Ethical Killing: What About Fish?

Ethical Killing: What About Fish?

My truck doesn’t have a temperature gauge. If the starter lags like an old-ass Labrador coughing itself off the floor, the air is probably below zero. This was one of those mornings, a good day for ice fishing. Thick ice is safe ice.

Rick’s truck does have a temperature gauge, and it glowed -8 as we drove north. The reservoir—flush with fat, pre-spawn perch—settles in a basin of foothills 60 miles up-country. After a mid-point stop for wax worms (red ones), we hit the lakeshore convenience store just in time to buy beer. Blue laws outlaw the sale of alcohol before 8 a.m. in Montana. Probably a wise regulation.

Thin fog and high clouds blurred the lake’s horizon line. We mounted four-wheelers and whirred into the veil, plowing through snowdrifts. In general, I detest four-wheelers. Combustion engines have a tendency to ruin outdoor experiences and embody our culture’s ingenuity and laziness. That said, I wasn’t about to drag a sled full of ice fishing gear for an hour and a half on principle. I have similar misgivings about power augers, but I don’t bring a hand drill out fishing with friends who have motorized versions. Opinions and convictions aside, it seems asinine and obnoxious to sweat my way through thick ice just to prove some sense of moral superiority that no one gives a shit about.

The bite was good, and over the course of a morning we pulled a couple dozen perch through glowing portals. The intermittent flopping echoing around our shelter fish got me thinking about killing. To be more specific, the absence of intention and conversation around how we kill fish.

As hunters, we talk a great deal about ethical and humane killing. We talk about shot selection, shot placement, appropriate caliber and reasonable distance. Many of us, myself included, condemn fellow hunters for taking shots that we consider unethical. But what about fish? Why do I lay awake some nights agonizing over a years-old memory of a buck shot through the rear legs flailing and dragging itself to cover, but I can sit in a tent tossing jokes back and forth with two buddies while a pile of fish alternately freeze and suffocate over the course of hours?

As a kid who came of age in the early 1990s, I might blame Nirvana. Kurt Cobain opined, on the 1991 song Something in the Way, that “it’s okay to eat fish, ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.” I was 11 when that album dropped, and it definitely had an outsized impact on my vision of the world. But I’m not 11 anymore, and as a rational and thoughtful hunter and angler living in flyover country, I don’t actually think that an urban heroin addict rock star in his mid-20s counts as a credible expert on aquatic vertebrate neurobiology. The dude definitely didn’t cite any sources in the liner notes. I checked; it’s just a bunch of stoned poetry.

So, what do neurobiological and fisheries researchers say about fish and their experience of pain? This debate churns in in certain academic circles. It’s a lively, though not necessarily productive, example of two opposing camps lobbing politely worded condemnations at each other in the form of scholarly articles.

The experience of pain is ultimately subjective. No one actually knows if fish feel pain, because no one has figured out how to directly communicate with a fish brain. One camp asserts that, since we can’t really know what a fish is feeling, we should assume that their avoidance of things that harm them (like sharks or electric shocks) is sufficient evidence that they might feel pain. The other camp points to the lack of neurological structures in fish that we know contribute to the experience of pain in humans. This group argues that, while fish do avoid things that damage them (like spears and osprey talons), that response is a non-conscious neural process, like how you jerk your hand off of a hot burner before you actually experience the pain.

The debate is ongoing and, from what I read, not likely to be settled anytime soon. I’ve been killing fish my whole life, and as I reflect honestly about the mode and methodology of that killing, much of it is difficult to justify, whether they feel the same kind of pain as humans or not.

Offshore fishing, which I did whenever I got the opportunity growing up in Hawaii, was all about harvest. Anything big enough to sell went to market. Anything too small to bother selling was distributed for immediate consumption. No matter what the fish, it was reeled to the hull, stuck with a hand gaff and dropped into a subfloor compartment packed with ice. I still recall the hollow rattling of muscled tuna beating ice cubes against fiberglass.

I also remember summers on northern Wisconsin lakes with extended family, threading nylon stringers through walleye and bass gills and hanging stacks of wriggling bodies over gunwales. Sometimes turtles got them, and we brought up a line of gaping jaws and ragged spines. Sometimes we forgot about the stringers until after the boat was up on plane and we noticed the blurs of green and yellow skipping atop the wake. Even when it all went as planned, the fish spent hours worrying rope against gill rakers, and flopped and jumped across the floor of the boat where they would eventually suffocate before meeting the fillet knife.

Quickly dispatching fish is common practice among anglers in certain situations. During my years as a salmon guide in Alaska, we killed every fish immediately after capture. Each of us carried a “priest” in his or her belt to get the job done. (Mine was a foot-long chunk of caribou antler cut and shaped with a bench grinder for swift lethality.) By the Fourth of July, the guide staff had salmon processing refined to peak efficiency. Clients brought their fish to the net, and we administered last rites before they left the basket. Once their eyes went glassy, we removed the hook, sliced every gill and held the fish underwater to bleed the meat. Though these fish were killed in short order, I can’t say we did so out of any sense of morality or concern for the creatures’ suffering. It was about speed and flavor, converting life into meat as fast as possible to ensure the highest quality fillets for the clients to bring home and forget in the depths of their freezers.

I don’t intend to make a blanket assumption about all, or even most, fishermen. Millions of people venture out with lines and hooks each year hoping to bring home dinner, and I don’t know most of their minds. I can say, however, that I’ve fished with a good many people in a wide variety of locations, and I’ve never once heard anyone broach the subject of humane fish killing. Fishermen, like hunters, have a responsibility to be conscious about our practices in the field and on the water. With all the thought we put into how we kill terrestrial critters, it’s probably time we put similar thought into our killing of aquatic ones.

Sitting in that heated ice shelter, listening to perch flop and twitch in the three inches of near-frozen water, I reflected back on the decades of miserable fish deaths for which I am responsible. I didn’t experience some kind of spiritual conversion and pull my hooks from the ice. I love fishing, and I love to eat fish. So long as the stocks I’m targeting are healthy and legal, I’m going to be out there. I did, however, start whacking each perch I intended to keep with the backside of my fillet knife where the skull meets the spine. I felt their nervous systems convulse with finality and saw their eyes lose focus before I laid them down at my feet. And I tried to conjure some of the reverence and appreciation that’s woven into the culture of ethical hunting, a moment of pause and gratitude before returning my jig to the delicious perch schooling in the cold depths.

Feature Image via Morgan Mason.

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