Fish Are Sentient, Like Birds and Mammals. So Why Don’t We View Fishing as Hunting?

Fish market. Laos, 2008. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur,

Fish market. Laos, 2008. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur,

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.

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About Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education (covering human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation). Zoe Weil is the author of Nautilus Silver Medal winner, Most Good, Least Harm: The Simple Principle for a Better World and a Meaningful Life(2009), The Power and Promise of Humane Education (2004), and Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times (2003). She has also written books for young people, including Moonbeam Gold Medal winner, Claude and Medea: The Hellburn Dogs (2007), about 12-year-old activists inspired by an eccentric substitute teacher to right wrongs where they find them, and So, You Love Animals: An Action-Packed, Fun-Filled Book to Help Kids Help Animals (2004). She has written numerous articles on humane education and humane living and has appeared frequently on radio and television. She has also given an acclaimed TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She also blogs at Find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


  1. It seems that perhaps even more than hunting, fishing is pushed on children. Even in suburban areas there are substantial efforts to get kids to fish. If you search Google for “fishing” and “children”, for example, you can see some of these many efforts, including (not surprisingly) government sponsored ones. The animal protection movement really needs more focus on fish. Their suffering is ignored even largely by us.

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