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Ouch!

A new finding that fish feel pain has set off a tortured debate about the ethics of angling.

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PETA's Rivas-Rivas agrees with Sneddon. "We can't prove whether fish have an emotional experience or not, because they’re not speaking to you. But simply because they don't scream in pain in the way that we understand does not mean that they're not feeling pain."

Sneddon next wants to see if a trout's reaction to bee venom injections is sufficiently severe to prevent it from engaging in other behaviors, such as responding to fear. This line of inquiry will reveal just how strong the pain—or whatever the experience should be called—actually is.

Her work could throw fishing ethics into disarray. For many years people who practiced "catch and release," a kind of fishing in which the quarry is turned loose as gently as possible in order to keep fish populations high, held the sport's moral high ground. But if pain is a consideration, the fisherman who fishes only for food could displace those indulging in wanton cruelty.

Frazier says Sneddon's research doesn't surprise him. "I've seen fish I've released do things that look as if they're hurt. So I've never doubted that they didn't feel it in some real way."

Why, then, does he continue to fish? "The only reason just sounds selfish," he says. "I do it because I feel like it, and because my desire to do it overwhelms my guilt about it." Most people who cast for trout, he says, understand that the hard truth about nature is that what runs through it is a river of blood. "Fishing is one of the few remaining ways we have in this technological, crowded world to maintain a bond with nature."

"The fact that I'm causing pain is never out of my mind," Frazier adds. "I'm not going to say I'll give up fishing, because that's just not going to happen. But I make it part of how I fish. I watch more and fish less."

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