Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is Fly Fishing Humane?

As a rabbi and a fly fisher, one of the most common questions I get asked is about the ethics of fly fishing. Is it morally acceptable to spend one’s free-time taking a trout from the river, either to return it shortly to the stream or to eat it for food? Is fly fishing humane?

In the Bible, the humane treatment of fish and of all animals is a requirement of humanity. In Deuteronomy, the case is posed of a person who happens upon a mother bird and her nest. If the man wishes to take the eggs, he must first send the bird away, in order to shield the mother from distress. The Bible also teaches that animals share some of the same rights as human beings. On the seventh day of each week, the Sabbath, humans rest and do not work. Likewise, work animals, like the ox and the goat, also rest on the Sabbath, afforded this same privilege as human beings.

Picture: An osprey nest on a lake in New York.

Does the humane treatment of animals extend to not eating them for food? In the Garden of Eden, human beings were vegetarian. God gives humans beings plants and fruit to eat. Only after the story of Noah’s ark and the flood, does God permit the eating of living creatures, including meat and fish. Many people see this progression as a concession to humanity. Ideally we would be vegetarian, since it is more humane. Yet God understood that we desire to eat meat and allowed it.

When fly-fishing for food, I feel on solid ethical ground. To catch a large beautiful rainbow trout, take it home and then fry up the fillets with olive oil, salt and a bit of pepper, is a delicious dinner. Even when fly fishing for food, I take steps to make the process as humane as possible. I never use a creel, to keep a fish alive for hours in the water, which seems cruel. If I decide to keep a trout, I kill the fish immediately. To keep it fresh, I bring a cooler filled with ice on every fly fishing trip.

When fly fishing for food, I use a very sharp knife, and I kill the fish quickly by removing it head, hoping to minimize the pain. These steps that I take were inspired by the Jewish kosher laws, a collection of rules for how and what a Jew may eat. One law states that in order for a piece of meat to be kosher, the cow must be slaughtered with a very sharp knife that has no nicks or cracks within it. That way, the cow is killed instantly and without pain. I try to end the life of the trout in a kosher-like and humane manner.

Despite my best efforts to be humane, I do feel a touch of guilt for destroying such a beautiful creature. One time, I caught a nice size brown trout that I decided to take home for dinner. As I began to fillet the fish, I discovered that she was pregnant, with hundreds of eggs in her belly. Even though I know that only a very small percentage of those eggs would have survived, I felt a bit guilty. Perhaps killing a fish will always be a bittersweet experience. As much as I know that eating trout is a part of the natural cycle of life, I cannot help but feel bad at destroying such beautiful creatures.

While I sometimes fly fish for food, most often I practice catch and release fishing. If I and all of the other fly fishers out there kept or killed every fish we caught, the rivers and streams and lakes would soon be empty of fish. Catch and release fly fishing is necessary to preserve those beautiful and special places where the trout live. I probably keep only one out of every dozen fish that I catch.

We can all take steps to make the catch and release process humane and ethical. When I hook a trout, I do not play it to exhaustion, since the fish may not survive even if released. I always dip my hands in the stream before holding a trout, since the oils on my skin will harm the fish. I also try to minimize the time that the fish is out of the water, quickly removing the hook from its mouth and releasing it back to the stream.

When the trout is out of the water, I almost never measure the length or weight of the fish. It seems to me that the measure of success of a fly fishing trip is not the size of the trout, but the time spent on the stream, the connection one feels to nature, and the solitude that is one of the great blessings of fly fishing. Sometimes, I do find myself wanting to take a picture of the fish, which I try to do as quickly as possible.

Picture: A pumpkinseed sunfish that I recently caught which was released back to its New York lake.

Even when I practice catch and release fishing, I suspect that the trout that I reel in are not having such a great time. But they will all live to see another day. To practice catch and release fishing is to acknowledge that trout are precious. With our expensive fly rods and exquisitely tied flies, we may have the ability to catch many fish on a stream. We also have the responsibility to treat a trout with respect and dignity, for a fish is a beautiful living creature whose source is ultimately divine.

When fly fishing, I still sometimes feel a little bit guilty. And I am not sure there is any way around it. In fact, I would say that feeling guilty about fly fishing is probably a good thing, if that feeling motivates us to be as humane as possible with the fish.

