Fish Facts

FISH FACTS: Animal rights activists blurring the science around fish welfare

Image: Jereme Lane

THE fish welfare issue has finally hit mainstream media in this country following an emotive opinion piece by a “reformed” ex-recreational fisher in the West Australian newspaper. After Recfishwest replied with a letter to the editor attempting to set the record straight and introduce some facts into the debate, Dr Jessica Meeuwig from University of WA replied with a letter of her own published on the 30th January 2017 entitled “No myth in the science around fish and pain”.

In it, Meeuwig provides readers with her slant on fish pain science, stating “these are not cherry picked examples”, but she then went on to do exactly that with a one-sided portrayal of the science of “fish pain”, mixed in with her own potent cocktail of “welfare meets conservation meets animal rights” assessment of catch and release fishing. Her letter ended in a quote saying “perhaps we will look back one day on our pursuit of these animals for sport and ask, “what were we thinking?”

Meeuwigs viewpoint highlights a yawning gap between the different ethical views on conservation practices such as catch and release. The fisher’s viewpoint is probably best summarised by J Claude Evans in his book “With Respect for Nature: Living as Part of the Natural World” who said:

“The practice of catch and release is based on respect for the integrity of ecosystems and populations that are subjected to the pressures of human use and exploitation. Embedded in this practice is a specific respect for the individual fish one attempts to catch and then releases…”

In contrast, we have the viewpoint of animal rights and animal liberation advocates, who can be summarised by a quote from John Webster, author of a book entitled “Animal Welfare, limping towards Eden”, who says:

“What can be more humiliating for a fish than to be caught by an angler—and worse still—to then be released. The poor thing is probably traumatized for the rest of its life and shall therefore be better off by being killed than released.”

It’s “interesting” to say the least that a scientist like Meeuwig chose (knowingly or not) to align herself with animal rights philosophy, particularly as animal rights and liberation philosophies break down wherever wild animals encounter predation in a natural food chain.

This is because, as eloquently pointed out by UK based Philosopher Professor Warwick Fox, the animal rights and liberation theories cannot adequately explain why we should, for example, stop human predation or interactions with fishes on one hand, but on the other hand, not attempt to intervene to stop the suffering (or “rights violations”) of other fishes in terms of their predation upon each other.

Indeed, a literal interpretation of animal rights philosophy is that one acceptable solution to predation is to “simply humanely eliminate all predators” because humans alone can determine what is morally right or wrong and therefore we are obliged to protect the so called rights of prey species.

Clearly then, animal rights and liberation theories are fundamentally and fatally flawed in this respect and have no place in any science based efforts to manage the natural environment because of this.

It’s important to realise that animal welfare theory accepts fishing, and fishing is an OK activity for fish welfare provided scientifically validated best practice methods are used – which is why Australia has developed and recently updated its National Code of Practice for Recreational Fishing.

In contrast, however, animal rights and animal liberation theories do not condone fishing in any form, as shown by the comparison in Table 1. The table is borrowed from a paper by Professor Robert Arlinghaus from Germany, a fisheries scientist who took an active interest in the subject once it began to impact on the ability of his department and students to do fisheries research in Germany.

Table: Comparison of key features between a science based animal welfare strategy vs animal liberation and animal rights philosophies in the context of fishing.


This table is useful as it’s important to know the difference between valid welfare concerns, which are based on science, and animal rights and liberation theories, because its the latter two which are used to form the basis of anti-fishing campaigns from the animal rights movement. These campaigns tend to be based on emotion, and dodgy “science” messages, but unfortunately, if not challenged they can be highly successful, mainly in first world, post-industrial democratic societies, with highly urbanised populations.

One such place was Germany, where activists found it was easy to project the view that humans are “no longer part of nature”, especially when most people think their food comes from the supermarket. For people who are completely divorced from nature, its an easy stretch for anti-fishing activists to extend to them the feelings-based theories that fish are human-like, “feel pain” and “suffer”, and use dodgy science messages to get activities such as catch and release banned as a result.

This is not the first time we have seen such confused, mixed emotive welfare/rights/conservation messages arising from WA, and it is almost certainly not going to be the last. Why? Because the urban majority have largely lost their connection to the natural environment, attitudes to wildlife change as studies have shown urban people who have no interaction with wild animals begin to view them in more of a “mutualistic” manner, ie. as friends or pets.

In contrast, those people who fish or live traditional or rural lifestyles and actually interact with wildlife and/or farm animals on a regular basis are more likely to see themselves as part of that environment and hold differentviews towards animals, believing they should be managed when necessary and can be used to benefit humans (the so called utilitarian viewpoint).

But with a highly urbanized population in Australia and fewer and fewer people collecting their own food these days, more and more we are seeing valid concepts of welfare and conservation being blurred and distorted into the potent mixing pot of social media to arrive at emotive outbursts with animal rights and liberation overtones, even by so called academic experts like Meeuwig.

Indeed, its possible that this is the new normal for public debate about recreational fishing in this country going forward, which is why it is worth fishers understanding the underlying drivers behind this phenomena. Its important that people are called out when they mix up valid welfare or conservation concerns with animal rights and liberation philosophies.

The latter simply do not work when managing animals which live in the real world in real food chains in the natural environment, which is why only proper, science based management approaches will do.

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