Bullheads and the Ethics of Fishing

Ken Jones

Staff member
Date: July 5, 2004
To: PFIC Message Board
From: Minnow Magnet

Subject: Not Right

— (The ethics of fishing revisited/KJ)

It is not right to kill fish for no reason. When I was at Pacifica Pier there were some people who were putting lots of bullhead on the pier to die, so I said, "Bullhead are better bait live." They said, " We don't want them." so I said, "Then why are you killing them?" Then they said," We just don't like catching bullhead." There were 30 dead bullhead and 5 live ones, so I picked up the live ones and tossed them back.

Posted by west coast dave

This should be against the law!!! That too bad that people do that. Wasting fish is already against the regulations. So even if it's a "trash fish" it is against the law to not return it to the water. By the way I would have taken the dead ones (depending on their condition) home to put in the freezer. Dead bullheads are a good Striper bait, even though a live one is better. Tight Lines, Dave

Posted by Red Fish

Way to protect the ecosystem Minnow!!

Posted by pescare

Nice going on putting the live ones back, Minnow. I saw all of those fish there too on Saturday. It is illegal to do that, but we know that nothing will happen since there is so little enforcement.

Posted by calrat

Two guys fishing next to me at Pacifica a week ago were doing the same thing. I kept looking at the two bullheads gasping for air and drying up on the ground and so I asked them if they were going to keep them or use them. They said no... from the look on their faces, the thought never occurred to them to throw them back. So I plucked the half dead fish off the ground and dropped them into the water and they swam off. Nice going Minnow for doing the same.

Posted by climberb9

Glad to see the second half of my generation has people with good ideas. I give you major props Justin!!!

Posted by skipper

So, is it OK to eat them, but not to kill them? It doesn't make sense to me.

Posted by climberb9

Skipper- here is the logic—Its okay to kill them and eat them because you are using the resource whereas killing them, then just leaving them lying on the pier deck is unethical-pointless-and illegal. Make some sense?

Posted by skipper

Illegal I can understand because it's the law, but unethical is relative. Anyways, let's get back to fishing.

Posted by Morone

Deliberate attempt to alter ecosystem..unethical

Posted by skipper

Please don't raise the issue of ethics when you are talking about fishing...it makes people feel guilty when they accidentally kill a fish

Posted by Ken Jones

A quote revisited — ethical anglers — Posted by Ken Jones on November 27, 2003

The following passage is taken from the excellent book by Paul Quinnett titled Pavlov's Trout, The incompleat psychology of everyday fishing. It is a book I highly recommend.

Guilt, Shame and Ethics
Fishing gives the average bloke the perfect occasion to measure his own integrity. The rules are easily broken, the temptations great, the witnesses few and the justifications for wrongdoing ample. What better circumstances to plumb the depths of one's character?

Or is it the shallow of one's character?

I have often looked hard into the nature of people and often found a great deal less nobility than I'd hoped for; sometimes more, but frequently less; a scruple here, a virtue there... It seems many Americans, including fishermen, have stumbled down that slippery slope where one's code of conduct is no longer governed by guilt, but by shame.

There is a big difference between shame and guilt. Shame is what you feel when they catch you doing something wrong; guilt is what you feel when you do something you know is wrong, period. One requires law enforcers. The other requires only the presence of that still small voice deep in the old nervous system. Both can be wrongly conditioned for in a psychologically dysfunctional home, and you can, through no fault of your own, end up feeling guilty over nothing and shamed for the wrong reasons. Still guilt and shame and their associated emotions of fear and anxiety are the only known internalized tools for self-control.

With an operative, guilt-affected conscience, you need never look over your shoulder to see if the law is watching as you angle along a stream catching fish. You are the law. And as a law-abider, if you respect yourself, you will respect the law. This is a simple formula. An ethical angler needs a game warden like a trout needs a parachute.

Shame is another matter. To be shamed you have to be caught and at least threatened with punishment or embarrassment. Some people are able to stay on the straight and narrow out of fear of shame, but as the odds of getting caught go down, so does the effectiveness of shame. Shame works, but it takes at least two people.

Legal Versus Ethical
Being legal is not the same as being ethical. To equate ethics with legaility is to adpt the morals of a swindle...As ephemeral as they are, ethics go where laws dare not...

