Hunting and Fishing

Mark Woods, Alastair S Gunn, Gary Varner, J Claude Evans, Christopher Preston. Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Editor: J Baird Callicott & Robert Frodeman. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2009.


Hunting and fishing raise central concerns for environmental philosophy. Many argue that they are quintessential activities that allow people to participate in and be part of nonhuman nature. Many others argue that these activities constitute undue human interference with the natural world. However nature is valued, embracing or rejecting hunting and fishing will help express one's environmental ethic. Whatever else nature is—species populations, communities, and ecosystems—it consists of individual animals and fish that should or should not be caught, killed, dismembered, and/or eaten. Critical evaluations of hunting and fishing have helped define and shape the field of environmental ethics.

Historical and Cultural Background

There were 299 million U.S. citizens in 2006. Approximately 30 million fished and 12.5 million hunted. These numbers were eclipsed by the 71 million who engaged in wildlife watching, an activity that does not necessitate capturing and/or killing animals and fish (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2006). Although these three categories are not mutually exclusive, far more Americans interact with wildlife as passive observers. Hunting has been on the decline in the United States. It peaked in the early 1950s, when approximately one-quarter of American men hunted, and has been declining sharply since at least 1980 (the sharpest drop occurred between 1980 and 1990--from 19.5 to 16.4 percent of American males) (Dizard 2003). The declining popularity of hunting is the latest chapter in a broader cultural story.

Although the arrival date of people in North America is debatable, there is considerable evidence that nearly one-quarter of the continental genera of terrestrial mammals weighing at least one hundred pounds (for example, the American mastodon, mammoth, American cheetah, and Florida cave bear) were hunted to extinction by Clovis people in a relatively short period approximately 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. This might have been the first instance of human hunting pressures that changed North American landscapes. The Clovis extinctions opened ecological niches that were soon filled by Eurasian species more commonly known to Europeans and later Euro-Americans. Contemporary species of bison, grizzly bear, gray wolf, and elk arrived in North America 13,000 to 11,000 years ago, replacing now-extinct species of those mammals. European colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries encountered overabundant populations of animals and fish. The standard interpretation is that that overabundance was a result of what might be called Native American Indian conservation practices. This should be tempered with the contemporary understanding that what Europeans and later Euro-Americans identified as wilderness lands teeming with wildlife were more akin to “widowed lands” with rebounded animal populations after nearly 90 percent of the native peoples had died off by the middle of the eighteenth century, leaving landscapes widowed by people.

The majority of European colonists in North America did not hunt. Those colonists came from European countries where hunting was controlled and practiced largely by elite aristocracies. The relative unpopularity of hunting in North America can be attributed to the fact that firearms were not readily available until after the American Civil War and the ideological dictum that the proper life of a European colonist consisted of farming, which anchored European civilization to newly established agricultural fields. The lifestyle of the wandering hunter became a homespun romanticized ideal in the nineteenth century, spurred by real-life figures such as Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett as well as fictional characters such as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo. Market hunters and fishers, however, were dominant in the nineteenth century. Blamed for decimating animal populations such as bison and Brant goose as well as fish populations such as brook trout, commercial hunting and fishing fell into disfavor by the end of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century a sport ideal was championed in which one hunted and fished to celebrate the frontier legacy, retreat from the city into nature, and cultivate outdoor virtues embodied in manly men such as President Theodore Roosevelt.

This sport hunting and fishing ideal has persisted into the twenty-first century. The declining popularity of hunting in countries such as the United States and Canada is a cause of alarm for hunting enthusiasts who fear that Bambi-inspired animal concern will supplant an important tradition. The vast majority of hunters in the United States are white Euro-American men, but the 1.5 percent of American women who hunted in 1990 increased to 2.7 percent in 2000 (Dizard 2003).

Forms of Hunting and Fishing

Classifying forms of hunting and fishing brings into focus some of the different reasons used to justify these activities. Such classification is fraught with difficulties. What exactly is hunting? Many hunters respond that hunting is more than the mere killing of animals. In Meditations on Hunting, José Ortega y Gasset said that death is essential but is not the purpose of hunting, as “one does not hunt in order to kill” but instead “one kills in order to have hunted” (Ortega y Gasset 1972, pp. 110-111).

