Credit scientific discovery. Credit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Credit Finding Nemo, the latest pro-animal animated production in a 64-year string from Walt Disney Productions.
Whatever the reason, humans around the world are suddenly talking about the suffering of fish as never before.
The first paragraphs of previews of Finding Nemo tell the story:
* New York Times film critic Stephen Holden noted a mako shark named Bruce who chants to himself “Fish are friends, not food,” trying to break the fish-eating habit.
* “You might care to swear off seafood after Finding Nemo, or go to the port and net a fisherman for dinner,” wrote San Diego Union-Tribune critic David Elliott in a review picked up by MSNBC.
* Finding Nemo “has pet fish traders worried about rough seas ahead,” said Associated Press.
Since the anti-hunting classic Bambi (1940) and the exposé of circus treatment of elephants included in Dumbo (1941), Disney animated features have time and again anticipated the crossover of humane concerns into public awareness. Lady & The Tramp (1955) included the first prominent screen depiction of what really goes on in dog pounds, and the first edition of 101 Dalmatians (1959) more-or-less created the anti-fur movement.
Cruelty-to-fish cases are suddenly getting a level of attention rarely accorded to any animal cruelty cases until barely a dozen years ago.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, Trapholt modern art museum director Peter Meyer was on May 18, 2003 acquitted of cruelty to goldfish–but only after a two-day trial, and the internationally reported outcome was no longer described in the joking tone used in February 2000, when Friends of Animals/Denmark (not affiliated with the U.S. group of similar name) brought charges against Meyer and Chilean-born artist Marco Evaristti for mounting an exhibition in which visitors were offered to opportunity to puree live goldfish in a blender. Two fish were killed despite a police injunction ordering Meyer to cut off the electricity to the blender.
In New Jersey the Press of Atlantic City reported seriously on a multi-agency humane investigation of the use of goldfish as live table ornaments at the mid-May Middle Township junior prom. Some attendees allegedly abused the fish, and server Susan Genova said the staff were told to trash the fish afterward. Instead, Genova and other servers rescued those they could.
The San Franciscio Chronicle and Santa Cruz Sentinel both reported in early June that two members of the Delta Omega Chi fraternity at the University of California in Santa Cruz were charged with theft and malicious mischief for allegedly killing a 15-year-old three-foot koi who had resided in a pond at Porter College since 1995.
A year ago awareness that fish feel pain and suffer when caught scarcely won a word of mass media attention. On April 30, however, the Roslin Institute and Edinburgh University affirmed after a two-year study that fish indeed feel pain.
Since 1997, when other Roslin Institute researchers produced Dolly, the first cloned sheep, Roslin Institute announcements have tended to make headlines.
First to break the news in the U.S. was the Florida Sun Sentinel, serving a state where commercial fishing is a $217 million a year industry and sport fishing is worth $4 billion a year, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.
Within the next week many of the most influential news media worldwide featured the confirmation that fish feel pain, including The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, Agence France Presse, and all four leading London newspapers: the Times, Independent, Observer, and Guardian.
The Roslin Institute study was directed by Lynne Sneddon, Ph.D., head of animal biology at Liverpool University.
“What I set out to do was to find pain receptors in fish like those in higher mammals and humans,” Sneddon told Valerie Elliott and Helen Rumbelow of The Times of London.
While previous studies on cartilaginous fish such as sharks indicated that they do not feel pain in the same way as mammals, Sneddon found that bony fish “rocked from side to side when injected with bee venom, a rocking motion strikingly similar to that seen in animals and humans suffering stress,” Sneddon said. “When acetic acid was injected, the gill respiratory rates of the fish doubled and they were seen rubbing their lips against the tank walls. The fish injected with venom also did not eat until the effects of the experiments subsided. All in all, the results fulfill the criteria for animal pain.”
Sneddon did not flinch from applying her findings to common sport fishing and scientific practice.
“At present there are no rules on killing fish, and I would like to see painkillers used if fish are tagged or have fins clipped to identify them,” Sneddon said. “I don’t have a problem with people getting fish out of the water quickly, killing them quickly, and taking them home to eat,” she said, “but people also catch fish and let them go for sport and hold them in keep-nets, and I don’t think these are welfare-friendly practices.”
The Sneddon study followed up a 1994 report to the Royal SPCA by Steve Kestin of Bristol University. Wrote Kestin, “It cannot be argued that fish experience pain in exactly the same manner as humans. Such an argument is untestable. But it can be argued that the pain fish feel as a result of injury is likely to be just as important to them in their own way as human pain is to humans.”
The attention given to the Sneddon study appeared to stimulate some British news media interest in a year-old Compassion In World Farming report on the suffering of ranched trout, salmon, halibut, and sea bass, called In Too Deep. In gist, CIWF found that the same kinds of animal welfare problems that occur among pigs and chickens raised in close confinement also afflict confinement-reared fish.
