Or: Why I gave up fishing
It was the silence that woke me in that dark hour before sunrise. Normally I’d be vaguely aware of the background rustle of leaves on the Blue Gums that edged our property. But that morning, nothing, only silence. Spurred by an instant shot of adrenaline I leapt out of bed, threw together some sandwiches, grabbed my fishing gear from the shed and whistled for Tramp, my faithful black Labrador.
By 4.50am I was cycling through the centre of my sleeping provincial town, over Main Street Bridge across the famous Mataura River, with just a brief stop to see how many trout were on the move. I turned right and headed downstream, Tramp padding contentedly by my side as the sun peeked over the still darkened hills.
Sunrise at the river on a windless crystal-blue morning was as close to heaven as anything I knew. Water glided serenely over smooth pebbles of the riverbed. Insects began stirring as warmth hit the water. Without wind the river was like the clearest glass and I could see trout hanging in front of the ripples or gliding near the surface in the deep rock pools.
I was such a successful angler I was nicknamed ‘Trout’. While my friends’ bedroom walls were lined with posters of bands, mine was lined with pictures from ‘Field and Stream’ and ‘Trout and Salmon’. I loved fishing and eating fish.
But now, over 40 years later, I finally stopped doing both.
Growing up in a farming community meant school holidays on the sheep farms of my relatives. The exuberant play of new spring lambs, their mothers quietly munching the lush sweet grass, flocks sleeping peacefully under the shelter of the sprawling Macrocarpa and the daily milking of the family cow are among my early memories of farming. I watched an occasional sheep being slaughtered, a relatively quick sacrifice to create our winter mutton stew and sizzling lamb chops. Death was an accepted part of life.
Those relatively bucolic early years slowly gave way to my growing awareness of the brutality of the freezing works to where the fat lambs were unceremoniously sent each year. Larger, more ominous trends were underway. Farming was transforming in many places from small scale family farms to large scale industrial systems, driven by distant capital investment. The world’s population was rapidly growing and factory farming was emerging in all its technological efficiency and scientifically justified cruelty. I became increasingly concerned about the environmental damage of large-scale industrialised agriculture and the way sentient animals were transformed into economic commodities. I decided I needed to step away from this form of exploitation. I stopped eating meat.
But I still caught and ate fishes.
A large number of vegetarians eat fishes (technically a pescatarian diet), suggesting fishes are not viewed, strictly speaking, as meat. This distinction between fish and meat is commonplace and ran deep in the Catholic community in which I was raised. Friday was a no-meat day to, somehow, acknowledge the sacrifice of Jesus. Fortunately, the Saviour’s suffering gave us ‘fish and chip’ night, one of the culinary highlights of my childhood.
This idea that fishes are not ‘meat’ reflects a common belief that they are different from ‘animals’ and lower down the evolutionary ladder. Fishes, we believed, did not feel pain. Sure, they thrashed around when hooked, but we figured that was only a reflex.
A Fishy Silence
Until relatively recently, most scientific work on animal pain ignored fishes. Fishes are not mammals. Fishes do not look you in the eye like many mammals can. I remember looking into the eye of a pig in a University science lab some years ago. This poor creature had a tube surgically inserted into and back out of his stomach. He was confined to a tiny cage and couldn’t easily lie down. Pigs are deeply curious and highly intelligent; this one was clearly uncomfortable and frustrated with nothing to do. He looked me in the eye, pleading, it seemed to me, for some company, some diversion.
I’d never had that experience with any of the hundreds of trout I’ve caught. They are not like the farm animals of my upbringing, let alone my canine companion Tramp. Although our ancestors crawled from the oceans after cohabiting with fishes, we don’t have a natural affinity for the cold slimy creatures of the dark watery places.
Fishes are much older on the evolutionary ladder than mammals and birds and it was commonly thought this meant much more primitive. But fishes never stopped evolving after we parted company from them. In fact, most modern fishes only emerged about the same time as humans. As Brown, Leyland and Krause put it in Fish Cognition and Behavior:
The erroneous view that both behavioural and neural sophistications are associated in a linear progression from fishes through reptiles and birds to mammals is largely due to a heady mix of outdated and unscientific thinking. Aristotle’s concept of Scala naturae (the scale of nature) and a Christian fundamentalist view that man is the pinnacle of the natural world have dominated conceptions of animal intelligence for millennia
We have a bit of rethinking to do it seems.