Subsistence hunters claim to hunt to provide nutrition that cannot be grown. For many people this is the least problematic form of hunting. In contrast, one of the most criticized forms is trophy hunting to acquire prestigious evidence of a killed animal. Commercial or market hunters hunt to sell complete or dismembered animal carcasses for economic gain. Sport or recreational hunters usually eat what they kill, and their primary motivation seems to be pleasure or a primitive, primeval, or atavistic connection with nonhuman nature. So-called pest or varmint hunting, such as prairie dog hunts in the western sections of the United States, is practiced to control or eliminate unwanted animal populations, usually for indirect economic gain. Ecological or therapeutic hunters kill animals such as white-tailed deer to regulate populations that are perceived to have exceeded the carrying capacity of a specific area. Canned hunting occurs when a game animal is enclosed (canned) within a regulated space, such as a private hunting ranch, and typically is taken under a contract between a client and a game owner.

These are not sharply defined categories. Is a sport hunter who mounts the uneaten head of an elk also a trophy hunter? Is a subsistence hunter who sells animal carcasses to make ends meet also a commercial hunter? Is the killing of geese that make one's backyard unsightly a form of varmint hunting? Characterizing the way indigenous peoples hunt and fish also may defy categorization and lead some who oppose hunting and fishing to grant exemptions for indigenous hunting and fishing. Substitution terms for hunting raise problems. Ecological or therapeutic hunting sometimes is called culling, suggesting that unwanted animals are simply removed as opposed to violently killed. Many sport hunters claim to harvest animals, suggesting that killing animals is no different from growing agricultural crops.

The harvesting of fish—fish farming or aquaculture—may make some forms of fishing more like growing plant foodstuffs. As with hunting, people fish for subsistence, financial (market) gain, sport, and trophies. These forms also are not mutually exclusive. For example, many sport fishers (anglers) attempt to catch the biggest fish possible, thus securing a trophy fish. There is no hunting equivalent of catch and release fishing, although camera hunting has most of the elements of a hunt except the kill. However, similar to wounded animals that escape from hunters and die in the wild, many caught and released fish die from angling wounds.

Ethical Controversies

Hunting and fishing are similar activities. With the possible exception of catch and release fishing and camera hunting, both activities result in the death of wild fauna. However, far more people disapprove of hunting than fishing. Although some people consider fishing a form of underwater hunting, individual fish seem to have less value than individual animals for many people. This may be related to questions about the sentience of fish.

Most people who hunt animals in North America call themselves sport or recreational hunters. Brian Luke (1997) argued that sport hunters face a paradox: To hunt ethically, one must adopt a sport-hunting ethic that implies that hunting is immoral. Sport hunters must admit the paradoxical nature of hunting, renounce an ethical hunting code, or renounce hunting. A. Dionys de Leeuw (1996) argued that sport fishing also is ethically problematic and that the proper response to the “angler's challenge” should lead fishers to give up fishing.

These challenges to hunting and fishing stem from philosophical positions on the intrinsic or inherent value of individual animals and fish. The environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott (1980) argued that animal ethicists concerned about individual animals fail to see that the protection of holistic environmental entities such as species and ecosystems necessitates the death of individual animals. The animal ethicist Tom Regan (1983) labeled Callicott's view “environmental fascism,” in which individual animals are sacrificed for the greater good of the ecosystem, and claimed that animal rights and environmental ethics are like unmixable oil and water. This debate plays out at the practical level of hunting. Many animal advocates argue that hunting is immoral and that people should leave wildlife alone. Many environmentalists argue that subsistence and sport hunting are morally acceptable and that ecological hunting sometimes is required to protect nature.

Some animal ethics positions may permit forms of therapeutic hunting to relieve animal suffering. However, many animal advocates argue that the proper human response to wildlife is noninterference. Many hunters and fishers counter with the claim that some forms of hunting and fishing allow people to participate in wild nature. Further, if Homo sapiens is a naturally evolved species, these kinds of activities may be morally similar to natural non-human predation. Critics sometimes respond by denying that moral similarity (Moriarty and Woods 1997).

