TCS Daily

The Angler Angle

By Roger Bate - March 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Whalers, game hunters, laboratory scientists and even their bankers, have all felt the brunt of animal rights campaigns; but recently the target was anglers. Driving around Britain a few years ago I saw posters of a dog with a hook through its lip adorning billboards. The caption read: "If you wouldn't do this to a dog, why do it to a fish?" These posters were part of a $45 million campaign of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), to outlaw fishing in Britain.

Although PETA would not miss the anglers if they quit in fear, the fish surely would. Like the hunters who want large numbers of elephants, foxes and pheasants to chase, anglers want lots of fish and for that they need clean water. It is anglers who have been the guardians of the British riverine environment for the past half-century -- before any of the pressure groups even started.

Stretching morality and animal physiology to its limit, PETA claimed that "when it comes to feelings a boy is a dog is a fish." In effect, PETA demanded rights for fish and wanted to be the fish's spokes-organisation. PETA even seemed willing to engage in biblical cleansing. Apparently "there is strong evidence suggesting that Jesus was a vegetarian," according to PETA's web site. The "evidence" comes from PETA's assertion that the Son of God only ate fish after the Resurrection, and that fish references were late additions to the Gospels. It's possible that PETA has convinced many Christian revisionist vegetarians of this "fact," and it might influence others. After all, government agencies seem to believe that they can convince young people that movie stars like James Dean and Humphrey Bogart never smoked, by airbrushing out the cigarettes from their portraits.

PETA's other arguments rest on bizarre assertions that eating fish is dangerous fish might contain synthetic chemicals. PETA provides no real evidence of any likely harm and, like all pressure groups, ignores the fact that it's the concentration, not merely the presence, of these chemicals that can cause problems.

But superficially PETA's strongest claims are that angling causes harm to other wildlife -- "Countless birds and other animals suffer and many die, swallowing or becoming entangled in discarded fish hooks, microfilament lines and lead weights." And of the over one million registered anglers in Britain no doubt there is the irresponsible tiny minority who discard fishing equipment without regard to its effects. As a rower, I have seen the problems caused by line entanglement for swans and other birds on rivers in the UK. The effects are potentially fatal to the swan and cause much distress to people walking on river banks, most of whom don't know how to help - angry swans can easily break your arm so intervention is far from easy.

But these are the exceptions. There are hundred of miles of British rivers that would have no wildlife in them at all were it not for anglers, angling groups and landowners with fishing interests.

The man who did more than anyone else to prevent pollution was a lawyer named John Eastwood. In 1948 Eastwood established the Anglers Conservation Association, which has brought actions against polluters to ensure clean rivers ever since. Unlike the publicity seeking PETA the ACA quietly goes about its business of indemnifying anglers against the costs of bringing litigation against polluters. It asks a modest fee of about $15 a year for individuals and $150 for clubs, and for this payment, it will bring actions against polluters to recover costs, and seek injunctions to prevent further pollution. The threat of jail for those breaching an injunction has been a credible defence against further pollution.

In its 50 year history the ACA has brought over 2000 actions, winning millions of dollars in compensation and crucially hundreds of injunctions from polluters. From the source of rivers to their estuaries, the ACA cleaned up many of Britain's erstwhile industrial rivers, while the government remained impotent to resolve the problem, and was often the cause. The ACA's most famous case was brought in 1952. Various plaintiffs, including the Pride of Derby Angling Club, brought an action against local businesses and local authority sewage works to stop them polluting the rivers Derwent and Trent, which had become "a hellsbrew of bubbling filth" according to ACA lawyer, Stratton Gerrish. The plaintiffs won injunctions against government and business polluters who cleaned up their activities and paid for re-stocking of the rivers with the correct species of fish.

I recently visited the stretch of the Derwent that had previously been polluted. It is now a major leisure area with football pitches, nature walks and plenty of fishing. I imagine that few, if any, of the anglers on the river are aware of the man that made it all possible. Unfortunately, they likely will all know about the latest PETA campaign.

In the past two decades attacks on fishermen have increased significantly. In 1993 a 72-year-old angler from Birmingham was brutally attacked by anti-fishing thugs; he was lucky to escape with his life. Reports of disruption at angling events are now almost as common as at fox hunts. But unlike fox hunters and indeed whalers and elephant trophy hunters, anglers often are loners, making them easy targets. It will be regrettable if PETA's campaign reduces the number of anglers. Not only is angling a peaceful and ethically acceptable pastime, participants also are the best monitors of pollution. And as any water bailiff, policemen or customs agent will tell you, the probability of being caught (far more than the severity of punishment) is the key to keeping offences low. Anglers are the water pollution policeman. Long may their private interest continue to serve the public good.

Dr. Bate's article on the ACA "Saving Our Streams" is published by Fordham Environmental Law Journal this month.


TCS Daily Archives