Rethinking the Natural Order
A deep belief in western cultural thinking is that humans are the pinnacle of a natural linear progression from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ forms of life. There is no evidence for this. Evolutionary history is full of dead ends, mass extinction events and a fair amount of good luck. We were never an inevitable outcome of life’s evolutionary journey. Nevertheless, this myth of ‘progress’ does explain in part why we tend to dismiss the sentience and cognitive complexity of fishes. It is easier to treat fishes without much consideration if we believe they are lower on the evolutionary order. Hierarchies rule, it seemed.
While many indigenous peoples do not hold this view, it still exerts a strong grip in much of Western thinking, in our social and psychological identities. It is embedded in our language when we are told ‘don’t act like an animal’. We now know that humans are just as much ‘animal’ as a chimpanzee, pig, eagle or horse, sharing almost all our characteristics and genes with a large number of non-human species.
Of course, humans are not pigs, trouts or eagles, but this is really only a matter of degree rather than kind, as Darwin argued. We don’t have the best hearing, smell or vision. We are not the strongest, nor the fastest (though we are one of the best long-distance runners). We are not the only social learners, collaborators, tool users or even creators of culture. We are pretty ordinary in many ways, but when we do excel, we do so spectacularly.
Humans are spectacular at telling stories and in doing so creating fictional worlds that enables us to cooperate with large numbers of fellow humans. Many species cooperate, but none can do so at the same scale, nor through the creation of shared stories. This is one reason science is so valuable; it can investigate stories we tell ourselves and then refute or confirm that story. So …
Are Fishes Conscious?
This one is easy. It is now clearly recognised that many non-human animals, including fishes, are conscious, as the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness declares. Consciousness is the ability to have a subjective experience or awareness of something and is closely related to the idea of sentience, the ability for experiences to be both positive and negative. There is now significant agreement among the scientific community that fishes are not the unconscious automata they were previously assumed to be.
What else do we know about fishes? Quite a lot, though keep in mind researchers have only recently developed the tools to look into the brains and nervous systems of vertebrates. But now they are able to take a serious look into fishes’ behaviour, with some surprising results.
Fishes are Much Cleverer Than We Think
Many fish species have much more advanced cognition than was previously realised. For example, some have much better vision than humans and can be taken in by optical illusions, a complex cognitive ability shared by primates. This is how leading Australian fish biologist Culum Brown describes it:
Rather than seeing what is actually there, the vertebrate brain makes assumptions based on preconceptions … likely based on a mix of prior and neural circuitry.… Thus, the fish brain, like the primate brain, seems to examine objects as a whole rather than paying attention to particular parts. If certain parts of an object are missing, the brain fills them in.
The insult ‘fish brain’ looks a little shaky!
Many fishes have highly developed olfaction (smell) and taste that work similarly to humans and are used in a wide variety of behaviours such as mate selection, feeding, navigation and predator avoidance. Scientists have also shown fishes can accomplish a range of other cognitive tasks such as hearing and cerebral lateralisation (using one side of the brain over the other), just like humans do.
Fishes can do some quite remarkable cognitive feats of learning and memory. Rats, considered highly intelligent mammals, can learn how to predict when and where they will be fed. In one experiment food was provided for rats at a regular time but in different places in the enclosure according to a pattern they had to learn. The rats learned this pattern in about 19 days. Some species of fish (and some individuals are faster than others) can learn this in two weeks. Perhaps even more illuminating is the statement by fish biologist Stéphan Reebs: ‘For almost every feat of learning displayed by a mammal or a bird, one can find a similar example in fishes.’
Using geometric clues to find an object is a form of spatial learning and fishes can do this in a similar fashion to birds, humans and monkeys. Human toddlers, on the other hand, take until about six years of age to learn this. One notable example is rock pool dwelling gobies who live in tidal pools. They can remember how to return to their home pool at low tide even if they are up to 30 metres away, quite a feat when you are less than 10 cm long. They can also remember the location of surrounding pools after 60 days and can accurately jump between pools by relying on their spatial map (and memory) of the area. In another example, Rainbow fish were taught how to escape through a small hole in a large net. One year later, they could still remember the location of the hole, even though they had not seen the net in that time.