Recreational Hunting

Recreational hunting is a popular outdoor activity in many countries. It is controversial because it involves the killing of animals and sometimes causes animals to suffer; its supporters argue that it is a legitimate activity that contributes to conservation. It is a paradigm case of the conflict between animal liberation and holistic ethics as identified by the environmental philosophers J. Baird Callicott (1980) and Mark Sagoff (1984).

Recreational hunting is thought to have begun 3,500 years ago (Anderson 1987) and until comparatively recently was restricted largely to the royal and aristocratic classes. In Assyria and other areas of western Asia, India, Africa (especially during the period of European imperialism), and parts of Europe it sometimes was conducted on a vast scale and often was referred to as “the Hunt” (MacKenzie 1988).

Recreational hunting may be defined as the pursuit for sport of wild animals; a successful hunt typically is defined as one that ends with the killing of one or more animals, though many recreational hunters are satisfied by stalking the game, experiencing the outdoors, and sharing comradeship with fellow hunters. It is concentrated in North America, Europe, northern Asia, southern and eastern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2006, 12.5 million American adults hunted (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2006). That represented a slight drop from 13 million in 2001. Most people hunt on foot, using modern rifles; others prefer primitive “black powder” weapons, handguns, or bows. Sometimes dogs are used to locate or corner animals for the hunter to kill, trail wounded animals, or retrieve shot animals, especially birds in wetlands. In British fox hunting, which has been illegal since 2004 but still is practiced, the dogs are the hunters, locating, chasing, cornering, and often killing the fox.

Hunting Ethics

Most recreational hunters observe legal requirements designed to maintain both ecological balance and stocks of game. They also follow hunting ethics, known as fair chase or walk and stalk designed to even the odds, to give the animal a fair chance. Fair chase requires the hunter to forgo pursuing game in a vehicle or on horseback, shooting over a bait (such as a tethered goat or carcass) or at waterholes, using spotlights to dazzle nocturnal animals, and the like. Only unconfined animals may be hunted; canned hunting, in which the game is confined to an enclosure or small park, is considered unethical by many people. Many hunters believe that telescopic sights and night vision aids are also unethical.

Green hunting involves fair chase but with a non-lethal climax such as a paintball shot or a dart gun that injects a tranquilizer so that the hunter can pose for a photograph with the animal. This is often part of a research program, allowing the animal to be studied, fitted with a microchip, or translocated.

The founder of Orion the Hunter's Institute, Jim Posewitz, wrote: “Fundamental to ethical hunting is the idea of fair chase. This concept addresses the balance between the hunter and the hunted. It is a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals generally avoid being taken” (Posewitz 1995, p. 57).

According to the historian John MacKenzie,

In [subsistence] hunting the end is all-important, the death and utilisation of the animal. The subsistence hunter is concerned with the ease with which his purpose can be achieved. The sportsman indulging in the Hunt is concerned with the difficulty … In the Hunt the animal is most to be valued, and by extension the hunter who slays it, according to the fight it puts up. In securing its death he follows strict rules of procedure and endangers himself in the process. (MacKenzie 1988, pp. 10-11)

However, this sharp distinction between subsistence and recreational hunting is questionable. First, the herbivores that are the main target of recreational hunters are not merely edible but regarded as gourmet treats. Many hunters regard it as an obligation to ensure that the animals they kill are utilized, not wasted. Second, often these herbivores must be controlled either because their natural predators have become locally extinct, as in most parts of the United States, or because they were introduced to areas where they never had predators, such as New Zealand. Thus, hunters are often de facto pest controllers. Third, even in traditional societies that depended for subsistence and safety on killing animals, there were often elaborate rules circumscribing hunting, for instance, rules related to religious requirements and rites of passage. Moreover, in those societies hunts often are viewed as fair contests between equals.