As of this writing, it is lawful to gill net on the high seas and clear-cut above salmon and steelhead spawning streams. It may be legal to take spawning northern pike while they are vulnerable in the early spring, but it is ethically wrong to take even one if the fishery can't stand it, or if you don't need the fish.

These days sportsmen complain about the complexity of fishing regulations, but without tighter external controls to protect the fisheries, unscrupulous anglers would clean out the streams, haul away the spawners, and otherwise decimate the wildlife, something mankind has a bloody history of doing very well.

In a perfect world you would need no laws, just the following guideline: Enjoy yourself, but please do not harm the fishery. Here and now, to protect a threatened fishery you need either biologically sound regulations and strict enforcement of those regulations, or a highly ethical fishing public.

The fishes need ethical fishermen. More, they need ethical fishermen to defend against the stupidity, arrogance, and the unmitigated greed of the unethical. We cannot legislate morality and ethical behavior any more than we can legislate the human heart, so it is up to each fisherman to take a long and sometimes painful journey, not to points of the compass, but inward.

Posted by Ken Jones

Ethics Revisited...dompfa ben — Posted by dompfa ben on November 27, 2003

To quote something I wrote a few years back for the DAILY TROJAN at USC:

<<"If God is all-powerful and can do anything, could he create a boulder so large that he would not have the strength to lift it?"

The answer leans more toward a faithful and logical interpretation than a scientific one. That is, God--at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition--would not and could not do something that defies reasonable logic and contradicts his nature. Therefore, the idea of God presenting himself with a nemesis directly nullifies what we as a human species have come to know as an all-powerful, all-knowing God.>>> (DT, 9/20/1996)

So, too, is it with anglers. We are bound by our nature as both humans and as anglers to act in certain ways, to define our nature by examining our purpose.

As a group, we choose to go fishing for a variety of reasons: enjoyment of the outdoors, spending time with family and friends, obtaining nourishment, or earning a livelihood. However, at its core, anglers have a unifying purpose: to catch fish.

When we begin to weigh our respective personal needs and philosophies against an all-encompassing body of laws, we will find countless variations of personal ethics. When those laws are based loosely on the "best available research," or when the laws by which we are bound are suddenly changed, mid-season, without rhyme, reason, or explanation, then it is natural for us to question the validity of the law, as it is within our angler-nature to catch fish. Any new regulation placed upon our existing code of ethics will create a shift, or at least, cause us to reexamine things.

Is there any difference between keeping a gravid sand bass, and keeping one that has already laid eggs? In both cases, the fish is being removed from the gene pool, and will never reproduce again. The sand bass is neither endangered, nor fished commercially. In this case, our emotions mingle with our ethics, as somehow, we feel the "cute" factor, akin to baby ducks vs. roasted duck. This then, is not so much an ethical issue, as it is an emotional issue.

However, by deep-hooking a short sand bass, we have terminated its life. The law demands that we release the fish, assumedly to prevent people from keeping otherwise healthy short fish and saying they were already dead. This may seem wasteful to us, as a dead fish will also never spawn again. But is this view too myopic? Are we not a part of the world ecosystem? It is easy to play "what if," sometimes easier to play god, and say that the fish was "wasted."

But I would argue that our actions, though weighted more heavily than other predators of the sea, are just as valid as that of other creatures. The law may not make sense, but that short fish, floating down to feed the benthos of the deep, will not be wasted. It will be recycled into the ecosystem from whence it came.

Are there exceptions to these things? Of course there are! Certain actions--littering, reckless destruction of habitat, cruelty or wanton disregard for the value of ocean life--is arguably ALWAYS unethical. And EVERY fish we catch is an ethical dilemma. Just as the population, recruitment, and reproduction of fish change, our needs, wants, and desires change daily in this life, too.

Furthermore, we are but human, and at best, we are susceptible to errors in judgment and moments of weakness. Mistakes will be made. The enlightened angler will learn from these things, and adjust to avoid future transgressions.

It seems, then, that our actions as sentient beings on this rock should not be governed wholly by the law, or wholly by ethics, but rather, by a careful and balanced analysis of the two philosophies.

Continued good fishing to you all. Ben

DOMPFA: DOMinating Positive Fishing Attitude!

