Concern for fish suffering rises worldwide
SILVER SPRING, Maryland––Suddenly voices are rising on behalf of fish, including one of the most surprising of all.
Yes, that was the voice of U.S. President Donald Trump, rarely known to express concern or compassion for anyone who doesn’t support him, discussing a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals campaign against sport fishing on a 2004 episode of his nationally syndicated radio program Trumped!
“I believe it’s painful for the fish”
“Whenever my sons go fishing,” Trump said, in a clip rediscovered by Buzzfeed in May 2016, recently amplified by anti-fishing activists, “they always tell me, ‘Dad, it doesn’t hurt a fish to get hooked.’ Well, I watch and I see and I believe it’s painful for the fish.”
Trump does not appear to have expressed qualms about fishing either before or since that uncharacteristic comment.
But many others have.
“Toronto the Good”
On March 25, 2017, for example, about two dozen activists lay prostrate in fishing nets in front of Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, “to protest both hunting marine animals, and having them in captivity at aquariums,” reported Grant Linton of CBC News.
The demonstration was in part a memorial to the late marine documentary maker Rob Stewart.
Stewart, a Torontonian, drowned on January 31, 2017 while videotaping near the wreck of the Queen of Nassau, once flagship of the Canadian Navy, near Islamorada, Florida.
“Hundreds of billions of marine animals are murdered every year when we don’t need to consume a single fish, or lobster, or any animal,” protester Len Goldberg told Linton.
When a cause becomes visible in Toronto, whose quiescent public image has earned the nickname “Toronto the Good,” it tends to have global momentum.
Seafood firm fined Down Under
And the cause of fish and other non-mammalian marine life seems to have unprecedented momentum in recent months, exemplified by the February 2017 fine of $1,500 Australian dollars levied against Nicholas Seafoods, of Sydney.
“The first entity in Australia to be convicted of animal cruelty over treatment of a lobster,” according to Naaman Zhou of Australian Associated Press, Nicholas Seafoods “was found to be in breach of the New South Wales Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act,” Zhou recounted, “for butchering and dismembering lobsters with a band saw, without adequately stunning or killing them first. Royal SPCA investigators observed workers separating lobsters’ tails from their bodies while they were still alive, a process they said caused ‘immense pain.’”
First prosecution in 20 years
Crustaceans have technically been protected by the New South Wales Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in places where food is prepared or sold since 1997, at insistence of then-Member of the New South Wales Legislative Counsel Richard Jones.
“Victoria state has included fish and crustaceans in animal cruelty laws since 1996, and similar laws apply in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory,” Zhou noted.
Dead fish display nixed in Japan
Yet another indication of rising global concern for marine life came from Japan, eighth among the 193 members of the United Nations in per capita fish consumption, where in November 2016 public protest forced the Space World amusement park in Kitakyushu to close a skating rink whose ice featured a display of commonly eaten fish species frozen beneath the surface.
“Space World bowed to pressure to close the facility after an online campaign denouncing the piscine graveyard as ‘cruel,’ ‘immoral’ and ‘weird,’” reported Justin McCurry, Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian. “The rink, which was supposed to have stayed open until the spring, featured about 5,000 dead sprats, mackerel and other fish bought from a local market embedded in the ice, some with their mouths still open in apparent suspended animation.”
Larger fish, including whale sharks, were represented below the ice with life-sized photographs.
PETA has opposed sport fishing since inception in 1981. The Chicago-based animal rights organization Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) has denounced sport fishing since 1992, reflecting the personal perspective of founder Steve Hindi, who was known for his shark fishing exploits before turning vegan.
Mercy for Animals, noted for undercover video exposés of factory farms and slaughterhouses, also produced a gut-wrenching exposé of farmed catfish slaughter, Skinned Alive, first aired in January 2011.
And there have been previous ripples of humane concern for fish, cephalopods (octopi and squid) and crustaceans, notably after the May 2003 release of the Walt Disney film Finding Nemo.
Fish Feel: first voice for voiceless species
This time, though, the ripples show promise of becoming a tide, largely because there is now an organization, Fish Feel, of Silver Spring, Maryland, specifically dedicated to the cause of fish and other non-mammalian marine life.
Working with SHARK to document cruelty to cownose rays in killing contests on Chesapeake Bay, Fish Feel pushed parallel bills to suspend the killing contests through both houses of the Maryland legislature. A reconciled version was on April 5, 2017 sent to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who is expected to sign it into law despite strong opposition from the hunting and fishing lobbies.
Cownose rays came to be targeted by recreational fishers with particular venom after studies led by Julia Baum of Dalhousie University in Halifax, published in the prestigious journal Science, in both 2003 and 2007 blamed overfishing of larger sharks for an increase in the ray population. The rays supposed then ate Chesapeake Bay scallops and oysters into decline.
But subsequent studies by Robert Fisher of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Dean Grubbs of Florida State University have discovered that Baum “over-stated both the decline in big sharks and the ability of cownose rays to reproduce enough to devastate shellfish populations,” summarized Rona Kobel of Bay Journal in February 2016.
