Fishing: Unusual sting in a whale tale

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The Independent Online
The politically correct animal lobby cannot have been pleased with the news that killer whales are playing Frisbee with sting rays. According to New Scientist, the whales dive down as deep as 120ft to capture the 6ft rays, then take them up to the surface to play catch.

Ingrid Visser, the researcher who observed this behaviour off New Zealand, speculated that the whales may have been doing this to avoid being stung by the rays' barbed tails, or to show young whales how to tackle dangerous prey. While it is obviously a great game if you're a killer whale, it can't be a lot of fun for the sting rays. And it sounds uncommonly like the thing I was told never to do - play with my food.

It may come as a surprise to discover that killer whales would bother with anything as spiky and troublesome as a sting ray, when they have more yummy food such as tuna, salmon and seals in the larder. But rays are popular grub with certain predators. The great white shark, for example, does not like rough weather and often sits on the bottom. At such times, instead of eating seals (its favourite food) or surfers, it gorges on rays.

Of course, the killer whales may just wanna have fun, though I shall not be using "101 Things to do with a Sting Ray" as a defence of angling. This is something I am occasionally required to do as part of a radio debate. What generally happens is that I am hauled in because some particularly bizarre fishing story is in the news. Listeners are invited to call in, and there is invariably one who berates me for sticking huge hooks in poor little fishy mouths, ripping their mouths to remove the hook then leaving them gasping to die.

It's no good saying that it's not like that. If these callers had any sense of humour, which they invariably don't, I could tell them some really gory horror stories from my dusty angling tomes. Ruffe, a small, insignificant fish with purple eyes, had a tendency to grab and swallow bait meant for larger fish, so it was commonplace to stick a cork on its barbed dorsal fin and let it bob off helplessly downriver. Perch, which have a similarly proud back fin, were a popular livebait but our forebears believed that pike would not eat the perch because of that spiky fin - so they cut it off. On rivers such as the Test, where anglers just wanted to fish for trout, salmon were once snared out by all manner of foul means, and buried alive in pits, like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story.

Such stories are barbaric. But this was the time when rare birds were hunted to extinction to satisfy the millinery trade, when museum taxidermy was a flourishing business, when even slavery was socially acceptable.

It's not easy to defend angling on the cruelty issue. I kill fish I am going to eat and put the others back in the water carefully. I'm not sure that I'm doing any more harm to the fish (and probably a lot less) than a jockey to a horse or a farmer to a cow. It's also difficult to equate fish with horses. Where do you stop?

I was once accused in a radio interview of being cruel to worms by putting them on a hook. The caller agreed that by extension, maggots, flies, mussels and crabs were also unacceptable. Because I was a higher life form than a worm, I agreed that it did not give me the right to take advantage over it, but where does it all end? By not stepping on ants? By not swatting mosquitoes? By saying: "Rats are our friends"?

I asked the caller (who, you will not be surprised to hear, was a vegan) if, assuming that I was going to continue to fish, I could use a bait that was acceptable to her. Her memorable reply, which didn't exactly answer my question, was: "Even lettuces scream when you pull them out of the ground, you know."

I just hope the killer whales will remember that the next time they choose to play Catch the Sting Ray.