Illegal vs.Ethical Angling...

Ken Jones

Staff member
Good debates before we ever had most of the social media sites used for argument.

Date: October 27, 2003
To: PFIC Message Board
From: Ken Jones
Subject: Illegal vs. Ethical & A quote revisited — ethical anglers

The following passage 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 legality is to adapt 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 johnp

Great topic. My greatest concern is Illegal vs. Moral: A gut-hooked fish, even if dead, must be discarded. That's the law. But I believe that’s immoral. (I don't feel like debating this issue, btw.) Unfortunately, shame controls my actions here, not ethics. I don't keep the fish, because I'm afraid of the law.

Posted by neko

I agree with JohnP...I have caught many short white seabass. And as every anglers know, when they fight, they give it their all. And while this is a good thing for the angler, it’s not so good for the fish. Sometimes they don't have enough energy to revive themselves. And I’m guilty of killing three shorts. You drop them in, head first, and hope for the best, sometimes they just float right back up and I think to myself, what a waste. And they just drift away.

Posted by Songslinger

And Neither Of You Gets It. Think about this. Too many people would use the excuse that the fish were bleeding in order to keep short sizes. You and johnp may be ethical anglers but many others are not, and you really need to think beyond your own framework. Bigger picture, gentlemen. This is how ethical systems function. Oh, and johnp, nice try. There is nothing so feckless as putting out an opinion and saying it is not something you do not wish to debate. Sorry, slick, but in a public forum, what you post is indeed open for debate and discussion—or else you do not post it.

Posted by johnp

Debate. What I didn't want to debate was one aspect of my argument: *My Belief* that tossing killed fish is immoral. I still can have my own beliefs, can't I? Your argument that “I don't get it” because someone else might use this as an excuse to keep shorts is off the mark. I wasn't talking about other people’s ethics (yours included). I was talking about *my* personal ethics. The point of Ken’s post was, “what people do in secret when only their conscience, and God are watching.”

Posted by blahblahblah

JohnP, you are right. Slinger also is right. You are most certainly and undeniably entitled to your own beliefs. And you can state them and then refuse to elaborate if you like.

But on the other hand, you have no standing to prohibit others from discussing something you brought up in a public forum. You don't have to talk about it anymore if that’s what you want, but you can’t say that no one else is allowed to talk about it. And you can’t say that they can’t tell you they think you're wrong. For what it’s worth, I agree with what I think is your sentiment about throwing back an already-dead fish (there's a “but” coming later). Despite doing 12 years in Catholic school I'm generally not much for the concept of sin—but wasting food and wasting a life *is* a sad and terrible sin. Am I correct in thinking that what you meant was along this line?: “I know I didn't target an out-of-season or undersize or overfished fish. I know I did my best to return it unharmed, but it didn't work. Since that fish is already dead, I ought not to waste it, but should be able to put it to some use and eat it.” If that's what you meant, I think you've got a good argument, except for two points. First, Songslinger is right on when he says the law is necessary to prevent abuse by people who DO keep any fish they catch and who DON'T care what harm they do to the long-term health of the fishery and the environment to which it is tied. Many people would unethically and illegally claim fish were dead or dying already—I've seen it myself plenty of times. Second, dead fish are not necessarily wasted. Fish deliberately caught and killed only to be thrown back ARE wasted, but an accidentally or incidentally taken fish can ethically be thrown back. Other organisms will quickly put that dead fish to good use.

Posted by johnp

Not refusing…Honestly—I wasn't trying to refuse debate. I just didn't want to go through the stress of defending *why* I believe the way I do. Besides, today's my favorite holiday. This morning, while fishing, I really felt *Thankful* that I could be out there. It was just so beautiful. btw- there's a real reason why I posted the way I did. This morning, I threw back two throat-hooked greenlings. I cut the hook, and they were in ‘good shape’ when I tossed them back. But the entire drive home, I was thinking (honestly)—“I wonder what they feel like with the hook in their throat... How will they eat???” I stopped fishing altogether after the second one. Coming home, I felt like less-than-a-man: I really felt guilty that I didn’t have the balls to keep them, and when I saw a warden, to honestly say, “Yes sir, I know it's against the law, but I believe it's right. Yes—I'll pay the penalty.” Instead, I tossed them back.

These particular greenlings should be OK. I hope so. When I came home and checked the board—and saw the topic—it really struck a cord. I don't want to be a pest on this wonderful holiday. Slinger—I sincerely wish you a great holiday weekend! Peace.

Posted by blahblahblah

johnp, I think there’s no harm and no foul on anyone's part with this exchange—you have an understandable reason for making your original post. If it makes you feel any better (and I hope it does), not too long ago I found an old, rusted hook inside a greenling I had caught and brought home to eat. It looked like it had been there for a good long time, and it not only was rusted, it also had been partially encapsulated in some sort of organic-looking substance. That's just one fish, and it may even have eaten the hook in its rusted state instead of being the survivor of a catch and release, but to me it's pretty good evidence that at least some of the time fish do in fact survive a deep hooking and release.

Posted by johnp

Circle Hooks I did a search of the archives and saw your post on circle hooks. I think I'll give them a try. They would be a step towards addressing two out of my top-three fishing-related problems: lost rigs in kelp and rocks, plus deep-hooked fish. The third problem—lack of fishing time—I’ll have to resolve some other way.

Posted by dompfa ben

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

Posted by gyozadude

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 pierhead

That Thoreau quote …Just found this through Goggle ... Henry David Thoreau once observed “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” In his book, “Pavlov’s Trout: The Incompleat Psychology of Everyday Fishing,” psychologist and outdoor writer Paul Quinnett, Ph.D., takes an entertaining and illuminating look at just what it is people go fishing for. And as Quinnett relates, the fish landed is indeed secondary to the challenge, optimism, excitement and freedom which the pursuit embodies. “It is better to fish hopefully than to catch fish,” he observes. “Some young anglers might disagree, but no old fisherman would. Fishing is hope experienced.”
Just thought I would share.