BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 16:50 UK

Is catching a fish bad for it?

The Magazine answers...

One of the UK's most prized carp, Benson, has died, after being caught more than 60 times. So is all that hooking and unhooking bad for fish?

A few nuts are being blamed for the death of Benson, one of the UK's largest and most-loved carp.

Benson the carp (pic courtesy Bluebell Lakes)
Angler Andy Sargent with Benson the carp

The 64lb (29kg) fish could have ingested the nuts, the remnants of which were found on the banks of her home lake in Cambridgeshire, and unprocessed nuts can be fatal.

Benson was a celebrity in the angling world. She had been hooked, photographed and returned to water at least 60 times.

The owner of the Bluebell Lakes, Tony Bridgefoot, said she liked having her picture taken.

But could all that fishing have affected her health?

Plenty would assume so, but anglers tend to believe that if done competently, their sport doesn't stress a fish.

The issue hinges on the age-old question of whether fish feel pain. In 2003, the first conclusive evidence of pain perception in fish was said to have been found by UK scientists based in Edinburgh.

Researchers shot bee venom into the lips of trout and found sites in the heads of the fish that responded to damaging stimuli. They concluded that the fish responded in a way that was not simply reflexive.

This year, scientists in the US announced similar findings after experiments on goldfish.

Anglers say fish suffer no stress if the angler is competent
Some scientists say they have proved that fish can feel pain and trauma

But anglers, such as Martin Ford, editor of magazine group Angling Publications, say fish like Benson, who are caught often, actually choose to take the bait, knowing it's on the end of a hook.

"When they get to that size they will get very selective about what they eat and very often they may not be caught for 14 to 15 months.

"So, does pressure perhaps become detrimental to the fish? Yes and no. Some choose not to be caught."

Mr Ford says he prefers to fish in waters that were not so busy, but if a fish was traumatised by the experience, it would not choose to go through it again.

"Benson has made a choice to visit the bank and see what the other side of the world is like."

Educated anglers do their utmost to ensure that a big carp, once on the bank, is cared for extremely well, he says.

"I'm confident that a fish goes through no stress from a competent angler."

Angling has taken great strides to improve the well-being of the fish, says Mr Ford, and all good carp anglers should use fish-friendly nets, soft and padded unhooking mats and only keep the carp out of the water for a maximum of five minutes in summer, and about double that in winter.

'No pain'

Photos should be taken near the water and all anglers should carry a gel to apply to any wounds their hooks cause to the mouth.

"Wounds heal very quickly and modern tackle is made so that if the line breaks, the carp is able to get rid of any end tackle.

"The area of the mouth is very sinewy, there's no blood or veins and in my opinion I don't think there's a pain issue. But if a hook slips out of the mouth and catches near the gill area, then there will be pain."

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"We get knocked by the anti-anglers who say that fish feel pain, and I believe some university bods have proved that some fish do feel pain, but until you sit me down next to a carp and it says to me ' I feel immense pain', then it's an open-ended question."

But a spokesman for animal rights campaign group Peta, says: "If common sense isn't enough, the science is clear: being repeatedly impaled with a hook and yanked into an environment in which fish cannot breathe, like Benson, undeniably causes distress, pain and can lead to infections.

"Even simply handling or netting fish can abrade their protective coating and lead to death."

A selection of your comments appears below.

Being a carp angler myself I can honestly say that our top priority is the wellbeing of the fish. With modern technology we are equipped with safe-rigs, antiseptic, and all the tools to ensure we care for our beloved species. It's a shame that a small percentage don't follow these rules and result in injuring or killing fish.
Oli, Reading

I think I'm more worried about researchers shooting bee venom into the lips of trout than a carp getting hooked occasionally!
Jon, Edinburgh

Proving that fish feel pain is impossible. Its like proving that animals see in certain colours. It can't be proved until one of them learns to speak! Sentimental humans will always try to humanise animals.
Ryan Turner, Rochdale, Lancashire, UK

My husband is a keen carp angler and adores the breed. He tends to their wounds (not that he has inflicted!) and monitors their spawning habits and clears rubbish and thick weeds from the lake where he fishes. He goes to the lake out of season to check that the locals haven't caused the fish any harm. I can honestly say he believes he is doing the fish more good than harm by baiting the waters and catching them. The fish will nudge the bait to see how it reacts and if it reacts like it is attached to a hook they wont touch it. They seem much more intelligent than we give them credit for. So if they don't mind/enjoy being caught why do they avoid the food that will see them caught?
Wendy J, Notts

I'm not so much worried about the treatment of the fish when caught as the fact that these obese monsters are still regarded as 'sport'. Benson was 64lb, yet looked about 30lb overweight, it's not the hooks or stress that's the problem, but overfeeding. A carp in a lake with no predators and plenty of space should live a lot longer than the 20-25 years attributed to Benson.
Fred Dawlanen, Wigan

I been carp fishing for about 25 years or more and I have never seen any fish killed by means of angling. I seen lots of dead fish killed by pollutants being leaked into our river and lakes, but I guess this is not the same? Big carp are extremely clever creatures and they know full well what it means when they see a hook and like with food on the end. They make a choice as to eat it or swim away. Benson was a very selective feeder as more the 60 people who caught him will tell you. All this protection for some animals is getting out of hand. We have too many rabbits, nobody seems to eat it anymore. Fishing is the largest participant sport in the world and I doubt it will ever stop.
Andy, Stevenage

I can only remember one fish dying and that was because I made a mess of trying to recover the hook. Angling keeps the rivers clean. If nobody fished who'd be bothered about pollution
Joe, Ipswich

I'm not an accomplished or very good fisherman however even though I hardly catch I drag lots of rotting branches, litter and other pollutants out of the local waters. Thus I believe many waters of our country would be devoid of any kind of life if they had not been fished, alternatively if left unused I would expect councils to sell off land to developers who would fill them in and build property on them.
James Woodward, St Helens, Merseyside

Martin Ford is an apologist for a practice that is dependent on cruelty to animals. Catching a fish to eat is understandable; catching a fish just to throw it back and catch it again is unreasonable.
Steve Kimberley, Cambridge

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