A guide to humane fishing: How to catch and kill fish ethically

Illustration of blue water with three fish swimming towards a green fishing hook

Fish feel pain and even have friends, a scientist tells Wendyl Nissen, but if she wants to keep fishing for her dinner, there are ways to catch and kill them humanely.

My earliest and happiest memories of childhood all revolve around fishing. Catching a snapper on the boat with my dad was the best thing ever and to this day we occasionally still head out to do some fishing at the ripe old ages of 88 and 58.

There is a childhood picture of me, aged about three, with my arms wrapped around my father’s leg as I gaze adoringly at a dead snapper he is triumphantly holding up for the camera. Judging by its size, that snapper was probably about 50 years old, and little did I know at the time, but she had probably left some very dear friends behind her in the sea.

Because, today, thanks to science and studies done by people like Dr Culum Brown – a leading researcher in the field of fish cognition at Macquarie University in Sydney – we know that fish are sentient beings, which means they have the capacity to suffer. They also have friends. “If you’re asking if fish miss each other, well I can tell you that if you put a fish in a marina and on one side are fish he’s never seen before and on the other side are fish he is familiar with, he will always swim over to the fish he knows,” says Culum.

“Experiments show that groups of fish recognise each other and they are more effective at foraging together as well as recognising and avoiding predators. So there are lots of good reasons for being able to recognise one another.”

“So would that mean that my dad’s old snapper would have left behind a bunch of upset friends?”

I ask Culum in my sad voice, insisting on anthropomorphising that snapper from my childhood.

“The fact that the fish go to join someone they recognise means they do have some kind of value associated with the fish they know and there are some fish, particularly really social ones, who do suffer from separation anxiety, so if you take them away from their mates, then they get anxious and their stress rates go up. Their stress receptors and chemicals in their body are exactly the same as ours.”

I am talking to Culum because I listened to the ABC Conversations podcast, which interviewed Culum about his studies, while I was driving to my home in the Far North. I arrived determined that I would never, ever go fishing again.

“Fish have feelings and friends!” I announced to my husband, who has never understood why anyone would willingly torture a fish and then eat it.

Then I told my dad, who lives with us. He had a lot to answer for. When I was a child and hauling in snapper, he convinced me they didn’t feel pain.

“Not only do they feel pain, Dad, but they have friends,” I told him.

“Well let’s not get too carried away,” he replied. “They are part of a food chain. If we don’t kill them something else will.”

But back to Culum.

His work has taken him around the world studying fish, after a childhood spent snorkelling around some of the most beautiful reefs in South-east Asia. As an adult, Culum’s marine biology studies have revealed many facts which upend the basis of our common understanding of fish.

His research has shown that even the smallest fish are capable of learning and can retain memories for months. Within schools of fish, there is often a strict social hierarchy which can include forms of bullying. His work has also revealed that stingrays have especially good memories and can distinguish days of the week.

Kill them quickly

These days Culum is somewhat desk-bound as he supervises 12 PhD students, but he still gets in the water about one month of the year.

He has also become an advocate for the humane treatment of fish, and that applies to people like me – a recreational fisher.

“My main message is that fishing is like any other form of hunting and so you have to accept that there are consequences for your actions, and that fish are sentient and feel pain, and that if you catch it you have to kill it as humanely and quickly as possible. If you do that I don’t have a problem.”

Sadly, many people haul up fish and throw them into a chilly bin where they slowly die. Many people, like me, use an ikejime stick, which is a metal spike that you thrust into the fish’s head slightly behind and above the eye, causing immediate brain death. But even that can go wrong, and often does.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up inflicting even more pain, so to be double-sure it is best to cut its gills so that it bleeds out. That way the fish can’t regain consciousness if you haven’t put the ikejime spike in properly, and they are unconscious when you cut their gills,” says Culum.

He also asks people not to catch and release fish, which he sees as a pastime that means people are “literally having fun at the expense of another animal”.

“I find it hard to justify, but if you are going to do it, then use things like barbel hooks or a circle hook so that you can get the fish off the line really fast. They are now making knotless nets which won’t graze the skin of the fish if you insist on hauling it out of the water.”

But if you can avoid it, don’t haul it out of the water at all, he says. “Once you graze a fish you remove the mucus that covers them and they are then really prone to infection, most likely a fungal infection, and they’re going to die from that if the stress doesn’t kill them.”

