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Anti-fishing activists go against the tide at Jersey Shore
PETA representatives met with some indifference and polite rebuffs on Atlantic City's Boardwalk.
By Jacqueline L. Urgo
Inquirer Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY - Sandwiched between a roiling ocean full of fish and a restaurant full of people eating fish, three activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spent the lunch hour yesterday on the Boardwalk trying to make a simple point: Fish have feelings, too.

Although most people streamed quickly past, pretending not to see the two young women holding large PETA placards and another casting a rod with a stuffed-toy border collie puppy attached to one end, a few took the bait.

The placards challenged passersby with the question, "If you wouldn't do this to a dog, why do it to a fish?"

"Good question. I never thought of it that way," said Mary Jane Morgan, a retired teacher from Pottstown on her way to the Evo restaurant inside the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino. "I'm probably still going to have some steamers and seared tuna when I go in there, but it is something to think about."

Two years ago, PETA launched a campaign to get people to stop eating seafood by pointing out the dangers of PCBs, mercury and other poisons found in varying levels in fish.

And while the group contends that the campaign led thousands of fish- and meat-eaters to convert to vegetarianism, the latest effort in PETA's Fish Empathy Project is aimed at the emotions of fishermen.

In New Jersey, where sportfishing is a $15 billion-a-year industry, getting anglers to quit may be like swimming against the tide.

"Not going to happen for me," Jim Nagle of Bridgeton said as he handed the brochure back to the activists. "Thanks, anyway."

No U.S. laws regulate the treatment of fish in the nation's $116 billion-a-year sportfishing industry, in commercial fisheries, or on fish farms. When caught, fish undergo decompression and are suffocated or crushed to death after being hooked or netted. Such treatment of dogs or cats would warrant felony charges of cruelty to animals, according to PETA.

So the organization is using scientific research suggesting that fish are far more intelligent than they appear and possess higher cognitive abilities that allow them to feel pain and retain memories, said Karin Robertson, the project's manager.

Fish have excellent memories, according to a University of Edinburgh study that showed that fish that learned to escape from a net retained the ability for 11 months, the equivalent of humans recalling a lesson from 40 years before, PETA said.

Fish can also learn by watching other fish, recognize and remember one another, and exhibit behaviors similar to those of primates, according to research funded by Fish and Fisheries magazine. An Oxford University study determined that fish can complete mental tasks too complicated for dogs.

Robertson said the group staged a protest Tuesday in New Haven, Conn., and was headed to Salisbury, Md., tomorrow. Yesterday it left Atlantic City to catch the dinner crowd in Wilmington.

"The idea is to make people aware, make people think about what they are doing," Robertson said as she handed out brochures. "People would never think of impaling a dog with a hook and dragging it behind a car, but that's what anglers do when they impale a fish with a hook and drag it behind a boat."

Even sportfishermen who believe that the practice of catch-and-release is humane are wrong, Robertson said.

About 43 percent of fish die when caught and released because of internal injuries, exhaustion, and the loss of their protective coating, according to an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation study mentioned in PETA's brochures.

One that got away from PETA yesterday was Mike DeVore, 37, who grew up in the Midwest but moved to New Jersey five years ago to satisfy his craving to "breathe, eat, sleep fishing."

"It's a sport I love - and when I'm not working, I'm fishing, whether it's out on my boat or on a little creek somewhere," said DeVore, of Absecon.

DeVore, who owns a golden retriever, was lured to the protest by the dangling toy puppy.

He snickered at a suggestion in the PETA brochure that he should try hiking, canoeing, snorkeling or bird-watching instead of fishing.

"Maybe if I move back to Missouri, but not as long as I'm living here," DeVore said as he pointed to the ocean.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com

 

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