Posted by Ken Jones

Ethics revisited...GDude — Posted by gyozadude on November 27, 2003

In a perfect world I dare say we wouldn't live with overpopulation, which strains our resources, and prevents us from providing a superior level of personal education to each member of society.

Unfortunately, the quote falls on deaf ears because most of the people who would fish unethically by the author's standards, couldn't give a hoot about being an 'ethical fisherman'; these folks would only care to get as much of the limited resource for themselves because from their perspective, they're deprived.

Any arguments that would tend to equate humans as a valid predator of the seas that should and does belong within society simply fails to recognize that humans use technology to circumvent the constraints on overpopulation that Nature puts on all other species.

It's a vicious circle.

Ken, ironically, in our current system, if we are to preserve our fisheries, the legal system MUST be ethical.

Posted by skipper

You guys are not understanding my point here...I guess we are all unethical because when we are hooking a fish basically we are inflicting pain on the poor fish.

Posted by Ken Jones

Most fishermen, if they have considered the question, are at peace with themselves in regarding the legality, ethics and morality of fishing. Reflection, philosophy and argument varies but bottom line, most see no moral imperatives when it comes to the question of fishing and the rights of humans to catch fish. Given the acceptance that humans have a right to fish the next question becomes should we? And again, most anglers would probably argue that the answer is yes, for both food and recreation. But less clear is the manner of how you fish. Can you do so in a manner that is least destructive to the environment and least painful—and wasteful—to the fish themselves? Many would argue that if you take on the responsibility of being an angler, then perhaps you need to also take on the responsibility of being an ethical angler, however you define the term.

Posted by skipper

Thanks for clearing things up Ken...I respect your wisdom.

Posted by calrat

Shouldn't you feel guilty when you accidentally kill a fish? That way, you won't want to do it again. Furthermore, when minnow magnet and I threw those bullheads back, those people who left them out there weren't "accidentally" killing anything. They intentionally left them out there thinking, "blah, who cares, they're just bullheads."

Posted by Red Fish

Those people were just plain unthinking from not having any idea of the value of the Staghorn Sculpin (bullhead) to the ecosystem. Besides the fact, it is just plain stupid to leave dead fish on the deck where people are walking and could unknowingly, step on them and slip - not very considerate or smart. And, I have done it when I was kid, put I have put away the foolish deeds of my childhood (besides I didn't have any example by not having a father that fishes).

Posted by Morone

..not fishing, trying to "thin out" bullheads

Posted by gordo grande

WTG, Minnow Magnet!

Posted by Ken Jones
Good job Justin!

Posted by Ken Jones

From Pier Fishing In California, 2nd Edition: Author's Note #2. (Seacliff Pier)

Never give up the fight to educate the public. On one of my trips to the pier I pulled up a bullhead (staghorn sculpin) and as I was unhooking it a teenager walked over and asked what I was going to do with it. When I said I was going to throw it back he asked me if he could have it. I said maybe. What was he going to do with it? He replied that he always squashed bullheads—he flattened them with his shoes. Why, I asked? Because they were no good. I then asked him if he had ever seen a striper or other large fish at the pier and if he knew why they would be around the little pier. He said he'd seen some stripers but didn't know what I was getting at. I then explained that bullheads were one of the bait species that attracted striped bass and without bait species there wouldn't be any of the bigger species. He said he hadn't really considered that and as we talked I think I may actually have convinced him not to squash bullheads—or simply kill other small fish. Maybe it was just opening the eyes of one angler but you have to start somewhere.

Posted by Morone

Well done, Minnow Magnet. Observing, Questioning, and Taking Action WTG MM

Posted by xpostman

Do bullheads taste bad or something?

Posted by pescare

Just wondering why on a pier full of people keeping 3" shiners, are the poor bullheads left to die on the deck. Do they have no food value at all? You'd think the people that keep anything and everything would take them home too.

Posted by baconmojo

And also, even though something is not desirable to humans (ie. profitable) does not mean the ecosystem can survive without it. It is our responsibility to use, not use up, our resources. In my opinion, nature has far too many factors for humans to predict (unless you’re G-Dude and the world's strongest computer :))

Posted by Ken Jones

Some say they taste like catfish...or was that...chicken. Actually, some groups do save and eat them although it must take quite a few for a meal.