He also says there’s nothing to stop you taking a photo, but leave the fish in the water because their bodies aren’t designed to cope with gravity.

“They are neutrally buoyant in the water so their bodies don’t cope with being out of the water at all.”

He also says that playing a fish, where you let them swim away then slowly reel them in multiple times, is cruel. “Get them in as fast as possible.”

It is no surprise that Culum doesn’t fish himself, although he comes from a long line of Scottish fishermen who love trout fishing, and his brothers are keen trout fishermen.

And in a country like Australia, where recreational fishing is seen as a right, much as it is in New Zealand, he has his fair share of critics.

“The trouble with recreational fishing here in Australia is that there is a massive political lobby behind it, and it is basically funded by state and federal governments. I can’t think of any other activity that people do where there is a minister who gets up and says: “We’ve spent half a billion dollars on fishing this year!” There are also half a dozen people around the world who are absolutely anti-fish-welfare and most of them are backed by recreational fishing or work extensively with them, says Culum.

“It’s a bit like fighting big tobacco or climate change deniers, there’s always going to be someone who has vested interests so they have a pretty solid go at us from time to time.”

Culum is not a big fish-eater, but he will buy salmon from two farms in Tasmania which are working with the RSPCA to get the humane tick of approval, and he says some tuna is okay because it is caught on long lines and immediately put on ice.

“There is really good science out there that shows if a fish is stressed it ruins the texture of the fillet because of the stress hormones and you end up with too much ammonia in the fillet which changes the texture and reduces shelf life. So the fish industry knows there are lots of good reasons to treat fish well.”

Culum says humane treatment also needs to be applied to crayfish, crabs, octopus and squid.

“In the not too distant future it will be illegal to boil a crayfish alive, you’ll have to refrigerate it first so that it loses consciousness.”

In Australia, the laws around animal welfare differ from state to state, but scientists who work with fish must treat them as they would any other animals – that is already written into legislation.

Culum is also consulting with people who work in aquaculture in Europe who want to accredit their fish farms not only for being environmentally sustainable but also include welfare standards.

“That’s already huge over there. The RSPCA in the UK has accreditation for trout and salmon and have developed criteria and guidelines for their ticks of approval which amount to 20-page documents these farms have to go through.”

He says the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and the European Union are working on changes that will ensure fish meant for food have to be humanely killed at the point of slaughter, which puts Europe way ahead of Australia and New Zealand.

“It will change,” says Culum. “Twenty years ago no one thought about free-range eggs and now that’s what we all buy. And 20 years ago there were about half a dozen people saying what I’m saying, and now the vast majority of people agree, so it’s getting easier.”

How to kill a fish humanely

  • Use an ikejime spike and make sure you position it correctly through the head, slightly behind and above the eye, causing immediate brain death – there are many guides online.
  • If you have done it correctly, the fins of the fish will flare and then the fish will relax and look dead. Sometimes, however, they can come back to life and be in a lot of pain if you haven’t quite placed the spike in the right part of the brain.
  • After you have used the ikejime spike, cut through the fish’s gills to bleed it out just to make sure it is dead. Fish have a main artery running between the gills which you can cut. There are guides online if you aren’t sure.

If you’re catching and releasing

  • Don’t pull the fish out of the water.
  • If you do pull a fish out, wear rubber dishwashing gloves to cause as little damage as possible to the mucus covering its skin.
  • If you don’t have gloves, use a damp cloth.
  • If you’re using a net to pull fish out of the water, find one that is fish-friendly and made of rubber rather than string.
  • Use hooks that are easy to remove without causing damage to the fish.
  • Don’t play the fish by letting it run then hauling it back. Bring it in as quickly as you can to cause the least stress.

New Zealand welfare guidelines

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 applies to all fish, including wild-caught fish from commercial fishing, and it is an offence to ill-treat them or to kill them in a way that causes unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress. All fish (bony or cartilaginous), octopus, squid, lobster or crayfish (including freshwater) are covered.

Details around how to ensure that the killing of animals does not cause unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress are laid out in codes of welfare.

Codes of welfare can be developed for farmed species and companion animals, but not for wild animals, which means they do not cover commercial fishing.

The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), which develops codes of welfare, is currently developing a code of welfare for farmed fish.

Headshot of Dr Culum Brown smiling at camera wearing black top
Dr Culum Brown, a professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University, is respected for his work and many publications on fish intelligence and behaviour. He is one of the authors of Fish Cognition and Behaviour, available for purchase online.

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