Fly-fishing is a wonderful activity that can lead us to feel close to nature. And it can also be ethically challenging. Our task is to make fly-fishing, and all activities in our lives, as ethical and upright as possible.


Shupac said...

I enjoyed your reflections on C&R ethics. I also feel a bit ambivalent about it. Just one correction: the fish pictured is a pumpkinseed sunfish.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Thanks for the correction shupac. It was a beautiful fish.

Steve Dobson said...

A very interesting article. That C&R now exists as an ordinary part of the fly-fishing experience rather than an eccentricity seems to show that ethics do evolve and mature as the technology and mastery of technique allows. Your point, "It seems to me that the measure of success of a fly fishing trip is not the size of the trout, but the time spent on the stream..." seems to evoke the possibility.

Freshwater Phil said...

I was doing some research on fishing / halacha. I fish in freshwater lakes and rivers in Southern Quebec and Ontario, mainly for game fish. I try to keep something for home or friends, as I find it halachically justifiable to fish if some are kept for food. I catch and release small, polluted or sick fish, as well as fish exceeding my bag /slot limit, or if they are out of season.

My question is, can you keep a trophy fish that you can't eat due to either pollution or simply not being a kosher fish, just to have it mounted as a trophy, or must I revive and release it.

My question is strictly from a halachic point of view, I would love your input.

PS. You can visit my web site at www.freshwaterphil.com or my blog.

Anonymous said...

Also, if fishing for trout, make sure to please not fish where water is at 70 degrees farenheit or above. This water typically contains very low oxygen levels, and even briefly playing a fish or removing it from water - even if you return it to the stream as quickly as possible - will almost certainly kill it. There are several very accurate and compact thermometers that can be bought at any sporting goods store which should be a part of every fly-fisherman's outfit for this reason.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Dear Freshwater Phil,

Thank you for you comment. It is an important question, if it is morally justifiable to keep a fish and have it mounted as a trophy. I'll offer you my opinion as a Rabbi.

While I surely support the keeping of fish for food, I am not sure that Judaism would agree that one should mount a fish as a trophy. Fish are a great gift on this earth that ultimately have their source in the Divine. While fish provide us with sustenance, we still are to respect them as fellow living creatures. My suggestion would be to take a few good pictures of that trophy trout, and then release him back to his home.

Freshwater Phil said...

According to what I've researched, one would be allowed to keep a fish for it's meat, skin (as a mount), or for any other financial benefit such as if one were a fishing guide, or tournament fisherman. Pure catch and release just for fun is frowned upon by most authorities, although some allow it as a means to an end of it's own.

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy fishing quite a bit, both the calm and meditative act of casting and reeling (regardless of whether I actually catch anything or not), and the feeling of accomplishment of actually capturing a fish and pulling it in. And while I do dispatch my catch as fast as possible, I still feel a bit...I don't know, sad? I guess there's a slight feeling of remorse after I kill my fish, even though I feel it's far more humane than letting it spend several minutes suffocating to death and flopping around on the ground. And it certainly isn't going to waste, as I thoroughly enjoy the meal. It's not the act of catching the fish on a pointed hook, but the actual act of putting it down. I mean, I don't kill it for the sake of killing, but for the sake of eating. Just before dispatching the fish, I sort of "thank it" for providing me with a meal. The fish do not die in vain and are never wasted (seeing as how fish have a fairly short shelf-life, if I realize I have more than I can eat, I'll give them to friends or neighbors. I don't like wasting food, especially food that died for me.)

I suppose I should say that I am not Jewish, and at this point in my life, I am not even religious ("agnostic" would probably be the best description of me.) I don't know that I even believe in an afterlife or anything like that. My point isn't really a religious one, but simply that I still value life, whether it's human or animal.

I guess my point is that it doesn't necessarily boil down to a purely religious issue. I have come to the conclusion that if we, speaking purely as fishermen (and hunters as well), feel a little remorseful or guilty at times, /that's/ what makes us good human beings. There would be something seriously wrong with us if we didn't feel anything at all, at least occasionally. If we never felt the slightest bit of remorse for taking another living being's life, we wouldn't be any better than the sociopathic serial killer. But the difference between them and us is that we /value/ life, regardless of whether it's because of a religious belief or a simple secular moral one. We value a living creature, even if we kill it for food. And because we value it when it's alive, we still value it when it's dead.

