Illustration by Siena Laws

When you go to a fair or carnival, what do you see? Rides? Kettle Corn? . . .  A prize fish in a plastic bag? Not anymore, at least not in Berkeley. Last week, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to make the use of fish as prizes at carnivals and fairs illegal.

The bill was put forward by Councilman Kriss Worthington. “The main idea is to build momentum to add fish to the CA state law that already protects rabbits, ducks and fowls. If several cities adopt policy it will be more likely to lead to state action,” Worthington said.

Berkeley is one of the first cities to pass a bill like this, but similar legislation has been passed in other parts of the country. As reported by the Secretary for the Berkeley Coalition for Animals, Jay Quigley, four states already have laws against the sale of fish at carnivals.

The idea to put forward this bill was that of one of Worthington’s interns, Simone Stevens.

Stevens said, “The practice of giving away fish as prizes is unnecessary and cruel.” She continued, “In California, it’s already illegal to use rabbits or fowl as prizes, so it makes sense and is so simple to just extend those protections to fish, and any other animal that has the misfortune of being a fair prize.”

Although many other animals have been given rights and legal protection, fish have always been a gray area. Many justify what some deem the mistreatment of fish with the belief that they are non-sentient, though fish are sentient and experience pain. A paper written by Culum Brown, a professor of fish biology at Macquarie University in Australia, entitled “Fish Intelligence: Sentience and Ethics,” states, “Fish’s perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates intelligence.”

Stevens said, “The fish that do make it to a home sometimes get flushed down the toilet when the reality of the responsibility of caring for a real live animal sinks in.”

Advocates for the legislation stated that their concerns are also environmental. They cite examples of foreign animals being put in unfamiliar habitats, resulting in negative impacts to a surrounding ecosystem. “[I]f they don’t wind up in the toilet they are often dumped into local streams, where they can die of starvation and pose risks to native ecosystems,” Stevens said.

One other argument that advocates of the bill have given is that if people want a pet fish, this is not the way to go.

“Some of the people who win goldfish genuinely wish to be good pet owners, but without proper knowledge of how to care for them, it doesn’t matter, and fish end up languishing in a small bowl, isolated and depressed for the rest of their dramatically diminished lifespan” said Stevens.

“If someone really wants a pet fish they can obtain them easily through a pet store where the staff will most likely be far more knowledgeable about proper fish care,” she said. “So the average person will have no trouble getting a pet fish if they truly desire one. What this bill does is make sure only people who actually want a fish get one and not those who will just abandon them.” This is a fundamental argument of any animal rights group. It is based on the idea of trying to do as little harm as possible to no harm to an animal.