Reading the August issue of The Sun magazine, I was struck by a section of the essay “Pioneers” by John Frank about fishing. Frank writes: “I caught an ugly junk fish of some kind. It had giant, gold-rimmed eyes and a sharp dorsal fin that nicked the soft flesh of my hand. I tossed it back.”
And two paragraphs later: “Once, in junior high, I’d caught an odd-looking fish with large scales and taken it home to show my father in hopes he could identify it. I wanted greatly for him to be the kind of father who’d flip open a book and point to a picture of the fish and give it a name. But I found him asleep on the couch, the sun hitting the coffee table by his feet. So I went outside and threw the fish as far as I could into the woods.”
Frank may be writing about his past, but in the present, he isn’t compelled to consider the morality of his behavior. And my experience with people who fish recreationally is that, like Frank, the ethics of fishing rarely arise in their minds.
Why is that? Fish are capable of feeling. They suffer when hooked in the most sensitive parts of their bodies. Like other animals, including us, they avoid danger and seek survival. Were Frank to be talking about trapping kittens or puppies, harming them for fun and throwing out the “ugly junk” ones, most readers would be outraged.
Yet as a society we aren’t outraged by recreational fishing. Instead, it’s practically a national pastime. It’s perceived not simply as harmless but also wholesome. Even movies valorize fishing, including fishing that’s done simply for pleasure, not for survival. But can we put ourselves in the fish’s position? Imagine what it would be like to take a bite of food only to have a sharp hook embedded in our mouths? Can we imagine being dragged by this hook, and ultimately deprived of oxygen so that we suffocate to death? Or if released, can we imagine being injured so badly that we slowly die or become prey to other animals from whom we cannot now escape? And if it were fun for others to do this to us, for no other reason that because they enjoyed it, would this be a good enough reason?
Some thoughts to consider before we go fishing.