The Norwegian Federation for Animal Protection cited the Sneddon findings in a mid-May objection to “Fishing Pole Project 2003,” in which the Norwegian Hunting and Fishing Federation donated 40,000 fishing poles to grade school students, following up a similar promotion in 2002.
Animal advocates have occasionally objected to fishing almost from the beginning of the organized humane movement in the early 19th century. The early 20th century Austrian novelist Franz Kafka quit eating fish for humane reasons, but as with his books, his gesture was noted mainly posthumously.
Serious opposition to fishing by animal advocates has focused mostly on harm to marine mammals resulting from fishing–either when whales, seals, and sea lions starve due to lack of fish, or when they are slaughtered, as in the Atlantic Canada massacre of 350,000 harp and hooded seals this year, for allegedly depleting fisheries that have already been depleted by humans past foreseeable recovery.
PETA is the only animal advocacy group to sustain a significant anti-fishing campaign for humanitarian reasons.
Coordinated by Dawn Carr, the PETA campaign seems to have begun with protests at several New Jersey and Louisiana fishing tournaments in 1996.
Such protests have continued in strategic times and places ever since.
The PETA anti-fishing campaign gained momentum from public statements against fishing made by the late Linda McCartney in 1997, a year before her April 1998 death from breast cancer. In 1999 PETA produced a television ad featuring
McCartney’s appeal for abstention from sport fishing–but the ad was banned in Britain by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre for allegedly being “too political.”
In September 1999 PETA protested against the presence of fish on the menu at the Monterey Bay Aquarium restaurant, and had members write letters objecting to the depiction of a trophy fisher on Wheaties boxes. The PETA campaign spread to Africa in June 2001 with an appeal to the South African Scout Association, asking that a merit badge for fishing achievement be withdrawn. Similar merit badges are presented by the National Scout Councils of many other nations, including the U.S., where PETA earlier made the same request.
In August 2001 PETA touched off a furor in Florida and New Jersey, following several shark attacks on humans, by pointing out that as anti-fishing campaign spokesperson Dan Shannon put it, “sharks killed 10 people worldwide last year. Humans kill over 50 million sharks each year.”
Also in 2001 PETA distributed a poster showing a dog with a fish hook stuck in his cheek, with a caption asking, “If you wouldn’t do this to a dog, why do it to a fish?”
Quiet in 2002, the PETA anti-fishing campaign revived one day after publication of the Sneddon findings with an alert e-mailed by activist liaison Megan Hartman. Hartman also mentioned the practice of boiling lobsters alive, another longtime target of sporadic protest, including dozens of lobster releases conducted by
PETA during the 1980s and early 1990s.
The first pro-lobster action to gain widespread attention in 2003 came toward the end of May, when Joel Freedman of Animal Advocates of Upstate New York bought a pound of scallops and dumped them into a supermarket lobster tank in Canandaigua, New York, as an intended meal for the lobsters. Lobsters awaiting boiling are not fed.
“As far as I’m concerned, I obeyed the law by feeding the lobsters,” said Freedman, who was escorted from the store but was not charged with any offense.
“Like many others, I respond with a lesser gut reaction to the suffering of fish than to that of other animals,” online animal rights commentator Karen Dawn of DawnWatch acknowledged in 2001. “But I appreciate PETA’s reminder that uncute animals matter. Moreover, PETA is pushing the envelope. They are out there getting laughed at whilst fighting for fish. The rest of us, fighting mostly for mammals, look more and more mainstream.”
Young men & the sea
About 35 million Americans fish, between two and three times the number who hunt. Most of them are men. Fish and other marine species are the animals many men are most likely to see suffering, and cause to suffer through their own deliberate actions.
The suffering of crustaceans evident to recreational diver John Kroezen of Port Lincoln, Australia, was enough to cause him to disobey a government directive to clip the ends of the tails off of rock lobsters, to prevent sport fishers from selling the lobsters commercially. Kroezen, who also kills lobsters by icing them before boiling, made enough noise about the tail-clipping regulation that the South Australia Research and Development Institute in mid-May 2003 began a study of how painful the procedure may be.
Giving up fishing after recognizing that marine species feel pain can become a man’s first decisive action in choosing a more humane lifestyle–as it was for Steve Hindi in 1990, two years before he founded SHARK. Hindi at the time was not just a recreational fisher, but a shark fisher with a national reputation, who sometimes wrote for fishing magazines.
“I first fished at age five,” Hindi recalled in May 1996. “Like most children, we learned what we were taught, setting aside whatever qualms we may have felt. Our mother raised us to care for cats and dogs, and we regularly took in strays. However, we were told that fish had no feelings, and we killed them with abandon. Sometimes I would give a fleeting thought to whether these animals suffered as they lay gasping on the shore,” Hindi admitted. “Catfish and bullheads, and carp take a long time to suffocate. After a while, we would hit their heads with rocks to kill them quickly.”
