Piscatorial Pain

by Greg Milner

John "Pole" Mokrzycki started it. He couldn't help himself, stretched out there across the back seat as the Nissan's turbo diesel and Desert Dwellers sang their monotonous duet on the blacktop of North West Coastal Highway. Driving south through the night, our headlights flickered over the roadside scrub, the shrinking shadows of each nameless bush darting then disappearing in a flash of quick bright light.

Five hours behind us, another ten at least in front. We were silent for long stretches. Pole must've grown bored with it. He leaned forward, so his head poked between the two front seats. "It's a blood sport, y' know. Tormenting innocent animals for our pleasure!"

It had been a good week. Leading up to the May full moon, a full-blooded easterly had done just what the forecasters had said it would not do, dying to nothing within two days of our arrival in Exmouth.

Polished to a new car shine by the Capricorn sun, the ocean turned into a pond, rolling listlessly like soft bones under the loose skin of a clumsy puppy. In a five mile stretch of water between North Muiron and Peak Islands, we'd fished 'till our backs ached and our hands stung from the hard bite of single strand galvanised trace wire. Cod, Spangled Emperor and Spanish Mackerel for the freezer, endless light tackle sport with herds of big trevally gorging themselves on baitfish and any lure we dared tow past them.

We'd done all the right things...the trevally and tuna went back, quick and clean, the table fish dispatched iki jimi-style, a swift and humane spike to the brain.

Lots of shouting, swearing, laughter and good natured lies over apres-fishing beers at the bar of Norcape Lodge. It always ends. On the 1200 kilometre drive north from Perth, there had been excited banter, earnest discussion of knots and rigs, anticipation of the fun to come. Men's stuff.

As ever, the drive back south again, happy, but more subdued, a combination of let-down and exhaustion. The distance was the same, measured in hours rather than kilometres, but it always seems longer coming back, somehow harder to fill the gaps between fuel stops with conversation.

So Pole chucked in that little incendiary of his. "That's what it is. A blood sport!" And he sat back again, waiting for the reaction. I'm sure he was grinning under cover of darkness.

He knew his target well. Sitting in the front passenger's seat, I could see Ron D'Raine's face dimly lit by the glow of the instrument lights and the reflection of the headlamps coming back off the road. A slow burner. There was that exquisite moment of anticipation as the unseen Spaniard takes a swift and vicious swipe at the bait, making the rod tremble and bolts of tension lick up the angler's arms. And then, seconds later, comes back to finish it off, too crazed with the instinct of the hunt to notice the two needles of barbed stainless steel and the wire that joins them in the body of the garfish.

Strike. Explosion of fury. "Oh, bullshit, Pole! You can't tell me you don't enjoy fishing as much as any of us!"

"No, I do. But I fish for food. I like fish. To eat."

"Crap! If that's all you wanted, you wouldn't even bother. You'd spend a thousand bucks at Kailis' Fish Markets and save yourself a bloody fortune on boats and gear, and you wouldn't bother coming away on trips like this!"

"No, look....I DO enjoy catching fish, but I like catching table fish. You blokes wouldn't care much if you didn't bring any fish home at all, you just do it for the sport."

Maybe, maybe not. I know damn well I'd get some pretty dark looks if I came home with nothing to show for a thousand bucks and a week away with the boys. I wasn't buying into this. Ron was doing fine by himself. It was even money.

"Pole, you can't tell me you don't get a thrill when you win a fight with a big fish on light line. That's the whole point of sportfishing...using light line so the fish has an even chance for its life, for Christ's sake!"

"Yeah, exactly! So you do it purely for fun. That's why fox hunting's on the nose in England. And they might even ban that."

"Arrrrgh! Pole, it's not the same. Look, the scientists reckon fish don't feel pain."

"That's not the point. It's still a blood sport."

It went on like this for, oh, a hundred "kays". Finally, Ron snorted in disgust.

"Well, I don't give a stuff. Pole, I'll do it till they make it bloody well illegal!"

They were both on shaky ground. An inconclusive battle, the frayed line parting just before the gaff sank in. But it got me thinking. When God was dishing out dollops of bravery, I was well back in the queue. I dissolve in paroxysms of agony if I cut myself shaving. I wondered if fish felt the same about pain as I do.

Back in Perth, I went down to the Fisheries Department laboratory overlooking the ocean at Marmion, where boffins spend their lives poking, prodding and dabbing at sea creatures till they're blue around the gills. The boffins I mean.

