Out of Bounds

Fish Brains Get Another Look

Animal intelligence, or at least our perception of it, played a role in the acceptance of catch-and-release fishing

By Rob Breeding

Last week I wrote about fly fishing for sharks.

I had intended my anecdote on blue and mako sharks as an introduction, a preface to a column focused on the intelligence of fishes. I just never quite got there. 

Fish smarts has become a matter of intense debate in the scientific and outdoor communities, a debate fueled by the transformation of fishing.

Anglers once caught fish to eat. Today, catch-and-release fishing may be more common. That’s certainly the case when it comes to trout in trout-friendly habitat like Montana rivers. 

The state famously adopted catch and release as a way to maintain both fishing opportunities as well as fish populations after it became apparent stocking hatchery-raised trout in rivers was not sustainable. Hatchery fish are not hardy survivors. Once winter conditions descended on Montana waters, the stockers, those which had avoided the creel at least, died anyway. Along the way, they also managed to reduce the wild trout in rivers and streams. 

Stockers don’t outcompete wild fish, but they school up, mimicking the unnatural condition of the hatchery runways where they spent their formative days. The schools displace wild fish from prime feeding spots, leaving them weaker and more vulnerable to winter as well.

Catch and release was the answer. By most measures it works.

Animal intelligence, or at least our perception of it, played a role in the acceptance of catch and release. The theory behind it is that since their brains lack a neocortex, fish don’t feel pain and are incapable of consciousness. 

For some, this no-pain, no-consciousness conclusion is a necessary condition that makes catch and release acceptable. It also makes tolerable the industrialized techniques used by commercial fishing operations. We’ve all seen net loads of squirming fish dumped on the decks of commercial trawlers, or video of it at least. The assumption that those fish don’t feel pain and can’t comprehend what’s happening contributes to making it OK.

We know a similar scene wouldn’t fly if instead of fish, those frantic soon-to-die flopping critters were steers headed for the slaughterhouse. Meat packing operators tell us this is so by banning cameras and other recording devices from kill floors where the animals we eat, die.

This is also why the public finds so compelling Temple Grandin and her crusade for more humane livestock slaughtering practices. 

It seems a faction of the animal rights movement has set its sights on the fishing industry, both the commercial operators as well as the catch-and-release based recreational fishing business we know better as guiding. Tearing down the no-pain, no-consciousness edifice seems central to this effort.

In scientific literature there is an oft-used phrase: It may be argued. I read it as I prepared this column, in a paper “arguing” fish are really more intelligent than we realized. “It may be argued” really means, “This is what I want to believe, but can’t yet support scientifically.”

Even if researchers produce data that turns what they want into something science supports, I don’t think it will be determinative in a decision to hang up my fly rod. I already know I’m harassing trout when I fool them with a dry fly. I understand the act of releasing them doesn’t absolve me of guilt for taking out my predatory instincts on a being of unknowable intelligence.

But the eater in me needs that same stuff the hunter desires. I seek the seasoning of that leaping, angry mako shark, even if the last shark steak I ate was consumed in a restaurant after being caught by a commercial operation, and not my fly.

I may someday choose a different course, out on a trout stream somewhere, realizing I no longer want to be there.

But not today.