Anti-fishing folks are hooked on a feeling
By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
PITTSBURGH — The Citgo Bassmaster Classic, sometimes known as the Super Bowl of fishing tournaments, will be held this weekend on the three rivers.
A billboard that just went up south of here on Route 51 isn't part of the promotional effort. It's a digitally altered depiction of a dog being yanked by a hook in its mouth.
"If you wouldn't do this to a dog, why do it to a fish?" asks the billboard, funded by the Fish Empathy Project. That is a campaign launched last fall by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), stepping up earlier anti-fishing efforts.
Sean Teets, 20, employed at a custom auto shop located right under the billboard, says workers finished putting it up Wednesday morning.
"It's totally uncalled for. It makes no sense at all," says Teets, an avid fisherman.
Meagan Barker, 23, co-owner of the shop, says she was more upset by the sign than whether fishing is cruel. "The picture of the dog shocked me. I thought it was mean," she says.
But whether fish feel pain when hooked is a point of debate. On opposing ends: Karin Robertson, who manages the PETA project from the group's headquarters in Norfolk, Va., and James Rose, professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming and a fisherman.
"Fish are not swimming vegetables. They feel pain just like other animals, like we do," says Robertson, who uses that name professionally but has legally changed her name to GoVeg.com, which links to PETA's Web site. GoVeg.com is on her credit cards and drivers license, and she uses that name away from work as "a really light-hearted way to start a conversation about a very serious issue."
She cites research in the United Kingdom that reported in 2003 that trout had nervous system receptors in their heads and responded to damaging stimuli in ways that showed "pain," not just reflex.
Rose rejects that. He says the "emotional suffering" component of human pain takes place in regions of the brain, the frontal lobes, that don't exist in the brains of fish: "It has to be conscious. ... That consciousness requires a lot more complex brain than a fish has."
PETA also opposes fishing for the reasons that waters are loaded with contaminants and that eating fish is unhealthy. Its targets include commercial fishing and fish farms. It also opposes angling for sport, a pastime that the American Sportfishing Association says generates $116 billion in economic impact annually. In PETA's view, fishing is no sport at all.
"It definitely was not an accident that our billboard turned up in Pittsburgh the same time as the tournament," says Robertson, whose group has put up similar billboards in other cities. "We hate to see just an exhibition in cruelty to animals."
This year Robertson has gotten no takers in letters to sports editors of 200 newspapers asking them to drop their fishing columns. Nor has she been successful in asking a California aquarium to take fish off its menu or in getting Fishkill, N.Y., to change its name. Locals there note that "kill" comes from the Dutch word for stream. But Robertson says, "It's only a matter of time before we look upon cruelty to fish in the exact same way we look upon cruelty to dogs and cats."
Popularity of fishing in decline
If papers won't take fishing columns out of sports sections, Robertson wants a "more appropriate section like the crime report or the obituaries." That is heresy to those who see fishing as wholesome outdoor activity, a way for families and friends to bond and a boost to efforts to preserve fish and keep waters clean.
Rose doesn't view fishing as sport, either, but for a different reason: "It's much more important than that. I think it's a spiritual thing. It doesn't mean you've got to be real formal or high-minded about it, but I think it's much deeper than just a casual activity."
He describes himself as an "advocate of fish," and says, "If fishing were eradicated, in the end there would be a lot less people caring about fish."
Robertson, 25, did some fishing as a youth, as the daughter of a fisheries biologist for the state of Indiana.
"I never thought about how much pain and suffering they go through," says Robertson, who has a degree in animal behavior from Bucknell. "We didn't even know at the time how intelligent they are. They're fascinating individuals. They deserve to be left in the water."
Dave Precht also went fishing as a youngster, in Louisiana. He is director of publications for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS), which began the Bassmaster Classic in 1971 and now is owned by ESPN.
"I started fishing, as a lot of people do, with my dad," he says. "I was probably 5 years old. ... Of all the things that happened to me in my very young childhood, those were my most vivid memories."
But there has been a decline in the popularity of fishing in recent decades. According to a report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the number of people in the USA who fish declined from 58.4 million in 1987 to 47.9 million in 2004.
Precht doesn't attribute that to PETA protests.
"You have to look at all kinds of societal changes we've had in the last 20 years, the competition for time among kids," he says. "For a number of reasons, youngsters are not being taken fishing, and it's kind of hard for them to discover the sport if an adult doesn't show them how in the first place. ...
"And that is one of the things we are most active in through a variety of programs."
Making a day of it with friends
PETA is working on the kids, too.
Robertson has gone to public areas near schools (most recently in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona), accompanied by an assistant in a fish costume, to pass out "Fish are Friends, Not Food" stickers and Fish Flakes trading cards, which carry PETA's messages about cruelty and contamination.
Precht notes that since the early 1970s, BASS has advocated catch-and-release fishing. PETA says that is cruel, too, because fish still get hooked and can be mortally injured. "I was brought up to treat wildlife and fish humanely, and I'd never want to do anything to torture them, disrespect them or waste a fish," Precht says. "Fishermen don't do that."
Beyond how the fish view it, it's obvious some people do enjoy catching fish, the bigger the better.
Recently, a son and father fished together from a rock jetty in Maryland's Sandy Point State Park on the Chesapeake Bay.
"Your worst day of fishing is better than your best day of work," says Candido Deckman, 31, of Lancaster, Pa.
He says he and his dad, Candido Fontana, 52, of York, Pa., sometimes hold their own fishing competitions.
"It's almost pure catch-and-release," Deckman says. "I keep a pair of needle-nosed pliers to the hooks to try to take the stress off the fish."
Another fisherman, Dale Witt, 73, of Edgewater, Md., wore a T-shirt proclaiming, "If at first you don't succeed, take a nap." He says he has another T-shirt that reads, "Here, fishy, fishy, fishy."
Six years ago, Witt was fueling his car when a friend asked how his fishing was going. "I'm doing pretty good, but I cannot find anybody to go fishing with me," Witt answered.
A stranger at another pump chimed in, "I'll go with you." Witt and Don Dabbs, 72, of Annapolis, Md., have been fishing together since.
After they returned from five hours of fishing on a small boat, Dabbs says they didn't catch many but had a fine time. "It's relaxing. ... I get time to spend with my friend," Dabbs says.
Witt says nobody has suggested to him that fishing was cruel. What if someone did? "I'd walk away from them. I hunt and fish both," he says.
Robertson's suggestion for anybody who sees fishing as quality time with family and friend?
"There are so many other ways you can do that," she says. "You can take your family out on the boat and just leave your fishing tackle behind."
Okay, so this is not about the article, which is about PETA trying to stop fishing tournaments, the PETA person heading the project, who legally changed her name to GoVeg.com (she still uses her old, normal name professionally).
I understand people want to get their message out there. But I'm also sure that her friends still call her Karin (what else would they call her? Go? Veggie? lunitic?) What is the point of legally changing your name to a url? Yeah it has shock value and "freaks the mundanes" but unless you use it in day to day life your legal name doesn't mean a whole lot.