Colombia Constitutional Court rules sport fishing unconstitutional

The Constitutional Court of Colombia considers recreational fishing unconstitutional on the grounds of animal cruelty and the precautionary principle.

Sport fishing
© Laura Stanley

The Constitutional Court of Colombia on May 2 ruled that recreational fishing was unconstitutional because it is a form of animal cruelty. It also applied the precautionary principle.

The Court considers that sport fishing, even the activity of catching and then releasing a fish, violates the precautionary principle as well as the prohibition of animal abuse and as such “must be excluded from the legal system”. The decision was adopted by eight votes in favor and one against. The unconstitutionality will start to apply in a year.

There is a constitutional mandate for the protection of the environment in Colombia. Exceptions to the prohibition of animal suffering are only granted for religious, food, cultural or scientific reasons, and the Court considers sport fishing is not one of them.

The decision was also made regardless of whether fish are sentient beings and applied the precautionary principle. For the Court, it is not possible to know with “absolute certainty the harmful consequences of sport fishing, in terms of animal protection and animal welfare, nor the impact on hydro-biological resources”. But it finds that “relevant scientific information exists that requires avoiding harmful impacts on these animals and their environments,” concluding that “exclusion of the activity should be preferred”.

However, this precautionary principle applied to whether fish are sentient beings raised some comments from the judges.

The Constitutional Court in 2019 ruled that leisure hunting was unconstitutional on the grounds of animal cruelty. But there was no principle of precaution involved about the sensitivity of the animals.

For Judge José Fernando Reyes, the current ruling falls short on a key issue: It considers the sensitivity of fish only in the cases of recreational, leisure or fishing tourism. Yet, all types of fishing are not banned since it will still be authorized for industrial, subsistence, scientific, conservation or control purposes.

Judge Jorge Enrique Ibáñez, who voted in favor of banning recreational fishing, felt that “the life of an animal is more protected than the right to life of the human species who is about to be born”. Judge Cristina Pardo, the only one who voted against the ban, brought the same argument: It would contradict the Court position on human dignity, as a reference to the decriminalization of abortion.

The Constitutional Court in February, in a tight vote, decriminalized abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy, a historical decision in this Catholic country. But for the two judges, it would be inconsistent to consider fish as sentient beings based on the precautionary principle and not apply the same principle to a 24-week fetus.

Colombia, the only South American country with coastlines in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and with many internal rivers going through a great variety of ecosystems, is a popular destination for international game fishing.

In an interview with El Espectador, the director of the Colombian Association of Pisciculture and Fishing considers the ban would have economic consequences, including for some local and indigenous communities who work with fishing tourism. He also considers that banning a catch-and-release approach to fishing would be detrimental to the animal conservation of many species. It is likely that people find a way around the ban. In recreational fishing, many still eat the fish after they catch it.

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