• Becci Pigeon

Helping humans, hurting fish: a prescription for angling?

Over the past couple of years, multiple fascinating studies have come out proving that birdwatching--or even simply having birds nearby--provides a massive boost to our mental health. In fact, a book called Bird Therapy was written by Joe Harkness, a man whose depression, OCD and anxiety drove him nearly to take his own life before he discovered birdwatching.

This should not be a surprise: spending time in nature, even just a small local park, has been known for many years to be helpful for poor health. As a person living with multiple chronic illnesses, I can testify to the difference it makes for me. One thing that's wonderful about birdwatching is that it can be as cheap (or as expensive) as you like. It requires a minimum of time and committment to enjoy, but if you want to go all in and devote your entire life to it, that's a possibility as well. You can do it alone or in a group, while sitting still or while taking a hike. It can even be done in the city! And if you intend to identify birds, you need a pair of binoculars and a field guide...but that's it. (Binoculars can be very expensive but much cheaper ones are available; I started out on a pair that cost about £10.) There are even free apps that can help you.

But what is the latest plan to improve people's health?

Rather than harmlessly watching wild animals going about their lives, people are being encouraged to tear them out of their habitats...and kill them. The Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust is prescribing and funding angling for people suffering from serious mental health issues. Participants cite its meditative quality, the fact that it gets them outside and into nature and the triumph they feel upon catching a fish. What is interesting is that exactly zero of these things are exclusive to angling. As I can cite from experience, birding is intensely meditative and calming. And sometimes it's thrilling! You can even catch a bird, sort of--many birdwatchers keep lists of the different species they see and a new 'tick' for your list is a cause for celebration. (As with angling, people can get pretty competitive!) Angling is not a cheap endeavour, as they point out in the article, but the NHS is funding it--surely they could fund the provision of, in the very least, field guides and binoculars.

To be clear, I have enormous empathy for other folks dealing with mental and physical health conditions, and I applaud the idea of nature therapy. None of my judgement rests on the individuals taking part in this program. But unfortunately, the program forgets all about the fish themselves. Despite what public perception might indicate, there is no longer any debate in the scientific community as to whether fish feel pain. And while the real culprits when it comes to overfishing are big, industrial ships (and, of course, the people who support them by consuming fish), surely a time when the vast majority of fish populations are in freefall is not the ideal one to encourage people to get out there and kill more of them. Even 'catch-and-release' is far from harmless: an average of 18% of fish die afterwards, and as much as 43% in some species. And others who survive may find their injuries inhibit their ability to feed.

People who are ill and hurting need help, of course--but surely we can provide it without hurting others along the way.

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