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Is fishing cruel? Does it hurt a fish when you hook it?

“Game fish are too valuable to only be caught once.” Penned in 1936, by Lee Wulff, the first promoter of catch and release fishing, these words marked the beginning of anglers allowing individual fish to be caught again and again. Recreational fishing is a favorite pastime of many seeking a relaxing activity and an excuse to spend a day out on the water. Though for decades recreational fishing has been viewed as harmless, this assumption is far from the truth. The ethical and environmental consequences of fishing are becoming increasingly clear.

At the same time, the dangers of commercial fishing have long been known and yet the practice continues. Every year billions of fish are caught and killed while thousands of other animals die in fishing nets as bycatch, an unintentional outcome of commercial fishing.

Is catch and release fishing cruel?

The mortality rate associated with catch and release varies drastically depending on the species being caught and the circumstances of the catch. Estimates of the number of fish who die shortly after they are captured and released range between 5 and 30 percent of fish that are handled in the best possible way.

Does it hurt a fish when you hook it?

A number of different studies have established that fish have the capacity to feel pain. In fact, trout have pain receptors similar to those of mammals. Catch and release fishing consists of using a hook to rip a hole into a fish’s cheek, causing fish to likely endure considerable pain when caught. On top of the pain caused by the hooking itself, the victim also endures the exhaustion of attempting to escape and resist being pulled out of the water and the terror of suffocating while unable to breathe outside the water before being thrown back in.


One part of fishing that is discussed heavily among enthusiasts is the fight put up by the fish. This fight is essentially the fish attempting to withstand the hook and pull of the fisherman as she struggles to stay in the water and not be pulled to land. A longer fight on the part of the fish leads to greater exhaustion at the time of return, increasing the likelihood that the fish will die, or be eaten, upon their return to the water. Fish that are immediately released without a period to recoup following a long fight have an increased risk of mortality.

Time out of the water

Fish pull oxygen from water running over their gills and are unable to breathe air as mammals and other species do. This means that when a fish is outside the water they are unable to breathe. A common part of catch and release is taking pictures with the fish, often with the fish dangling several feet above the water. Though this process may seem brief to the person doing the fishing, to the fish who is struggling yet unable to breathe every additional second could be life-threatening.


The way that a fish is handled at the time of capture can be a determining factor as to whether or not it survives. The skin of a fish plays a key role in maintaining their health. Being caught places the protective layer of mucus on the skin, as well as the skin itself, at great risk of being damaged. Touching fish with dry hands, placing them on virtually any dry surface, and putting them on ice all run the risk of damaging their skin and increasing the likelihood that they will die following release.

Do fish get hurt from fishing?

Commercial fishing is one of the most deadly industries operating on a large scale. Estimates suggest that large-scale commercial fishing results in the capture and death of 5 million fish every single minute.

Fish are not the only ones being harmed by the commercial fishing industry. In addition to the billions of fish killed yearly, bycatch remains a serious problem, killing huge numbers of animals unintentionally. Just in the Atlantic French Coast, bycatch results in the death of about 10,000 dolphins a year. These dolphins are caught in the fishing nets, becoming tangled and often dying from exhaustion or the injuries they sustain.

Rejecting the mass slaughter of fish would not only stop bycatch, but also prevent the damaging effects of trawling on marine vegetation, and the further destruction of ocean ecosystems that store a vital proportion of the world’s CO2 and help to work against climate change.

Is fishing bad for the environment?

Killing fish not only has a profound impact on the fish themselves but also the species that depend upon them for survival, the ecosystems that they inhabit, and the environment at large.

Fishing gear hurts wildlife

Fishing gear makes up about 10% of all the plastic waste in the oceans. This translates to between 500,000 and 1 million tons of fishing gear being lost or discarded in the oceans every single year. This gear is some of the most deadly plastic waste out there, as it indiscriminately harms fish, mammals, birds, and other marine life. These animals die painful and slow deaths from exhaustion and suffocation. Abandoned fishing gear also damages critical ocean habitats such as coral reefs, reducing the habitats available for animals.

Using fish as bait for other, larger fish

The use of smaller fish called baitfish in order to catch larger fish is big business, but it comes with ecological risks including the disruption of ecosystems via the introduction of prolific new species.

Fishing changes the traits of fish

People tend to want to catch the largest fish. But this tactic means that the more mature fish are taken, leaving only younger or more vulnerable fish. The smaller fish tend to have fewer and weaker offspring than the larger individuals, and this means that overall fish numbers are likely to decrease.

Fishing doesn’t just change the size of fish. Any traits that influence the likelihood of fish being caught are affected, and researchers are still working on what this means for the evolution and behavior of fish populations.

Sensitive biomes

Each species of fish plays an important role in their environment. They can act as predators for some species while being hunted as prey by others. Fishing jeopardizes the delicate balance of their home biomes. If too many fish are caught, the creatures that would normally prey upon them have a more difficult time finding food and their populations shrink, while the species that the fish would normally consume can reproduce more readily without their normal predators present to keep their populations in check.

Is having a fish tank cruel?

Fish are sentient beings capable of creating social interactions and feeling pain and emotions. Very few fish in the wild spend their lives in the same volume of water you find in a tank. A casual fish owner may even fall for the marketing ploys of big-name stores that market minuscule half-gallon tanks that fit easily and conveniently on desks, counters, or bedside tables, giving their pet minimal room to swim and explore. Even fish enthusiasts with large tanks often fall victim to overstocking the tanks and providing environments lacking the wide diversity of habitats fish would explore in the wild. Keeping a fish tank also comes with environmental considerations as between 95% and 99% of saltwater fish are collected from the wild. The high demand for specific kinds of fish can lead to localized depletion and even extinction.

Is fishing animals cruel?

Fish, as well as most other marine animals, have the capacity to feel pain. They have sensitive nervous systems with similarities to other species. The act of fishing, whether commercial or recreational, not only causes these animals physical pain but also results in exhaustion from fighting against being pulled to their deaths.

Is it ethical to fish?

Fishing, whether commercially or recreational, brings with it both environmental and ethical considerations. The act causes great pain to other living beings and negatively impacts the environment, thus multiplying the negative outcomes.


Fishing, whether recreational or industrial, comes with a vast array of problems. These activities contribute heavily to environmental degradation and imbalance, the loss of species, and animal suffering as a whole. Though once regarded as a brilliant solution to limited fish numbers, catch and release fishing still struggles with many of the problems of larger scale and other recreational fishing. Above all, that fish are being harmed and often do not survive their encounters with a hook.

There are a number of ways to keep from contributing to the death of fish and aquatic ecosystems, starting with removing fish and other sea life from our plates. Choosing not to consume fish means that we are not supporting the commercial fishing operations that are wreaking havoc on our oceans and fish species. If you enjoy fishing as a means of connecting with nature and spending time on the water, consider taking up kayaking, paddleboarding, or photography as a way of fulfilling your desire to be close to nature without causing harm to the animals that live there. There are many ways to enjoy both nature and the foods we eat without requiring the suffering of other living beings.


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