Killing, not merely successful stalking, is seen by most writers as central to hunting; those writers would not count green hunting as hunting. For proponents of hunting such as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and the U.S. ecologist Paul Shepard (1973) the central meaning of hunting is killing, and killing is essential to “participation in the life cycle of nature” (King 1991, p. 80). The philosopher Ann Causey wrote, “The one element that stands out as truly essential to the authentic hunting experience is the kill” (Causey 1989, p. 332). Some ecofeminists see hunting as a prime example of patriarchal oppression of nature: a “necrophiliac” culture (Daly 1978).

Ortega y Gasset's position is complicated. In Meditations on Hunting he stated that “killing is not the exclusive purpose of hunting” (1985, p. 45). Nonetheless, it is essential to hunting:

To the sportsman the death of the game is not what interests him; that is not his purpose. What interests him is everything that he had to do to achieve that death—that is, the hunt … Death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting: the killing of the animal is the natural end of the hunt and that goal of hunting itself, not of the hunter … To sum up, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. (1985, pp. 96-97)

Opponents of hunting often claim that it violates animals’ right to life. The usual response by defenders of hunting is to deny that animals have that right. The hunting literature uses terms such as respect but not rights, though in one classic hunting memoir the novice hunter is admonished by his mentor: “And don't forget that an animal has a right to live, the same as you” (Waldeck 1940, p. 45). Of course, a rights-based objection to hunting also implies an objection to killing animals for food, in research, and so on.


Inevitably, some hunted animals suffer. Even skilled hunters who make a high proportion of clean kills sometimes only wound, and the skills of recreational hunters vary. Hunters acknowledge animal suffering: The environmental philosopher and hunting defender Robert Loftin regarded it as “the most serious argument that can be advanced against sport hunting” (Loftin 1984, p. 146). Hunting codes thus require hunters to acquire and practice the skills necessary for a quick and painless kill and always to follow wounded animals. Those who oppose hunting on the grounds that it causes suffering also must oppose the suffering caused in meat production and research.

Hunting and Conservation

There is considerable evidence that subsistence and commercial hunting have contributed to loss of biodiversity, including the extinction of some species. However, in the history of environmental ethics there have been advocates of respect for the natural order who were recreational hunters. Aldo Leopold wrote, “[T]he man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph, or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him …. There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota” (Leopold 1949, p. 227).

Others, such as Ortega y Gasset, saw hunting as a way for humans to reconnect with nature and participate in the land community. The ecologist Erik K. Fritzell wrote, “When I hunt I am immersed mentally, physically and even spiritually in an age-old predatory relationship among animals. I am participating in a common ecological process” (Fritzell 2004). Causey stated: “[T]he drive in sport hunting is to be a link in the chain of nature, connected as predator to prey”; the hunter “regards his prey with admiration, reverence and respect” (Causey 1989, pp. 332-333).

Hunting and Character

Traditionally, hunting has been seen as promoting virtue. The Greek mercenary and historian Xenophon (c. 431-c. 355B.C.E.) wrote of “the health which will thereby accrue to the physical frame, the quickening of the eye and ear, the defiance of old age, and last, but not least, the warlike training which it ensures” (Xenophon, Cynegeticus).

However, hunting sometimes is seen as sadistic and cruel and is associated with serious crime against humans. According to the Fund for Animals, “Children raised in a hunting culture, sometimes wearing hunting garb and employing hunting tactics, like [the Jonesboro massacre murderers] Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, have been killing other children with hunting weapons at a stunning rate … Now the question must be asked: Is the hunting industry's program for recruiting children into hunting also contributing to our national epidemic of children killing children?” (Fund for Animals 2000).

In contrast, the German social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm stated: “The idea that hunting produces pleasure in torture is an unsubstantiated and most implausible statement. Hunters as a rule do not enjoy the suffering of the animal, and in fact a sadist who enjoys torture would make a poor hunter” (Fromm 1973, p. 131).

Ecological Hunting (Culling)

Ecological hunting, or culling, is the use of lethal means to remove animals or birds from a population to improve the quality of that population or prevent environmental degradation. Culling has been used for hundreds of years in the belief that it can improve future harvests of game animals by maintaining the carrying capacity of the animals’ range, allowing larger numbers of animals to be harvested sustainably, or by improving the quality of trophy animals.

