Wisconsin summer is in full swing, and my Facebook newsfeed is slowly populating with pictures of small children smiling broadly while holding suffocating (or already dead) fish. Fishing – at least in the Midwest – has become synonymous with both “wholesome” and “summer,” but my family won’t be participating.
A couple weeks ago, my mom asked my 4-year-old twin daughters if they would like to go fishing with her this summer. They both said “no!” and I chimed in to explain that we don’t hurt animals for no reason in our family. “Even catch-and-release?” she asked. Yes, of course, I continued. Fish can feel pain in their lips (and everywhere else) just like other animals, and there’s no reason to pull them out of the water into an atmosphere in which they cannot breathe and then throw them back, disoriented, and terrified. “We don’t want to hurt fish,” one of my girls muttered.
I’ve been thinking about the many reasons why our family doesn’t fish, and here are the top five:
It’s not “humane.” This word is used often to describe things that lack decency (see: humane slaughter). I was taught early on that catch-and-release fishing is “humane.” How is it possible to shove a sharp hook through an animal’s mouth without hurting them? At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask, but now science has confirmed that fish feel pain. A young child at a park recently told me a breathless (and unsolicited) story about how he caught fish in the park’s pond, but he threw them back and didn’t hurt them. Don’t worry, he assured me. We don’t kill them. Is that our standard for decency? Not killing someone means that whatever else we do to them is okay? We have allowed the fish to escape with her life, and for that she should be grateful. Teaching children that it’s okay to harm others as long as you don’t kill them is not a laudable lesson.
Nature is beautiful. My girls recently caught the “Frozen” virus, and we’ve been listening to “Let It Go” on repeat in the car. The YouTube video often plays an ad first, and lately, it’s been one of the campaign ads created by the “Take Me Fishing” campaign. This particular ad shows more than a dozen people pulling fishes out of the water triumphantly. At the end, a very young boy is shown catching a blue gill, and while holding him up on a hook with a look of wonder on his face, the boy says, “he’s beautiful.” Is this what we should do to beautiful things? I’d rather teach my girls that beauty should be respected and protected. It’s possible to appreciate the beauty and diversity of fish from the surface of the water; we don’t need to violently tear them from their homes.
There are plenty of other options for family bonding. Fishing is heavily promoted to families as an excellent bonding activity. Stick everyone on a boat for a few hours, and you will somehow return stronger. While this sounds awful to me for several reasons that go beyond tormenting fish, I’m sure boating, swimming, and watching wildlife are excellent ways to spend time together as a family (as long as there will be shade; dear god, will there be some shade?). There’s no reason to add sticking sharp hooks (that are often loaded with defenseless worms or insects) into the water to trick hungry fish into being painfully caught on their sensitive mouths to your family outing.
There are plenty of other ways to enjoy nature — without causing harm. While Wisconsinites try to make the most of every season, and you won’t find most of us sitting inside all winter, summer is still prime outdoor time. There are more free concerts, festivals, and kid-friendly events than I can track, including opportunities to learn about and enjoy nature. It’s certainly possible to engage with and learn from nature without injuring or killing fish. Many urban areas have nature centers, botanical gardens, arboretums, splash pads, public waterfronts, boat rental options, bike-riding paths, hiking trails, city and state parks, and much more. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but pictures” — this classic, naturalist philosophy is a wonderful description of how I’d like my children to engage with the world.
“Because we don’t want to hurt fish.” While not fishing is an easy and obvious choice for our family, I find myself returning to my girls’ sentiment. We don’t want to hurt fish. It’s really that simple. Fishes mouths are filled with nerve-endings—they use their mouths to explore their world, find food, and maneuver through the water. Of course, sometimes fish are hooked through other parts of their bodies, and children are faced with terrified, bleeding animals when they are pulled from the water. I don’t want my girls to be desensitized to the pain of others, and I don’t want to teach them that causing harm is sometimes acceptable. Families who choose to take their children fishing most likely see is as benign fun, but can anything be truly harmless or even “fun” when others are suffering? Once we acknowledge the individuality of fish and their capacity to experience pain (and other feelings), it becomes much more difficult to treat them as swimming vegetables.
Let’s all commit to enjoying summer while practicing kindness towards others! Here are several resources to help you build empathy for fish in your family:
Reannon is the founder of Generation Veggie. She has been an animal advocate since 2000 and a fan of “The X-Files” since 1995. Reannon is a cake enthusiast who lives with her husband and 5-year-old twin girls in Madison, Wisconsin.