Friday, April 06, 2007

In Defense of Fishing

Author David James Duncan answers Grist reader questions.

Q: It seems to me extraordinarily cruel to get pleasure from tricking a fish into biting into a hook and then "playing" with the poor creature until it's brought out of the water to die. I suppose it's less reprehensible if fishers actually eat these fish, but so many simply throw them back in the water after playing with them. How can one who feels so much love for nature get pleasure from this sport which seems to me to be so cruel? -- Bruce Rosove, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

A: I always thank those who hate fishing for leaving more water for me.

My best answer to your question is in my new book, God Laughs & Plays, in an essay called "Agony & Hilarity."

Fishing is cruel indeed. Eating is cruel, often as not, for those of us who don't digest sand and gravel live off of other life-forms. It is also "extraordinarily cruel" that this interview is being powered by electricity that is wiping out migrating salmon and dumping mercury and sulfur on North America's waters and children and pregnant women. And it is extraordinarily naïve to think that anyone is going to want to protect ecosystems and natural processes about which they have no firsthand experience or knowledge. Read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv or Gary Paul Nabhan and Steven Trimble's The Geography of Childhood on the separation of children from nature, and you might find it more reprehensible to sit here staring at a screen, or to drive a car, or to watch network TV, than to take a child fishing on a wild river. The fact is, those who have actually saved rivers and fish species have tended to be the fishermen and women who love them. Those who saved wetlands have most often been duck hunters. And so on. There is a mystery here that has to do with the words "love" and "sacrifice." This mystery has served the world well. Jesus caught, killed, cooked, and served fish to his disciples after the resurrection. I can't tell you how at peace this leaves me about my fishing.

Lord Byron felt as you do and condemned fisherfolk in his poetry. He also infected a large swath of Italy with gonorrhea. Fingerpointing is dangerous for all of us -- me most of all!

He is a genius, a poet, and a hell of a guy by all accounts.


Blogger Brendon Etter said...

I like what he says, Justin, but he's being a tad defensive in his reply.

It is also true that many people who don't fish fight to protect rivers, etc... There are certainly many other ways to gain "firsthand experience or knowledge" of ecosystems and natural processes without fishing or hunting.

Conversely, it is very true that many people who do fish and hunt treat it as an excuse to get drunk, litter, churn up the shore and riverbeds and lakebeds, harvest indiscriminately, etc... as many pictures you have posted on this blog attest.

I think when an authority, like Duncan, answers questions like this one, he would win more hearts with an answer that draws people in, rather than a defensive one which belittles the wording of the question and goes to pains to make the whole nature of the question seem absurd. (The silly use-of-electricity argument is scarcely relevant, and undermines the impact of the other, much more solid points he makes.)

That being said, I am always grateful for people like you, who know so much about the land and water, treat it with respect and take the time to educate others.

Thanks for another great post.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...

Very wise words here from Bleeet.

You can sense a bit of reaching from a fisherman attempting to rationalize his way through a justification for catch and release fishing... I struggle with the same predicament.

Ultimately though, I end up at the same conclusion outlined by Duncan: damn near everything that you do causes some being pain somehow... it's just when hooking a fish inside the mouth, it's a very direct and visible activity.

Pollan addresses this in the world of eating in The Omnivore's Dilemma - a chapter called The Vegan Utopia. He suggests that killing and eating animals is no more cruel to animals than is growing/killing/eating plants. He outlines his argument well, and the basic premise is that consuming organic matter has impacts on an ecosystem... regardless of what matter you consume. You could starve a population of animals by eating all of their plant food (as opposed to selecting a few animals to kill and eat), or you could decimate a river system by demanding more row crops cover the earth so you can avoid eating meat, etc. Surely he lays it out better, so please read for yourself.

It is true that many folks who don't hunt or fish greatly appreciate natural resources. It is also true that a lot of "sportsmen" are major jackass litterbug loser plaid-shirt-wearing chain-smoking redneck biatches. I think that in his response Duncan was tapping this long-held and much-written-about idea that people who hunt or fish have taken their connection to nature to sort of another level... that is, head in the river, crawling on the forest floor, etc. Kind of like getting "in" nature instead of looking "at" it. Clearly there is no "rule" when it comes to this... but I do see his point and I think it has some validity.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Brendon Etter said...

Word. Nicely put, Justin.

Oh my... I just wrote "word". Better than saying it, I guess.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Marcus & Aanna said...

My father was a jackass litterbug loser, plaid shirt wearing, chain smoking redneck biiyatch. His father was a jackass litterbug loser, plaid shirt wearing, chain smoking redneck biiyatch. So what am I?
My kernel of truth from that post was that finger pointing is useless. Unfortunately, I could be nicknamed Captain Hypocrisy at times.
Regardless of the moral dilemna, rationalizing will occur. I suppose one way to look at it is the issue of pain. Certainly the pain factor is easier to understand when comparing a hook in the mouth of a fish as opposed to any amount of residual pain caused by land mistreatment.
I've read numerous books on the problem of suffering, pain, and evil in regards to human lives. I think some of that is loosely transferable.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...

Most fisherman have some redneck in them... THere is a distinction though between woodsmen/fisherman/dirty/grubby/gap-toothed/funny/thoughtful and litterbug/uncaring/thoughtless/exploiter... Knowing you, I would guess that your relatives were/are the former. I like the former; I have no time for the latter and I wish I could get them off the streams and out of the woods.

I will still hold that pain caused by a 120 seconds of hook in the mouth could be preferable to prolonged suffering or poor quality of life.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Marcus & Aanna said...

Oh, I was just messing around. I just wanted to say the redneck, plaid wearing...etc. phrase because I thought it was funny. My relatives aren't anything like that.

I as a human would also rationalize that to be true. A fish probably wouldn't see it that way, but the fish will have a tough time communicating that belief to the masses.

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