Shark biologist Lauren Smith in a March 6, 2017 column for www.elasmodiver.com, a web site for shark enthusiasts, cited the campaign against cownose rays as one example of “the disastrous consequences that can happen when the research which informs and underpins conservation strategies executed is not objective and, crucially, isn’t subjected to rigorous peer review.”
An underlying issue that Smith did not mention, however, was that cownose rays were especially easily scapegoated for the effects of water pollution and climate change because, before Fish Feel emerged, fish had no human voice representing any interest in their existence apart from an interest in consuming them, or in consuming whatever fish themselves might be eating.
“Largest number of exploited vertebrate animals”
“Fish are by far the largest number of exploited vertebrate animals, and arguably suffer the worst abuses,” wrote Fish Feel founder Mary Finelli to ANIMALS 24-7 on March 2, 2014. “Grievously, they receive the least concern, even from the animal advocacy community. Some one to three trillion fish per year are hauled from the waters for use as human food. Billions more are raised in factory fish farms, and untold millions of fish are tortured for so-called sport. Billions are also exploited annually for the aquarium trade and, increasingly, millions of fish are used for invasive experimentation.
“Fish are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act,” Finelli pointed out, “nor by the Humane Slaughter Act. They are routinely impaled, crushed, suffocated, and dissected while fully conscious. Commercial fishing also kills countless whales, dolphins, birds, and other animals. It obliterates underwater habitat and wreaks havoc on ecosystems. Farmed fish are commonly crammed together in foul water. Sea lice can infest these fish so severely that their flesh is eaten to the bone. They are continually subjected to painful procedures, and many are starved for days prior to their gruesome slaughter.”
“Drop in the bucket”
Finelli and her husband Howard Edelstein brought to the struggle on behalf of fish extensive background in advocacy for other “food animals.”
Finelli, after seven years serving in various capacities with the Humane Society of the U.S., was from 2002 to 2009 producer of Farmed Animal Watch, which she describes as “a weekly online news digest sponsored by numerous animal protection organizations.”
Finelli could recall first hand that, “Years ago, Henry Spira observed that activists’ efforts were ‘a drop in the bucket,’ since at that time farmed animal issues were essentially unaddressed. Farmed animals are now receiving much attention,” she wrote in announcing the formation of Fish Feel, “but Spira’s lament remains largely true while fish (and shellfish), who comprise such a vast percentage of exploited animals, receive so little notice. By ignoring fish so, the animal protection community is itself being very speciesist.”
From chickens to fish
In Spira’s time (1927-1998), even broadening the focus of the then-young animal rights movement to advocate for chickens was seen by many activists––and animal rights organization leaders––as “trivializing” a cause then relatively narrowly preoccupied with animal use in laboratories.
Extending the concept of “rights” to great apes and even monkeys was seen as possible because of those species’ kinship with humans. The causes of hunted mammals, zoo animals, horses, cattle, pigs, and dogs and cats were accepted, albeit at times grudgingly, in view of human identification with other mammals.
But Spira, and United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis, among his most prominent and successful protégés, and also now a strong supporter of Fish Feel, were told repeatedly that the public was not yet ready to accept activism on behalf of chickens and turkeys.
Supposedly, according to conventional activist wisdom, chickens and turkeys, raised and slaughtered in numbers dwarfing the total use of all mammals for food, lacked sufficient individuality for people to identify with them.
Significant discoveries about the sentience and intelligence of chickens and turkeys––and paleontological recognition of their descent from close kin of tyrannosaurus rex––seem to have relegated that argument to fossilization.
Meanwhile, similar scientific findings about fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans are expanding appreciation of their likenesses to humans, including in their capacity to suffer.
In May 2016, immediately preceding the recent surge of advocacy for fish, Evan Byrnes of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia published findings in the Journal of Fish Biology that Port Jackson sharks exhibit distinctly different personalities.
“Over the past few decades,” said Byrnes, “research has shown that nearly 200 species of animals demonstrate individual personality. Personality is no longer considered a strictly human characteristic. Rather it is a characteristic deeply ingrained in our evolutionary past.”
In June 2016 Oxford University zoologist Cait Newport published findings in Scientific Reports that archerfish can distinguish among human faces despite lacking the brain structure used by humans to accomplish facial recognition.
Christos Ioannou and colleagues from the University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences in September 2016 published data in Science Advances demonstrating that three-spined sticklebacks, the smallest freshwater fish indigenous to the United Kingdom, not only have individual personalties, but behave much like humans when obliged to make risky choices.
In small groups, the braver sticklebacks tend to lead. In larger groups, individual personality appeared to be voluntarily suppressed in favor of maintaining group cohesiveness.
Said Ioannou, “This is the first time that the suppression of personality in groups has been linked to its underlying cause, which is conformity in group decision making. The behavior of the fish seems to be ‘plastic’ to the social situation. They show consistent individual differences in behavior when tested alone, reflecting personality, but they are also happy to suppress this to be able to stick together with their shoal mates if there are others around.”
If sticklebacks behave like humans, and the converse, that the bravest individual activists have brought into being a specific sub-movement on behalf of fish can be expected to lead to collective acceptance that this is among the directions of the future.