Those goals can require very different culling strategies. To maximize the number of animals that can be harvested sustainably, game managers need to maximize the number of offspring that survive each year. At the highest population densities, average individual welfare is reduced and fewer offspring survive, so to maximize annual harvests the population must be maintained at a lower level, where its rate of growth is highest. That requires an emphasis on culling younger males to maximize the number of breeding females on the range. Management for quality trophy animals, by contrast, usually requires a culling strategy designed to maximize the number of larger, older males on the range. This requires an emphasis on culling both females and young males because mature males are generally heavier and consume more resources.

Purpose and Results

Contemporary environmentalists tend to emphasize the importance of culling to protect the health or integrity of ecosystems and preserve endangered species. Species introduced by human beings sometimes threaten native plant species. Goats introduced to San Clemente Island off the California coast in 1875 thrived in the absence of predators, but by the 1970s they had degraded the island's vegetation dramatically. Indigenous species also can transform their ecosystems significantly, however, especially when their natural predators have become extinct or their prehistoric ranges have been altered significantly by human settlement patterns. In the American Southwest, for instance, deer populations are believed to have soared after wolves and mountain lions were removed by humans interested in increasing deer harvests, and in parts of Africa numerous plant and bird species became threatened with extinction as the elephant habitat was splintered into small, isolated game parks.

Reactions and Criticisms

Proponents of holistic environmental ethics generally support culling to defend endangered ecosystems and species whether the threatened species’ members are sentient or not. Insofar as an ecocentric ethic would give ecosystem integrity or health top priority and a holistic ethic would give this and/or species’ continued existence top priority, consideration of the conscious experiences of members of culled species must take a back seat to preserving the threatened species and/or ecosystem.

Proponents of individualist sentience-oriented views such as utilitarianism and animal rights find culling more problematic because individualist views claim that only the lives or experiences of sentient individuals have intrinsic value. Therefore, if the culling is aimed at preserving species whose members are not sentient or at preserving ecosystems (which are not sentient even if some of the organisms they support are), an individualist would give top priority to the lives of the sentient animals targeted for culling. Accordingly, culling of goats on San Clemente Island and culling of elephants in African national parks have encountered strong resistance from animal rights groups.

A utilitarian perspective, which attributes intrinsic value to the experiences of all individuals capable of conscious suffering or enjoyment, could endorse culling insofar as it maintains the carrying capacity of a herd's range and thus maximizes the aggregate happiness of animals in future generations. That is, if allowing over-population causes suffering through starvation, disease, and conflict over scarce resources, reducing carrying capacity and limiting the number of animals that can live on the range in future generations, the suffering caused by culling (especially if it is done humanely) could be more than outweighed by the reduction of suffering from the stresses of overpopulation and the number of additional satisfactory future lives that are made possible by the culling.

A rights view, in contrast, could rule out culling altogether because rights often are characterized as trump cards against such aggregative, utilitarian arguments. To justify culling various individuals because the culling will reduce the suffering of others and maximize happiness across future generations, rights theorists argue, fails to respect them as individuals with rights.

A further complication within individualist views is introduced by the fact that various animals with similar population dynamics may have very different cognitive capacities. If one considers that these different cognitive capacities qualify the individuals for varying degrees of ethical respect, culling may be more difficult to justify in species such as elephants than it is in deer. Both are ungulates, and ungulates protected from predation have a general tendency to overpopulate and degrade the carrying capacity of their ranges. However, elephants are celebrated for cognitive capacities that deer are not thought to have, such as elaborate memory for events from many years before, sophisticated problem-solving abilities, and perhaps an auditory communication system that rivals that of humans in complexity. Individualists who hold that those cognitive capacities qualify their possessors for special kinds of respectful treatment, as individualists commonly claim in the case of normal human beings, may find it more difficult to justify culling elephants than to justify culling deer.

