On May 2, the Colombia Congressional Court declared sportfishing unconstitutional with an 8-1 vote in favor of the ruling.
“Although there is no consensus as to whether fish are sentient beings, the truth is that by virtue of the precautionary principle, even in the absence of scientific certainty, when there are elements that preliminarily demonstrate the risk of damage to the environment, the intervention of the State is necessary,” the court ruling said.
While the court argued that sportfishing “violates the principles of environmental protection and animal welfare,” and results in the “deterioration of the nation’s hydrobiological resources,” commercial, artisanal, and subsistence fishing are still considered constitutional. This means that blast fishing—using dynamite to make harvesting easier, which causes extreme damage to reefs and marine ecosystems—is still legal as long as the fish will be sold.
Colombia’s rivers are legendary for species like peacock bass and payara on the fly. The coastline boasts incredible year-round inshore and pelagic fishing pursuits, including cubera snapper, roosterfish, tuna, marlin, and sailfish. But a year from now, if an angler catches one of these prized fish, they must kill them, according to the court’s ruling.
In an op-ed published on La República, Colombian lawyer Luis Guillermo Velez Cabrera declared that this ruling “may be the stupidest decision a constitutional court has made in recent history. It's really laughable.”
Cabrera pointed out the illogical decision of the court to ban recreational fishing, citing potential environmental impacts.
“What the Court wants to tell us is that, since we do not know if the fish can suffer, to protect the environment, we must prohibit sport fishing,” Cabrera wrote. “The possible impact on the environment is due to commercial fishing and artisanal fishing, practices that were not constitutionally prohibited. Think of the meshes, the dynamite, and the dragnets that kill anything, sentient or not.”
Global Ramifications Will this ruling set a precedent for more countries to follow? Many people worry that might be the case. But Colombia is not the first country to outlaw sportfishing.
Catch and release fishing has been illegal in Germany since the late 1990s in the wake of the German Animal Welfare Act declaring that “no one may cause an animal pain, suffering or harm without good reason.” But as some German anglers with concerns for native populations have found that fish are mighty slippery, and sometimes you just can’t hold on to the darn things long enough to kill them.
Conversely, Switzerland has a clear-cut, established set of rules regarding catch and release. For example, it is legal to release a properly-handled native fish, but if the fish is non-native or presumably unable to survive, it must be harvested. At least these stricter regulations seem to be prioritizing the health of their native fisheries.
Colombia also declared sport hunting unconstitutional in 2019. “The Court concluded that the regulations go against the constitutional duty to protect the natural environment and the wildlife,” the court records state. “According to that duty, it is of the highest public interest to protect animals against all kinds of suffering, mistreatment, and cruelty.”
This is the second Latin American country to do so following Costa Rica, which simultaneously attempted but failed to ban sportfishing. According to Todd Staley, outdoors writer and conservationist based in Costa Rica, the recreational fishing industry in Costa Rica brings in $520 million annually. It’s hard to deny that economic pull in any country.
“The fisherman in Colombia aren’t going to stop fishing,” Staley said. “It’s not that they can’t fish, it’s that they can’t catch and release.”
But Staley believes that Colombia has a chance to stop this ruling much like Costa Rica did. Anglers really need to do more to demonstrate the economic and personal value of sportfishing to the politicians and jurists in Bogota.
As for the folks who filed the lawsuit to the congressional court in the first place, “they don’t know one end of a fishing pole from another,” Staley said.
Killing in the Name Of The ethical debate surrounding catch and release is always controversial. In certain instances, C&R can be a tool to manage fisheries. Implementing mandatory-release fishing can help fragile populations rebound, like with goliath groupers along the coast of Florida. On the other hand, management agencies encourage the harvest of invasive species like lionfish to allow native species to thrive.
But some people just don’t get the concept of catch and release. Why go through the trouble of catching a fish if you’re not going to eat it?
Clearly, these folks have never experienced the simple pleasures of watching a dry fly float down a mountain stream on a cool summer morning, stripping a streamer into the dark abyss of a lake on a moonless night, or feeling the muscles of a fish ripple in your hand as it propels itself into the water. To them, those of us that enjoy catch-and-release fishing clearly must just enjoy torturing fish.
