The Blog

Things NOT to Do When You Are 11¾ - Or Ever, Three: Don't Go Fishing

What are the pupils going to learn from this addition to their timetable? That there is nothing wrong with inflicting pain, fear and trauma on another animal? Or that there is nothing wrong with killing?

Smithills School in Bolton is introducing coarse fishing to its curriculum this month.

What are the pupils going to learn from this addition to their timetable? That there is nothing wrong with inflicting pain, fear and trauma on another animal? Or that there is nothing wrong with killing?

Research has shown that fish feel both pain and fear in a similar way to mammals (Dr Donald Broom and Dr John Webster are among those notable in this field). This thinking is recognised in policy statements by (among others) the World Organisation for Animal Health, the EU Commission and the RSPCA. Hence the RSPCA's recommendation that all vertebrate animals - mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish - "should be regarded as equally capable of suffering to some degree or another, without distinction between 'warm-blooded' and 'cold blooded' members."

There are opposite views of course. Professor James Rose (of Wyoming University in the US) claims that fish react to pain unconsciously rather than sentiently.

Don't we all tend to choose opinions which suit our preconceptions? But if you choose to think that the thrashing of the fish you have just landed is a mere reflex action rather than a response to fear or pain then answer this: unless pain hurts and is memorably unpleasant - even traumatic - then how do fish survive? For pain and fear are survival mechanisms.

You might think that 'catch and release' makes fishing morally better. As soon as you remove a fish from water it begins to drown in air. (How differently anglers might feel if its gasping was audible or if fish screamed). It's difficult to read a fish's emergency response but the science shows that when fish are taken out of the water their heart rate, adrenaline levels and vigorous muscle contractions are all indications of stress. To conclude that this is not a sign of suffering seems offhand, to say the least. There's more. To handle fish is to remove some of the invisible outer mucus which acts as a protection against infection. The trauma of being caught is likely to weaken its immune system. And the shock will probably have left it disoriented and more vulnerable to its natural predators. Are these the sort of things the Smithills' students are being taught?

And are they being taught about the impact of fishing on other wildlife? That, however careful anglers are, some fishing line ends up in places they just can't get to. Like trees - where it snares birds; or on opposite banks - where voles, mice, rats, weasels, stoats and even badgers, can get caught up in it. Fishing hooks can cut skin and some are swallowed. Of course it's not just fishing debris: any kind of litter can have a lethal impact on wildlife, and often does. The Environment Agency estimates that 3,000 swans a year are brought into wildlife centres to have fishing lines and hooks removed from around their necks and feet.

Smithills school's mission statement declares that fishing will teach pupils to learn about the environment, about plants, animals and food chains, about measuring water depths and how to use weights to balance floats.

No doubt they will learn all that and a whole lot more. But you don't have to be involved in killing or harming other animals to appreciate the wonder of these things, including the wind and the water and the water's magnificent biodiversity.

Television programmes like Country File and organisations like the Wildlife Trusts, who organise fishing events, treat fishing as a perfectly acceptable way to learn about nature. This cavalier attitude omits any consideration of welfare or the idea that fish might suffer. Steve Powell, the Environment Agency's fishing specialist, summed this up when he said "These pupils will become the environmentalists and anglers of the future."

Do we want the sort of environmentalists who see nothing wrong with causing a fish to gasp for its life? And who have not been encouraged to think what life might be like from another animal's perspective?

It's too late to change the habits of all those for whom fishing is an important part of their lives. But the up and coming generations, today's school children; shouldn't they be exposed to new ideas?

Surely learning to have compassion for our fellow sentient beings whether we fish, hunt or rear them for food, would be a more worthwhile lesson than treating aquatic animals so casually. It might even help to make the world a kinder place. Shouldn't Smithhills' students be taught to respect life rather than to take it?