Birth control technologies and trapping with transfer to understocked ranges are nonlethal alternatives to culling, but both are far more expensive and can have untoward side effects. For example, as few as 15 percent of translocated deer survive for one year; reversible birth control techniques usually require repeated administration to a large percentage of the female population, which can disrupt their lives; and Kruger National Park in South Africa terminated experimental treatment of female elephants with estrogen after they exhibited false estrus, which led bulls to harass the cows so much that several of their calves died.


Angling is fishing using a hook and line. The more general term fishing refers to any form of hunting in which the prey is fish rather than land animals. The hook was developed from the more primitive gorge, a pointed object that is embedded in bait and sticks in a fish's gullet when the bait is swallowed. The hook can be baited with live animals (worms, minnows, even rats), bait produced by humans (bread, dough), or materials such as wool, feathers, and hair to produce an artificial lure. Snagging fish with a hook generally is not considered a form of angling, and when it occurs in angling, it is called foul hooking and considered an unfortunate accident. The term angling has been used to distinguish more sporting forms of fishing such as fly fishing from bait fishing.

Angling can be pursued with the primary goal of securing fish as food. When the food is an essential part of the diet, it is referred to as subsistence angling, and there are also forms of commercial angling. Angling can be pursued for its own sake, in which case one can speak of sport angling, though the catch may be eaten. Perhaps the earliest depiction of sport angling dates back to 1400 B.C.E. in Egypt, and angling as a pastime is found in cultures around the world, both ancient and modern.

The Literature of Angling

Beginning with the Treatyse of Fyshinge with an Angle (1496) and achieving an early high point with Izaak Walton'sThe Compleat Angler (1653), a major literature has developed around the sport of angling. That literature is dedicated to techniques and evocative accounts of angling, often including reflections on the meaning of angling for its devotees. A theme running through much of the literature is a concern to justify and recommend the sport as contributing to the health of both body and soul. Walton wrote, “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling” (Walton 1653, Part I, Ch. 5), and it did not occur to him to defend the angler against the charge of cruelty. As Arnold Gingrich noted in The Fishing in Print (1974), as early as 1577 a list of virtues of the angler was codified, including faith, hope, love, patience, humility, fortitude, knowledge, liberality, and prayer. However, by the eighteenth century the charge of barbarism and cruelty was being raised against anglers.

Ethical Issues

Angling raises ethical questions. From perspectives such as animal rights theory and some forms of biocentric egalitarianism, any angling that does not provide necessary nourishment is immoral and all sport angling inflicts pain and represents a failure to respect the inherent value of fish. In contrast to those lines of thought, in some approaches to environmental ethics human involvement in the ecological processes of life and death is valued. From this perspective responsible angling may be contrasted favorably with less interactive and more touristic ways of experiencing the natural world.

Even if angling is considered morally permissible, ethical issues arise within the practice. Fish that are to be eaten must be killed, and quick and humane killing of fish is part of some angling traditions, especially in Great Britain, where salmon anglers carry a short weighted club called a priest for administering “the last rites.” Similarly, anglers often are admonished to avoid tackle that is too light and thus prolongs the fight unnecessarily.

Some angling practices can be harmful to the environment: Angling can damage fish populations, the use of lead as a weight has polluted the environment and has been outlawed in some places, discarded fishing line can be lethal to wildlife, and hatchery fish stocked for anglers can have a harmful effect on wild and native fish. Anglers have introduced exotic species of game fish, sometimes with devastating results to ecosystem integrity, but anglers are also the most ardent defenders of endangered populations of wild and native fish and of water quality. Like hunters, anglers have played an important role in the development of conservation and wilderness protection.

The practice of catch and release angling is a twentieth-century, originally American strategy for protecting endangered populations of wild and native fish. Contrasting the value of fish as food with their value for sport, in 1939 Lee Wulff wrote, “Gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once” (Wulff 1939, p. xv), signaling a revolution in angling ethics. Releasing much or all of one's catch is a form of resource conservation. Some anglers consider catch and release angling to be morally superior even when keeping some fish to eat would not damage the fishery. In opposition to that development, the Irish philosopher A. A. Luce argued that although catching fish for food is defensible, “To hook trout and put them back into the water … is to inflict pain, however small the amount, unnecessarily, and it therefore comes under the definition of cruelty” (Luce 1993, p. 179). Many writers have responded to this argument by insisting that fish do not feel pain the way humans do, do not suffer, or are neurophysiologically incapable of feeling pain at all. Scientific study of the issue is inconclusive (compare the publications of James D. Rose with those of Michael K. Stoskopf).