The commonly held myth that goldfish only have a two-second memory is also pure hubris. Given that many of them spend their entire lives in tiny and barren fish bowls, it is unsurprising a superficial look would conclude they are rather dull. I am quite certain that if I spent my life confined in a such a barren artificial environment, you’d come to a similar conclusion about me. Environment matters. When any species is held in a constrained artificial environment, it locks them out of learning, exploring and demonstrating their full cognitive capacity.
Social Learning and Fishy Culture
We learn to become a person. While we have some rudimentary instincts, we must be taught what we need to know in order to survive.
But surely fishes don’t need social learning? Well, the evidence is striking. There is now compelling evidence that many species have forms of social leaning and that some even have cultural traditions. Experiments with hatchery-raised salmon have shown that novice salmon learn from the more experienced salmon about what is safe to eat. Blue-head Wrasses have been shown to possess learned culture, that is, non-inheritable information passed across generations. These Wrasses have a number of specific mating sites they use from generation to generation, even though there are many other perfectly fine sites available. In a rather invasive experiment, researchers removed an entire local population of Wrasses, replacing them with another group from a different reef. The new group soon established different mating sites from the previous group, and remained steadfastly loyal to these new sites. In another experiment, Wrasse populations were entirely removed from their reef and then returned after a period of time. They went straight back to their old mating sites, demonstrating culturally transmitted tradition.
Cultural knowledge can also be lost, with significant impacts on those communities. As in other social groups, it is the older more informed members that pass on cultural information. For many fish species this includes migration routes. Commercial fishing tends to target larger and thus older fishes, resulting in a loss of this cultural information. This may be one of the reasons some fish populations fail to recover, even when they are no longer hunted.
A friend of mine trains dogs. The key, he told me, is to understand what each dog wants. Some are curious, relishing stimulation, others cautious and less confident. Some love working hard and others prefer a more … leisurely life! In other words, dogs are individuals with different personalities. What may surprise is that fishes also have personality differences. A study of round gobies in Switzerland’s Rhine River discovered that some gobies are bolder and less constrained by what other gobies were doing than others. These personality differences help predict the extent to which the gobies will take risks in crossing artificial barriers designed to help them migrate upstream. In other words, there are leaders and followers in goby communities, not unlike humans. Fish biologist Culum Brown told me there is actually no reason to suspect that individual personalities in fishes are any different from individual personalities in mammals or birds.
This is idea is not as novel as we might think. Darwin understood non-human animals experienced life as individuals, not just aggregates, and had different personalities. But this view was deemed too anthropocentric so it fell out of favour.
Many animals such as horses, dogs and chimpanzee recognise individuals in their own group. Fishes will also form stable groups and recognise individuals in those groups, preferring to hang out with their friends. It may be hard for us to recognise individual fish of the same species, but we are clearly missing something. Guppies can recognise up to fifteen individuals and shoal fish will choose the company of those individuals they know. This is smart. Being familiar with our group helps predict behaviour and it seems groups that know each other are better at avoiding predators than those who don’t.
Think your cat is smart by recognising your face? Don’t be so sure. Cats, it seems, are largely indifferent to human faces (though they do recognise their human slaves in other ways). Fishes, however, can recognise individual human faces. Furthermore, there are examples of what we could well call mutual relationships between fish and humans. In his book What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe provides some colourful and moving examples of the connections that some fishes have formed with some humans. These are the responses of individual fish to individual humans; like us, it seems that both fishes and people vary in their desire for connection.
There is much we are only just discovering about the lives of fishes. Another surprising example is the growing evidence of tool use, previously thought to be the exclusive domain of humans, some great apes and some bird species. Clearly, the Large Hadron Collider is a vastly more complex tool than a rock used by Wrasse to crack open a clam shell (though what use the well adapted Wrasses have for particle accelerators is of course an important consideration). Yet, the fact of tool use by fishes challenges our views of their intelligence, especially considering they have no hands, and fins are not well suited for manipulating tools. As Brown notes, ‘At least 9,000 species of fish build a nest of some sort, either for laying eggs, or for shelter from predators.
This is significant, given building is rather rare among other vertebrates apart from birds. Some of this may be instinctual, but in some species, tool use is correlated with larger brains. To date there has been little scientific attention to this aspect of fishes’ behaviour so there is, again, so much that we have yet to learn. The idea that humans are special in kind becomes less plausible the more we learn about the lives of fishes. This is even more important when it comes to the experience of pain.