"Do fish feel pain?" I asked research scientist Suzanne Ayvazian, in the faint hope she'd give a point blank no. But scientists are cautious creatures, like silver bream nibbling at suspicious-looking prawn.

"They (fish) certainly have all the physiological characteristics that we humans have...they have all the nerve connections and so on...so when you cut a fish, you cut nerves...when you wrench a hook out of a fish's mouth, you tear nerves," she told me. "But whether this is transmitted to the brain in the same way as humans, I don't know."

"Humans have a conditioned response to pain...once you have been to the dentist and felt the pain of the dentist's drill, you have an automatic response of apprehension when you know you have to go back to the dentist. Whether a fish has that same kind of response, we don't know."

"We've tagged and released 1,100 tailor for a research programme on the Swan River...we keep getting tagged fish back, so either they're pretty dumb, or they just don't remember the pain like we do."

Mmmmm. At least it was better than a straight out confirmation that the fish we'd spent all week catching had died in a silent scream of agony. But I wanted more opinions, so I looked further afield. Of the 5,000 discussion groups on the Internet, there's one called rec.fishing.saltwater. I cracked a smart drink, logged in and asked around.

"...so if anybody can throw light (illumination, not tackle) on it, I'd be pleased to know."

Captain Len "Tight lines, and hooks that don't pull," Belcaro of America's quarterly Big Game Fishing Journal didn't let me down. "If I started worrying about hurting the fish, I might start worrying about that poor cow suffering before they hacked off that delectable steak that I'm about ready to eat," he wrote.

"Or how about that poor romaine lettuce that was ripped from the ground and traumatised before it landed in my Caesar salad. I'll continue hurting the fish, eating the steak and enjoying the salad. And when it becomes illegal, I'll go underground."

Clearly, if I was looking for somebody to back up Pole's conscience, I was in hostile territory. Or so I thought, until Lorrie Jones piped up. "I often accompany my husband fishing, but I have always worried that the fish probably feel a great deal of pain. Why wouldn't they? My husband insists he can rip the hook out and throw the fish back and the fish is o.k. Like he would be?"

"Thanks for raising the consciousness of the fisherpeople."

I thought I'd uncovered something here. Until she signed off at the end of the message.

"Lorrie (I happen to be a social worker, what else) in Connecticut."

Oh well.

And there was this from Trevor Calder in Perth, "Many fish regularly eat items of food which are wrapped in some kind of hard shell (crabs, mussels, snails etc.) For a fish to eat this type of food, if it had many pain sensors in it's mouth, would not be possible."

"Simply, by often, and repeatedly, eating food of these types fish show little aversion to hard, sharp objects in their mouths. They don't like the experience of being hooked, played, landed and possibly released, and will, if given the chance rapidly learn to avoid it. "

"This is not related to pain, but to the feeling of being tethered. Much like any wild animal will react to being led around with a rope, fish react to being led around with a line. They fight to get loose."

But I was looking for a more scientific response. I got it from Dr Steve Guich at the University of California's Brain Imaging Centre. "Fish have a nervous system equipped with sensitivity to adverse stimuli, clearly a necessary survival trait," he told me.

"It would seem unlikely that fish would NOT have the ability to perceive and respond to this adverse stimuli, which is what we would call "pain" in the physical sense.

"The question of whether they have a highly detailed abstraction, as humans do, of adverse stimuli is VERY unlikely, though since fish can exhibit learned behaviors, they may well have some rudimentary abstracting abilities, and therefore some form of emotive response to (in addition to physio-chemical perception of) adverse stimuli, " he wrote.

"A more interesting question might be "Is a fish's nervous system equipped to perceive 'referred' pain?'

"Removing a hook from a Sierra Golden Trout many years back, there is no doubt that each time I attempted to remove it, the fish let out an audible sound not unlike a cry of pain. Anthropomorphosis or reasonable extrapolation from data?

"Who could be sure?"

Indeed. Until somebody's re-incarnated as a fish, then gets a second go in the human race to tell us about it, we'll probably never know.

Which leaves the other part of this argument: Pain aside, are we sportfishermen engaging in wicked cruelty? In the strictest sense, probably. But if you wanted to carry it to ridiculous lengths and ban it, you couldn't stop there. Horse trainers, jockeys, lion tamers and zoo keepers would all be out of a job too.

An entomologist I spoke to had an appealingly pragmatic approach. "Dogs are more important than fish, and fish matter a bit more than insects. "Nobody cares if you kill termites."