As the practice of catch and release has spread, it has generated internal ethical problems. Where angling pressure is great, guides report that fish are weakened from being caught repeatedly and their mouths become disfigured from being hooked repeatedly. When the fish are harmed, the practice becomes questionable, and anglers have begun to ask whether it is time to restrict angling to catching a few fish to eat.

Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing is an ancient profession. In 1883 the biologist Thomas Huxley suggested that the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible. For decades Huxley appeared to be right. Between the 1950s and the 1990s the global fish harvest increased 400 percent, but in the first decade of the twenty-first century the picture changed.

Threats to the Fish Population

Naturally fluctuating populations and the inherent difficulty of gathering data from the oceans make it hard to get an accurate worldwide assessment of fish. In the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Central Pacific harvests of some species still are increasing. In the North Eastern Atlantic, Southwestern Atlantic, and Eastern Central Pacific marine harvests are generally in decline. The overall trend in wild fish harvests is cause for concern. Total global harvest of both inland and marine capture fish peaked at around 95 million metric tons per year in the late 1990s (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2006). By some estimates larger predatory fish declined by 90 percent in the second half of the twentieth century. The percentage of generally longer-lived and more slowly reproducing bottom fish is going down. Spawning stock of Western North Atlantic cod, a fish once so plentiful that mariners claimed one could scoop them out of the ocean in buckets, dropped from 1.6 million metric tons in 1962 to 22,000 metric tons at the closure of the fishery in 1992. Cascading ecological effects threaten all marine species. Marine mammals such as whales and sea lions found at the top of the food chain are particularly at risk.

Threats to the health of marine ecosystems include overfishing, land and marine-based pollution (including oil, aquaculture waste, and nutrification), and competition from species not previously found in the area. Global climate change poses further threats, such as ocean acidification, changes in the range of particular species, and habitat destruction from increasing temperatures and more violent storms.

Fishing Methods

The impact of commercial fishing on a specific ecosystem varies not only with the amount of fish harvested but also with the fishing technique used. Fishing methods range from the most environmentally sensitive, such as dive-caught and hand-gathered, to the most destructive, such as poisoning, explosives, and bottom trawling (Monterey Bay Aquarium 2007).

Trawling involves dragging a cone-shaped net through the water at selected depths. In bottom trawling the heavy, reinforced trawl net, sometimes with a rake on its lower lip to disturb the sediments, is dragged across the ocean floor. Purse seining involves surrounding fish schools with a long net. Once the fish are surrounded, the bottom of the net is drawn tight and the purse is winched slowly back onto the ship. Drift (or gill) netting involves hanging a net vertically in the water column to entangle moving fish. A set net is a type of gill net anchored to the shore and managed by one or two fishers from a small skiff. Long-lining involves putting lines of baited hooks in the ocean to soak before returning later to bring up the catch. Longlines can be suspended vertically in the water column, suspended horizontally at any depth, or placed on the ocean floor. Trolling involves dragging baited hooks through the water to catch fish feeding in the water column. Crabbers and lobster catchers put baited pots on the sea floor that they later winch onto their ships.


One of the most ethically problematic aspects of most commercial fishing is bycatch, or the catching of non-target species. Overall, fisheries bycatch is estimated to account for approximately 25 percent of the total harvest. However, because most boats in the worldwide fishing fleet do not have an observer from a regulatory agency on board, bycatch rates are hard to gauge accurately.

