Part 1: Against
Spearfishing – a sustainable form of hunting, or a cruel sport?
I have been asked to write a short article on spear fishing. I started research for this by web searching facts and figures and reading other peoples opinions. In the end I decide just to write this from my own life experiences and from the heart. I found the web searching to be confusing and incomplete. Statistics can be interpreted in many different ways to suit any argument and so become superfluous to many issues. We are so adept and skilled at justifying and rationalising our cruelty to other species as well as each other.
I used to fish when I was younger and was always thrilled by the moment of feeling something unknown on the end of my line. Then as the years flew by I became witness to appalling destruction and desecration of the marine environment by overfishing, pollution, industry and tourism. Fish numbers plummeted to the edge of extinction and glorious unique habitats became rubble wastelands. Then one day I said to my self ‘that’s enough for me’ and have never been able to support any sort of fishing industry since. Even the so-called fish farms can and do take a huge toll on the environment.
One may feel that spearfishing should stand apart from any form of commercial or recreational fishing as it is ultimately selective in the individual animals it targets. There is no by-catch, there is no habitat destruction and there is no waste. Partially true but not 100% correct. As an example in many parts of the world, as the oversized commercial fisheries took their toll so came the spearfishermen to take what was left. Totally uncontrolled, these hunters targeted the biggest and fittest of any species. The overall effect has been quite devastating. Breeding animals were disappearing leaving only the genetically weaker individuals to reproduce. This can lead to a great imbalance in any ecosystem and we, as humans, cannot even begin to predict where it will end. Species become weak and easy prey to others. Their role in maintaining a healthy habitat is diminished, perhaps even providing room for more destructive and unwanted species to move in and dominate.
I tried spearfishing once when I was a teenager. I cornered a small Pollack against a reef. I could see it was wary of me but it had nowhere to go. I eased closer until the tip of my spear was only a few feet away and the pulled the trigger. I remember that fish even after all these years, how it convulsed in shock and absolute pain.
It has been widely and conveniently thought that fish and other marine animals feel no pain, have no self awareness, have no emotions of any sort. We now know this is not true. Scientific research has found evidence of a limbic system in the fish brain. The limbic system in the human brain is believed to be responsible for emotions. Scientists have shown that the brain is active when fish experience pain. It is also now thought that fish have self-consciousness. In this context, self-consciousness means the ability to think about their own actions, to consider different possible scenarios and to modify their decisions on how to act as necessary. When we spear a fish it feels pain, fear and panic just as we would if we were speared somewhere in a field while on a walk. As with humans, fish do not often die immediately. They suffer loss of blood and go into shock. Then if they survive the long journey to the shore or a boat, they slowly suffocate in the air. It can be a long and painful death.
(For more about this, click here.)
People who spearfish are no doubt fit, agile and adventurous. The skills, training and endurance to be able to breath-hold for long periods are to be admired. But having acquired all that, where is the skill in then spearing a fish that has little concept of what is about to happen to it? Most likely the fish will not dart away as the hunter approaches but remain in its territory watching with caution as to what will take place next. Then in an instant the spear penetrates its body – a bit like the sportsman’s equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. I am often told by people who spear that they only take what is needed for the pot. Perhaps so, but they take the biggest of the species, the ones best suited for mating. Still they cause great suffering and pain to an individual.
This does of course beg the question of commercial fisheries. If we are at all concerned with animal welfare as we say we are, we really need to address the issues of inhumanely killing untold millions of sea creatures every year.
If freedivers need to test their skills and endurance, I would recommend trying to film or photograph the fish instead of killing it. A person spear fishing doesn’t even really need to get that close to their prey to fire a spear, but taking a good picture requires infinitely more skill as you need to get closer and for longer.
As a species we have a blinkered attitude to other species that show no familiar outward human-like behaviour, especially if we are unable to hear their cries. We blindly ignore their lives. It intrigues me, when with a group of divers returning to the boat or shore, that they will be excited and animated about the fish or octopus or lobster they have just seen. Only moments later they seem to switch off their brains in the café and order fish, calamari or lobster without even a second thought. On the next dive they will complain that the fish have gone or the huge lobster on the wreck is no longer there.
If you are tempted to go into your local dive shop to buy a spear gun can I ask you to reconsider and ask about an underwater camera instead? The adventure will last longer as the fish will still be there the following day and in the end give a great deal more excitement and pleasure.