Impressions about fish and fishing

A short and unillustrated note about the latest weeks of daydreaming onboard. The unambiguous conclusion: much reflexion is needed about fish.

Las Vueltas, Canarias: a large ray lurks on the muddy bottom of the harbour. A row of German holidaymakers, children and unemployed fishermen gesticulate at it from the dock. The beast hovers in a strange shiver above the mud, the edges of its body oscillating in a fine sinusoid, and reaches the concrete stairs that lead to the surface. There it comes up, heaving its head (is there such a thing as the head of a ray?) above the water. Its branchia, I notice, are two gaping holes that pierce its body, and through which the water rushes as the ebbing tide on a rocky shore. And the fish, nay, not a fish, the chondrychtian, well, that watery creature – as it takes its gray face out of the sea – escapes its liquid domain: its hard and angular temples, the position of its eyes, and the wrinkles on its old forehead are the likeness of the thoughful elephant; the sly and yellow eyes above the glaze of the surface that of the crocodile, the palpating rosy lip that taps on the stairs are like that of a horse.

And the glance, the sarcastic and cold glance that searches me is that of a man.

But all these familiar traits are thrown together without order, without a neck, a nose, a visible mouth, without limbs, it is a giant body, no, a giant face, something beyond a face, something speechless and yet it talks. And there it is, suddenly obvious: the ray is scarred. The wrinkles, the sarcasm, the decision to overcome the fear and break the surface to contemplate humans – these are the marks of time over the body and spirit of the ray. The unwordly creature remains motionless and snorting for a minute, then sluggishly turns its soft body and lurks back to the mud.


For humans, us talkative animals, fish have one unforgivable weakness: they don’t tell tales. They have no speech, no sound, no cries – their faces are set and hard, without smile or expression – their eyes appear alive when they are dead (have they ever been really alive at all then?) – it has not been given them to explain. But more than that: the smooth, shining, always slick and new body of the fish appears to have no history: their surface seems always young and renewed, unlike the coarse and wounded skin of the sperm whale that bears the traces of its deep feats in the hunt for giant squids, or the rocky body of the right whale that increasingly looks like an island where there is no island, and realises the unique destiny of turning back into the silent stone even before its death.

Not only has fish no means to tell a story: it seems to have no story to tell. Thus is meaning robbed from its death: the dying fish doesn’t appear to loose more than the instant, and its life, to us, is summed up in its last gasp. Of the meanders of its underwater existence, we are allowed to ignore everything.

Recently still, I used to catch and eat trouts in the lakes of Norway, without wondering too much about the broader meaning of the action. Trouts seem a little like the characters of Sade’s puzzling novels, or, rather, like Coyote in the cruel Roadrunner cartoons: they go through pain and implicitly death (think of Coyote falling down those cliffs…), yet always come back renewed, and ready for more pain. When you catch a trout, all you see is the shining fish miraculously breaking the surface like a fruit. Come again later, and the miracle will happen again: same lake, same rock, same line, same fish – nothing appears to have changed through the previous catch.

Death has not effectively been given, since nothing has been missed. Of course, something has changed out of my reach, below the surface – but does this even mean anything? To the human eye, death did not seem to apply to the fish at all.

Now, what is really going on with that fish? A great idea is that of the theory of mind, that us humans possess to a rather high degree: faced with another human, we are able to assume that it has a mind of its own, broadly similar to our own, but with different contents and emotions – we can think of it as a worthy, alike, and slightly alien being. We may occasionnally extend that to dogs, cats, horses, and apes, when we find it useful, and we can conceive that our pet, when it looks at us, is thinking something that we could try to guess. Now, fish are not really helping us here.

They give us very little clues as to what goes on behind their keratinous foreheads. We may deduce affects such as fear or enthusiasm through hormone balance and thermic behaviour, but these are just figures and measurements – there is a long way to the interpreted feelings. And is there even such a thing as a fish?

Think of the gap between the spawn-and-die Herring and the slow, cunning and thoughtful Grouper or the lonely Swordfish. One could be imaginative engouh to admit that the sedentary Grouper may have some habits, some knowledge of its particular surroundings, some experience: it has probably forgotten how it first got used to lie behind that rock to take a nap, to stop being afraid of divers, to enjoy the taste of octopus, or how many years it has been since that ugly Murena started living in the hole yonder, yet all that is now part of its universe, and if ever it grasps the concept of its own eventual demise, it will probably sigh thinking it will miss all that. But how about the pelagic mackerell that makes its life lost in a featureless blue haze, tucked between other mackerells, darting along and mirroring every movements of its fellows?

Humans, with their love for materiality – singular objects, clothes, places – struggle to imagine that individuality could develop in a purely internal way, without physical, external markers. Yet look at a crowd, on the platform of the underground at rush hour: despite all visible singularities, that school of humans does not seem so far removed from a school of anchovies.

Now, of course, one could choose to simply not care. What is a little special here onboard, is that we do have to think and decide. Generally we do not ship any meat – just heaps of fruit, vegetable, beans and cereals. If we wish to eat an animal – a fish – we need to go out of our way to catch it. This is already a very healthy step: there’s no euphemism. You will need to catch, kill, gut and cook the creature you eat. However, we now come to terms with the question: do I want to eat you so very much, that I will go out of my way to catch and kill you? Or would it just do with rice, avocado and lemon? We may try to think of some ecological guidelines: no top predators like sworfish or shark, as they are fewer and more central to ecosystem function. But then, once the question is asked, it does seem a little unfair to decide whom to kill only based on how useful they are. That suddenly seems like a heavy decision.

Las Vueltas again. The boats that catch tuna fish stay at the dock for the night. In lieue of bait, they use small live fish that they capture along the shore. Throughout the night, these remain in brightly lit basins on the decks, swimming around and visibly uncomfortable in that bleak setting. They are on death row. Tomorrow, they will be caught carelessly by the fishermen, cut into pieces while still alive, and used to lure and kill the more valuable tuna. As we look at the scene, it is impossible to deny them pity, and releasing them into the sea seems the only sensible, human idea. The notions of ecological value of the species, of stock status, or of the level of consciousness and intelligence of the species are now obviously irrelevant and yield to direct and brutal empathy: we are faced with something alive that is about to die an unnecessary death – and everything in ourselves echoes that violent need not to die.

Here is the state of things. I sometimes feel slightly angry at fish for naggingly refusing to communicate with me, for being so obstinately opaque, and denying me the sound bases of decision. I feel jealous of the stories they refuse to tell me, the tales of ‘breathing water’ and flying without effort in the pure colour cloud of the sea, the focused and passionnate swimming-forward, the ignorance of the tempest, and the whirling feeling of the shoal that is probably not very far removed from the collective delirium of the church offices, soccer matches or political protests. And I do feel sorry for not even granting them the possiblity of a consciousness everytime the fisherman has plucked one of them out of the sea like the reaper a silent cob from the waving corn fields.

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