Bycatch mortality varies significantly by fishing method. In bottom trawling almost all the captured fish (both target and nontarget) suffocate in the net or when emptied onto the boat's deck. Trolling and rod and reel fishing generally give bycatch a better chance of survival. Lines typically are winched in as soon as a fish takes a hook, and nontarget species often can be released. Bycatch from purse seining depends on the target species. Seining for tuna can result in dolphin mortality because dolphins often swim near tuna. Seining for salmon typically involves little bycatch. In addition to nontarget fish, seabirds, turtles, octopuses, whales, and sea lions regularly fall victim to fishers. Some regulatory authorities, such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, permit a certain amount of bycatch to be retained for sale, with the remainder returned to the sea with minimum injury. Whatever method is used, fish brought up from great depths usually die when their stomachs are expelled through their mouths as a result of the change in pressure.

A number of devices and techniques have been developed by fishers to reduce bycatch. Turtle excluder devices (TEDs) can be attached to shrimp trawling nets to prevent sea turtles from drowning. Longline hooks can be deployed at night when birds are less active or between streamer lines so that circling birds avoid the baited hooks as they disappear under the water. Acoustic pingers can help scare off marine mammals such as whales and seals from potentially hazardous encounters with fishing gear (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2008).

Economic Effects and Regulatory Systems

Different fishing methods sustain local economies to different degrees. Trolling is often a small-scale operation performed by fishers from local towns and villages. Bottom trawling involves much heavier and more expensive equipment. In the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska trawlers tend to be multimillion-dollar vehicles owned by large corporations. Some of those boats process fish in the local communities, providing a boost to their economies. Others are large enough to process and freeze the fish on board. These big boats often do not dock for many weeks.

Regulatory systems for fisheries run from the global to the local (OceanLaw 2008). In 1994 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas came into effect, establishing Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) stretching two hundred miles from a nation's shore. In these zones a nation has sovereign rights to explore and exploit marine resources subject to the requirement that sustainable catch limits be determined and enforced by national law. The principle of maximum utilization mandated by the convention also requires that a state that is unable to harvest the entire allowable catch permit other countries to fish within its EEZ. Outside these zones the oceans are declared the “high seas,” and nations under any flag can fish those waters subject to the principle of maximum sustained yield. States with adjacent EEZs and states targeting fish on the high seas that migrate into EEZs are instructed by the convention to “seek, either directly or through appropriate sub regional or regional organizations, to agree upon the measures necessary for the conservation of these stocks in the adjacent areas.” Transnational organizations such as the European Community have established their own regulations for member states. There are numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements as well as individual national laws to protect fish populations.

Utilization and Conservation

Arriving at the right balance between optimum utilization and conservation presents significant management challenges. Fish species live most of their lives out of sight of resource managers. Some species are migratory. Proposed multilateral agreements often clash with traditional use patterns. Enforcement is difficult. The principle of maximum sustained yield that generally governs the use of marine resources at the international level may not coincide with the maintenance of biodiversity.

When agreements have been reached to conserve fish stocks, national governments have adopted a range of measures to reduce harvests. Some fisheries have become limited-entry, requiring boat owners to possess one of a fixed number of permits in order to fish. Banning of certain fishing gear, such as drift nets over 2.5 kilometers in the European Community, has reduced catch and bycatch. Seasonal restrictions, size limits, sex restrictions, and quotas are in use. Some governments have offered buy-back programs in which fishers receive a settlement in exchange for retiring their boats or permits. The establishment of a number of marine reserves or sanctuaries in which all fishing is banned has proved to be an effective method for protecting fish populations. Current marine reserves cover far less than 1 percent of the oceans, compared with about 4 percent of the terrestrial surface of the earth that is protected currently. Conventions against pollution, ocean dumping, and offshore drilling are also beneficial to fish populations.

In some cases conservation measures put in place in the last two decades have been effective in starting to restore populations. Increasing trends in catches are occurring in the highly regulated Northwest Atlantic and Northeast Pacific. Striped bass and North Atlantic swordfish are making a small comeback. Kelp beds off Los Angeles began rebounding after discharges into the ocean were reduced. Canada reopened its Atlantic cod fishery to limited catch. Increased management and enforcement regimes will be essential if these positive signs are to be replicated throughout world fisheries.