"Save the whales! Hug a tree! I eat meat, I eat meat, I eat meat! Chipped ham especially!" yelled a mulleted gentlemen toward the dozen or so activists gathered in Saturday's blazing heat outside the Mellon Arena, where the Citgo Bassmaster Classic weigh-in was taking place.
The activists, members of Voices for Animals, mostly shrugged off such comments, attempting, with some success, to engage Arena visitors in dialogue about what they say is the inherent cruelty of sport fishing.
"Fish have very complex nervous systems," says Marc Rawlings, a VFA volunteer. "They have the ability to think and feel just like advanced primates." He adds that, in the absence of limbs, a fish's mouth is its primary means of manipulating the world around it, and that a hook-damaged mouth puts a fish at a distinct disadvantage for survival after its release.
In addition to VFA's action, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals weighed in against the tournament with a billboard along Route 51. The billboard features an unsettling, computer-altered image of a dog, appearing to have been hooked through the lip, bearing the slogan "If you wouldn't do this to a dog, why do it to a fish?"
"Fishers would be thrown in jail if they treated other animals like they treat fish," says Karin Robertson, manager of PETA's Fish Empathy Project -- a group that last made waves in Pittsburgh when Bubba the Giant Lobster briefly captured the nation's curiosity in March, when he surfaced at Wholey's Market but didn't survive a journey to the Pittsburgh Zoo.
"The billboard doesn't go far enough," Robertson says. "It doesn't show the dog being suffocated or being hooked in the eye or the leg. Many fish, because of the stress and fear, will not survive."
Scientific studies arrive at different conclusions on the ability of fish to feel pain. Literature VFA was handing out cites studies from Melbourne University claiming that they do. Tournament organizers cite work done at the University of Wyoming saying they don't.
Tom Hayes is an aquarist at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, where bass are among his finny charges. He concludes that fish probably feel pain, like any animal, but that it's difficult to evaluate how much. The billboard, he says, is "a poor analogy. A dog definitely shows genuine love. I don't know if a fish has that capability."
VFA, PETA and tournament organizers all agree that some fish do die after being released, but that it's extremely difficult to determine hard figures. PETA says about 60 percent die, tournament literature say the number is closer to 40 percent.
The tournament had conservationists on hand to ensure that fish were treated according to harm-minimizing protocols. Bringing in a dead fish carried a four-ounce penalty toward an angler's overall total. (This year's winner, Kevin VanDam, incurred one such penalty.) BASS, the organization behind the tournament, introduced the concept of catch-and-release, says Noreen Clough, conservation director for BASS ESPN Outdoor.
"To a man, these anglers have a high conservation ethic," Clough says. "Conservation is probably one of the biggest legacies of BASS."