Unknown said...

As to freshwater Phil's question, there is no reason to keep a fish for a trophy. With a picture and measurements, a beautiful replica for mounting can be created. This replica will last longer and stay better looking than a skin mount. As to the ethics, one of the most pleasing moments is seeing the fish swim away in good health. Fly fishing, which makes one focus, is a wonderful way to become cognizant of and freed by nature. As stated by author David Duncan (who wrote The River Why), one of the reasons the book A River Runs Through It is so meaningful to so many and Paul's death so shattering, especially to his father, is the father's greatest strength -- his religious belief -- is stifulling when he tries to will it to his son Paul. Paul's fly fishing is so central to the story and so hauntingly beautiful because in this willful young man in whom the flow of grace is blocked, fly fishing is the one and only pursuit where we literally see grace flowing through the son. Fly fishing, for those who are open to the experience, allows one to have a very meaningful experience with all of nature and God. Michael Abraham

Freshwater Phil said...

M. Abraham,

I'm with you on the trophy / replica mount. Personally, I'm fine mounting a 8 x 10 picture on my "wall of fame".

Halachically speaking though, most rabbis are in disargreement with the catch and release aspect of the sport. It seems that they deem keeping fish better than simply capturing it for the fun and releasing it.

Someone recently mentioned a person asking the late R. Moshe Fienstein if they were allowed to fish. His response was "of course, but how could a Jew bring himself to impale a worm on a hook?".

Anonymous said...

Happy to know your inclination on being humane to Animals. But if you are REALY OPEN to honest feedback, and if the comment moderator has the courage to share these views with others, here are my views:

(1) Killing a fish, cow, or any other animal to satisfy ones' entertainment/hobby OR hunger is still killing. It is still taking a life away that God created. It is SELFISH & INHUMANE.

(2) Please don't justify killing instantly or with a sharp knife as "humane". How would you feel if human criminals started giving this kind of explanations for their crimes? Will they be entitled to lesser punishments in our court of laws? How about when your time comes to answer to God?

(3) Animals also have their families (parents, siblings, babies). And kiliing an animal is ALSO PAINFUL/SHOCKFUL for those survivors of that family. Again let us put ourselves in their shoes.

(4) In today's day and age, there is NO REASON why one should not be able to get ALL necessary nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals, carbs, etc) WITHOUT eating MEAT.

God Bless.

Dale Crawford said...

Hey Anon,

There is no reason to drive your car. You're killing the environment that God created. You must walk.

There is no reason for you to walk. You are killing the ants that God created. Watch every step you make so you do not commit murder. You must carry a microscope with you everywhere to see the smaller creatures.

You are expelling Co2, which is causing Gorebal Warming. You must stop breathing, or wear a respirator that changes the Co2 to life-giving oxygen.

How far would you like me to go with your logic?

T. Brook Smith said...

When considering ethics I find it important to look at both the fine-grained ethics (events as they related to specific individuals) and coarse-grained ethics (events that related to many individuals at once as in the effects of policy or systemic events). It's important to think of the effects of events on individual animals and the care and handling of fish is important. However, the wider effect of fishing extends beyond the event of hooking a fish. In many cases the fact that people enjoy fishing will result in the protection of a river from pollution or large-scale modification. This confers benefits to all the plants and animals that live in that ecosystem, saving not only individual animals but whole populations of animals and sometimes even species. By practicing catch and release, the fishing experience is preserved for many rather than a few. In this way the value conferred on the river through fishing can be shared by many and the motivation to preserve and protect aquatic ecosystems lives on.

isaac said...

I wonder if the main point is to take responsibility forn the life taken. I've always argued against fishing as a "sport". I fish because I need food to live. I and I alone can be held responsible for the killing of a fish or an animal I buy in thhe butcher's shop. Having said that, I love your approach Rabbi. I too find the solitude and situation a spiritual experience.
In passing, I suppose we have to accept that biologically, we are omnivores. If that's how G-d made us, we have to accept that load on our concience.

Francisque said...

"That way, the cow is killed instantly and without pain." So if I cut your throat with my extremely sharp axe it'll be humane and without pain..wow. Killing any sentient being is morally and ethically wrong, murdering animals in slaughterhouses (even kosher, you can see the videos online..) leads to a painful death no matter what you'd like to tell yourself.