Many studies have attempted to give a definitive answer about how fish experience pain. A 2012 study from the Department of Zoology and Physiology and Neuroscience Program at the University of Wyoming titled “Can fish really feel pain?” investigates how and if fish are capable of experiencing discomfort or harm.
The researchers state that it is difficult to measure pain specifically because it is such a personalized experience. So, the paper compares multiple studies where physical and neurological responses are measured in fishes in situations that could stimulate a pain response.
“Overall, the behavioral and neurobiological evidence reviewed shows ﬁsh responses to nociceptive stimuli are limited and ﬁshes are unlikely to experience pain,” the authors wrote.
While their studies do not yield an absolute answer, they mention how claims that fish can feel pain are totally unsubstantiated. And making these claims can have detrimental ecological repercussions.
“There are many potentially damaging consequences of ongoing misrepresentations of what is known, or more accurately, not known, concerning the ﬁsh pain and suffering issue. Policies stemming from these misconceptions could undermine the health and welfare of ﬁshes and humans alike and, if unchecked by more scientiﬁcally sound information, their impacts will likely become more widespread and damaging,” the study concluded.
Beyond attempting to answer the difficult question of if fish can experience pain is the fact that catch-and-release fishing is not an intentional act of harm. Additionally, the survival rate of released fish is typically over 90%, but this percentage tends to drop with rising water temps, increased angler pressure, and other factors.
To be clear, you can practice catch-and-release fishing and subsistence fishing, no one is making you pick sides here. There is a time to harvest, a time to release, and on certain hot, dry dog days of summer, a time to sit on the shore and crack a beer instead of wetting a line. What I would like to point out is that recreational anglers are by no means public enemy number one to the health of environmental ecosystems.
“The methods used by anglers aren’t designed to hurt fish. A fishing rod is not a whip; it is a shock absorber,” Mark Hume wrote in an article published by the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “When a fish pulls on the line, it dips and bows, together with the drag on the reel providing a steady but yielding tension. A fish comes in when it is tired, usually after a few intense bursts of speed, which sometimes are punctuated by a jump. They may be fatigued, but fish spend their lives being chased by predators and they have the ability to recover from bouts of exertion. If they did not, every little fish chased by a big fish would die from stress.”
Regardless of the survival rates of catch and release, implementing mandatory harvest guarantees a 100% death rate per catch. So, making a congressional ruling that because fish are sentient beings they should only be caught to be killed for the sake of environmental protection and animal welfare is absurd.
Critics of angling claim to stand up for the rights of fish on humanitarian grounds, but if animal welfare is their real concern, why aren’t they targeting things like the impact of nets instead? Hume points out that nets are indiscriminate, bycatch is unavoidable, and more fish are injured as a result of this technique than anything else. (Except for maybe using dynamite).
“To attack anglers for ‘playing with their food’ is to mischaracterize an ancient sport that has been practiced for thousands of years,” Hume concluded. “Most recreational anglers aren’t driven by a need to put meat on the table. They are fishing for the sake of fishing; they are fishing because it’s a way of finding their place in nature. And that’s not something anyone should ban.”
The Future of Fishing in Colombia Alberto Mejia, a guide with Fish Colombia, told MeatEater that fisheries management is something that’s not really occurring in Colombia.
“There’s literally no limit on how many fish people can kill and there are no seasons,” Mejia said. “It’s legal to kill every single fish in a body of water as long as you’re using legal fishing methods.”
And, apparently, this court ruling was one made behind closed doors. “Magically, the invitation emails were never delivered to any of the organizations who would speak on behalf of fishing,” Mejia said. “So, when the court was held, no one was there to speak up for fishing.”
Anglers still have a year until this restriction goes into effect. Until then, attorneys are working to reverse this detrimental ruling by appealing on grounds of the lack of legitimate science available, impacts on the economy and tourism, methods used in the courtroom, and the fact that sportfishing is a culturally significant activity. (A previous attempt to ban bullfighting was overthrown due to cultural significance).
“We are fighting hard to block and overturn this, as are numerous indigenous communities, organizations, and regional governments who are wrongly affected by this,” Mejia concluded. “This will affect a lot of people, but most of all, it will affect the fish populations.”
Feature image via Tosh Brown.