As a teen, Hindi began pursuing “game fish,” so-called because they put up more of a fight. “Often we bought large sucker minnows as bait. Although we were told, and wanted to believe, that fish did not feel fear or pain,” Hindi wrote, “we almost always knew when a predator approached the sucker. The bobber would begin to bounce and move; panic was obvious. I decided that live bait fishing was cruel and pursued my prey thereafter with artificial lures or dead bait.”
Hindi was not alone in his qualms. By the 1980s the sport fishing industry began to address “matters of ethics and conservation, at least superficially,” Hindi remembered.
“Spokespeople began talking of catch-and-release. We would hook our prey, allow them to suffer as they fought for their lives, and then release them, hoping they would survive to endure this torture again. At about the same time catch-and-release became popular, the ethical gurus decided that fishers should use lighter gear to fight our victims. A small fish could be fought not just for a couple minutes, but perhaps for a quarter of an hour.
“My conversion to shark fishing,” Hindi wrote, “seemed to quell a fairly quiet but nagging voice suggesting that killing animals, especially those much smaller than me, was not completely defensible as a hobby.”
Soon, however, Hindi began to see evidence of the sentience and suffering of sharks, and of tuna, often caught from the same vessels.
Thrashing tuna on the deck of a boat can be dangerous.
“To keep them still, we simply put a cloth over their exposed eye to block the light, much as you would calm a horse,” Hindi explained. “This was a problem. Much like a horse? How much like a horse? I wouldn’t do this to a horse. Why was I doing this?”
By the time Hindi gave up fishing, along with hunting, his brother and two fishing buddies had already voiced discomfort about the killing, similar to his own.
Despite his ethical choice to stop fishing, Hindi admits he missed certain aspects of it for a few years–until he became active in trapping feral cats for neuter-and-return. Catching feral cats, he observed, is exactly like fishing except that some cats are even more challenging than the most evasive fish, and he enjoys releasing them in the knowledge that they have been helped through his intervention.
“Fishing is as popular as it is because fish do not have the ability to communicate suffering as readily as cats, dogs, cows, or other mammals. While many people may at first be taken aback at the mere suggestion that fish can suffer,” Hindi concluded, “I believe society can grasp the concept. And if we can make people feel for those who cannot cry out their suffering, how much more will they feel for those who can?”
Globally, the commercial fishing industry landed 130.4 million metric tons of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks in 2000. Add to that the millions of farmed fish, fish caught for sport, and bycatch, caught and killed but dumped at sea for having no market value.
Still just beginning to acknowledge the catastrophic impact of fishing on conservation and biodiversity, the world may be a very long way from translating the dawning awareness of the sentience of fish into public policy.
Yet it is also possible that humanitarian concern for fish may succeed in taking fish off the menu for millions of people for whom the conservation issues are abstract and distant–much as awareness of the suffering of other animals has caused millions to give up beef, pork, and chicken, even though cattle, pigs, and chickens are at no risk of extinction.
Much as fish are sensitive to even the slightest ripples in the water surrounding them, fishers seemed unusually alert to criticism early in 2003.
In February pro-fishing organizations were quick to amplify a report by University of Wyoming professor of zoology and phyisiology James D. Rose, 60, that fish cannot feel pain because they do not possess the regions of the cerebral cortex that distinguish pain from “nociception,” meaning reflexive response to stimulus.
“Pain is predicated on awareness,” Rose said. “Anyone who has seen a chicken with its head cut off will know that while its body can respond to stimuli, it cannot be feeling pain.”
In Britain, National Federation of Anglers representative Rodney Coldron lauded Rose for “killing off that silly argument” that fish feel pain.
But it was not a “silly argument” later in February to 200 Thai fishers who confronted Total Access Communication representatives in Samut Prakan: it was a perceived threat. The fishers were irate about a TV ad for cell telephones that reportedly showed an activist using a cell phone to ring in complaints against fishers who were cutting the fins off live sharks and roasting sea turtles alive.
Total Access Communication said that ads were meant to promote awareness of marine conservation. The conservation message, however, was apparently not what disturbed Samut Prakan Fishing Society chief Prasan Silapipat. What upset him was that Thai fishers might be perceived as torturers of the marine life they kill.
Shark-finning reputedly occurs worldwide. Since June 2000 possessing shark fins without a shark carcass has been illegal in U.S. waters, as a measure intended to slow down the currently unsustainable rate of depletion of many shark species–but fins are lucrative, while demand for other shark parts is weak, tempting fishers to ignore the law. Trying to send a message, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration on May 19, 2003 fined the fishing companies Tran & Yu Inc. of Honolulu and Tai Loong Hong Marine Products Ltd. of Hong Kong a record $620,000. NOAH agents in August 2002 had discovered more than 32 tons of shark fins aboard one of their vessels, the Honolulu-based King Diamond II.
Live-roasting sea turtles in their shells is still done on some Southeast Asian and Pacific islands, and between 20,000 and 28,000 green sea turtles are butchered alive each year in Bali, according to recent reports.
The Thai fishers, however, were adamant that they neither fin sharks nor kill sea turtles–which would be illegal in Thailand as well as most other nations.