines, many sea birds are also hooked during their attempt at feeding on the caught fish and many are killed in the process.


This is a horrific practice that involves catching sharks, slicing off their fins and then discarding the live shark back into the ocean. The discarded shark often dies from shock, drowning or predation by other sharks. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed annually around the world. This practice has been banned in most state and Commonwealth waters in Australia. However, the demand for shark fin is very high in many Chinese restaurants for the popular shark fin soup.

Is recreational fishing cruel?

You may be like so many others and find that fishing can be a relaxing and fun time. However, while being one of the most widely practiced "sports" in the world, it is also one of the most common forms of cruelty. If it involved other types of animals, the practices would be prosecuted.

Hook and Line Fishing

This involves piercing the mouth of the fish with a sharp hook and then the hauling in of the fish. The hauling may take just a few minutes or even hours depending on the fish and the circumstance (recreational versus sport fishing). Due to the developed nerve endings in the mouth, having a hook piercing then pulling causes pain. Most people remove the hook while the fish is still alive. The method of removal can be quite rough causing the mouth to be torn or mutilated in the process.

When landing larger fish, a gaff hook is used to rip into the flesh of the conscious fish and pull the live fish out of the water.

It is not only the practice of catching the fish that can be cruel. Fishers who are irresponsible may leave or discarded unwanted fishing tackle such as fishing line or nets, hooks, as well as other rubbish. Many animals, both marine and non-marine can get caught and often languish either from injury or starvation.

Game Fishing

This form of recreational fishing involves very large ‘game' fish such as marlin and tuna, and relates to the skill involved in ‘playing' and ‘landing' the large fish. It can take up to several hours for the large fish to be landed as the fisher ‘plays' with the fish causing it to weaken from exhaustion and not break the fishing line. In this type of fishing the bait used is a smaller live fish. The smaller fish is threaded up as bait in the manner described by a fishing magazine -

"The needle is passed through the front of the socket of both eyes. The material is then pulled through so that the hook sits on the head of the baitfish."

The fish is then used as a lure to attract the larger fish. It has been well documented that fish that are distressed or injured send out alarming signals to warn other fish, so this form of recreation is a sadistic and cruel one.

Catch and Return

In an attempt to ensure that ‘fish stocks' are not depleted by recreational fishers, fishers have been encouraged to return fish that are too small, of a protected species, or unwanted for eating. The entire hooking, landing, and handling of these ‘unwanted' fish causes further suffering when they are returned. Injuries such as those caused by severe hooking, exhaustion from the capture, or injuries through rough handling and treatment, may result to predators or infections which will later kill the fish.

Recreational fishing had its own Rules and Regulations. The National Code of Practice for Recreational and Sport Fishing addresses four main areas of fishing, including looking after fisheries, protecting the environment, treating the fish humanely and respecting the rights of others. However, the Code is not enforceable. It recommends that unwanted or illegal fish should be returned as quickly as possible to the water. However, it is silent on gaffing hooks, live bait fish, game fishing etc, and therefore appears that these cruel practices are acceptable under the Code.

What Can you do?

Simple. Don't eat fish or seafood. The human consumption of fish is the greatest cause of destruction of the oceans. By buying fish and other sea creatures to eat means you are supporting killing of animals and environmental destruction.

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