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Paula Moore, Published May 31 2013

Opinion: For cod’s sake stop fishing

Earlier this month, a German angler made headlines for reeling in a 103-pound cod off the coast of Norway. The fish is believed to be the largest cod ever caught anywhere in the world, and if confirmed, the catch will break the existing record, which was set back in 1969. As I looked at the obligatory photos of the grinning angler with his “prize” and giving the “thumbs-up,” my first thought wasn’t, “Atta, boy!” but “How disconnected does a person have to be to take pleasure in killing other living beings – any other living beings?”

Here are two things that anglers should know about their supposedly “harmless” pastime: Fish can feel pain, and they can experience fear. These facts are no longer in question.

Even though fish don’t scream audibly when they are impaled on hooks, their behavior offers evidence of their suffering. When biologist Victoria Braithwaite and her colleagues exposed fish to irritating chemicals, the animals behaved as any of us might: They lost their appetite, their gills beat faster, and they rubbed the affected area of their bodies against the side of the tank.

A study in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science found that fish who are exposed to painful heat later show signs of fear and wariness – suggesting that they both experience pain and remember it.

Other studies have shown that fish communicate distress when nets are dipped into their tanks or they are otherwise threatened. Researcher William Tavolga, for example, found that not only do fish grunt when they receive an electric shock, they also begin to grunt as soon as they see the electrode, in anticipation of the painful experience to follow.

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada concluded that fish feel fear when they are chased and that their behavior is more than simply a reflex. The “fish are frightened and … they prefer not being frightened,” says Dr. Ian Duncan, who headed the study.

Now think about what all this means. Try to put yourself in the fish’s place. When fish are impaled on an angler’s hook and yanked out of the water, panicking and gasping for breath, they aren’t having a good time. It’s not a game to them. They are scared and in pain and fighting for their lives.

Anglers may not want to hear this, but fishing is nothing more than a cruel blood sport, and killing animals for pleasure – just so that someone can set a world record or pose for a silly photo with a corpse – is inexcusable. It’s time to stop pretending that it’s “good, clean fun” to engage in an activity in which most of the participants aren’t even participating willingly but are, instead, desperately struggling in vain to stay alive.

Moore is a senior writer for the PETA Foundation.