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The Only Way is Ethics

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Sunday July 8th 2012

The subject of ethics in angling has surfaced again on the board. We've been there before and Harp's FP from a little way back is still very much a worthwhile read, as is the discussion that followed. Jo has come up with a useful list of things to consider this time around.

I'm always interested in discussions on this stuff, but at the same time I'm extremely wary. Ethics are closely related to morals, and discussions on morals are very tricky indeed.

My position is this: I don't believe in absolute rights and wrongs; the challenges of living in this world mean that we are often confronted by conflicting choices. There are no right answers, and moral absolutes tend to be not very good at dealing with the world the way it is. Richard Holloway put it well when he said that most of the conflicts in human nature are not about choices between good and bad, but about choices between competing goods.

As an example: It's undoubtedly a good thing to try and minimise fishing pressure in high population areas. It's also a good thing to try and increase participation in the sport. These two "good" things are in conflict, and it takes a bit of thinking and planning to reconcile the two.

Catch and release may be seen as one way of doing this, sustaining fish populations under high fishing pressure.

But as we know, C&R is not universally recognised as a morally sustainable position. It is often argued that C&R is indefensible as it reduces fishing to just playing with (real antis would say "torturing") fish for pleasure. People taking this position argue that killing and eating the fish we're after is the only possible justification for angling.

Hugh Falkus wrote a famous article (in the 1990s I think) against C&R, making just this point and you often read his quote to the effect that C&R fishing is like playing football with a hedgehog. Falkus said it was better to C&K and show restraint in your fishing than to continue endlessly catching and releasing fish. Unfortunately, if memory serves me correctly he illustrated this point by recounting how he stopped fishing even though he knew he could catch another twenty pound salmon after he'd caught (and presumably knocked on the head) five twenty pounders in a row. Only the five today Hugh? Well done, admirable restraint.

I agree with Falkus on the restraint bit though. We should hold back if it's clear the fish are going nuts. I'd probably have stopped fishing after (releasing) the first twenty pounder and retired to the pub to celebrate! Other ways of showing restraint could be by changing the method you're using or the place you're fishing. Some people have even been known to cut the point off their hook.

So, although I'm happy to take the odd fish for the pot (fresh fish does taste great) I do release most of the fish I catch. I've written elsewhere on this but my reasons are chiefly as follows:

1) Conservation. Most of the time I'm fishing for wild fish. I fish in a country with a high human population, with attendant high fishing and environmental pressures. If I want to keep fishing for big wild fish I need to release them.

2) Convenience. I do like eating fish but I don't want a freezer full.

3) Aesthetics. Releasing fish is a nice thing to do, the fish remain in pristine shape and colour and I enjoy watching them swim away.

If we're talking ethics then only (1) has any weight in the argument.

But that still leaves us with Falkus's Hedgehog Football accusation. Well no. On this point Falkus was dead wrong.

I'd loved to have asked Falkus if the only reason he went fishing was to eat the fish he caught. If he'd answered in the affirmative I'd ask him why he didn't just pop down to the fishmongers and save himself all the trouble.

The fact is, whether you kill 'em or chuck 'em back you are doing it because you love the hunt: the skill and excitement of finding the fish, the challenge in getting a fly to them without scaring them, the knife-edge thrill of getting the fish to hand before it can throw the hook. Good anglers make efforts to minimise the discomfort/stress caused to the fish but really, if you aren't comfortable with any of this, with the notion of hunting (which is nothing like hedgehog football by the way) then you probably should think about taking up golf.

C&R zealot vs C&K jihadist: Right up to the point where either of you lay a hand on the fish your subsequent intentions are meaningless, and the morality of what you've just done is identical. What you do next doesn't change what you've just done either; the end doesn't justify the means.

Angling is unique amongst all forms of hunting in that at the point of capture we have a choice as to whether to keep or release our chosen game. Research shows that on the whole fish suffer few if any lingering effects from capture, and that properly conducted C&R can help in sustaining fish populations. This is why we should do it.

In isolation the angler who releases a fish is no better or worse than the one who kills one. Whichever position is adopted, it's the angler that best protects the ecosystem who I support.

Will

For those of you reading this from outside the UK, there's a popular TV programme called The Only Way Is Essex. Which reminds me of the joke: Q: What's your position on Ethics? A: Just to the east of Suthics and Wethics...


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