I ended up at the hospital emergency department a few years ago with severe and persistent abdominal pains. I described my symptoms to the emergency medical staff and they took some blood and then gave me some (ever so welcome) morphine! The searing pain retreated leaving me blissed out. It turned out the pain was from my gallbladder. Three days later surgeons removed ‘that piece of evolutionary detritus’, as I began to refer to it.
Fortunately, the medical staff took my claim of pain seriously and didn’t ask for scientific proof that I was capable of experiencing pain. They had no medical test to measure my pain. All they had as hard data were blood tests and a CT scan, and that told them nothing of my inner experience. They could have said, ‘look, we can’t see any objective proof that you are actually experiencing pain’. To which I would have said, ‘But I feel it, and it is unbearable’.
The trouble with pain is that it is fundamentally a subjective and emotional experience. All the medical staff could do was to observe my behaviour (me bent over clutching my abdomen) and listen to my increasingly terse language. Because we can empathise, we take these external signs of an inner subjective experience seriously; ‘that poor fellow sure looks as if he is in pain’. But I could have been faking it (to get a free morphine shot, for instance).
This makes it particularly difficult to know how non-human animals actually experience pain. But we are even more handicapped because of the persistent idea that non-human animals might not feel pain, or at least, not feel it like we do. In the Western tradition this can be traced back to René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher who argued that animals do not experience pain and suffering because they lack consciousness.
This view about non-consciousness is now rejected by the majority of scientists. But what of pain? While a small number of researchers still maintain some still lingering doubt about whether fishes have the neurological ability to experience pain, this is no longer the majority view.
Pain has two main components.
(1) If I accidentally burn myself on my gas cooker an automatic reflex makes me instantly pull my hand back without thinking about it. This is called nociception, the neural processes of encoding and processing noxious stimuli and sending a rapid message to my nervous system. All animals, including humans, have this.
(2) Moments later, as my brain receives and processes the information from my nociceptors, I may then experience the feeling of pain. The pain experience is what teaches us to avoid putting our hand back on the gas cooker. While the reflex ensures our instant response to danger, the subsequent experience of pain is critical to learning what to avoid.
We know fishes have (1), the reflexive response to dangerous stimuli, as do humans. But that does not tell us what they experience (the second component of pain) and nothing of the emotional quality of that experience. That is private, and science can’t yet penetrate that.
You can see the problem. I can believe that other people experience pain because I trust the signs, which are, I assume, similar to my own experience of pain. But we cannot directly experience another person’s inner experience of their pain, even though we might empathise deeply. In the same way we do not have direct access to other animals’ inner experience of pain. The best we can do empirically is study the brain activity generated by pain and make some deductions from behavioural experiments.
The evidence for fishes feeling pain is just as good as it is for non-human mammals. Further, it is better than that for birds, reptiles and amphibians
Rainbow trouts were a prized target of my fishing days, partly due to their beautiful colours, but also because of their exceptional fighting qualities. I always quietly wondered if they felt pain when hooked. But given the way humans tend to treat fish (rather poorly in most cases), it was hard to reconcile that suspicion with the deep joy angling brought me.
Neuroscience research as far back as 2003 demonstrated that trouts have a large number of nociceptors in their mouths. So we know that they have the reflex component of pain. But what about the second main component, the emotional experience? There is now significant evidence that they experience pain on an emotional level.
When scientists gave painful injections of acetic acid into the lips of a group of rainbow trout, they showed clear signs of distress. When a sample from this group were also given morphine, which dulls the subjective experience of pain, they showed much less distress. While this shows pain alters the trouts’ behaviour, it does not necessarily prove they have emotional or cognitive responses because morphine also blocks the nociceptive response to pain. As Culum Brown explained it to me, researchers therefore created experiments to test if responses to pain were just a reflex or whether they demonstrated cognitive learning through long term avoidance of situations where they had previously experienced pain as well as ‘the ability to trade-off pain for other needs such as friends, food or shelter’.
In one experiment, researchers introduced a tower of red LEGO bricks into the trouts’ home tank. Trouts, like most fishes, tend to avoid new objects in their environment, expressing an important cognitive function of environmental awareness. Researchers returned the trouts to their home tank after injecting half the group with harmless saline solution and the remainder with vinegar, which stings. The ‘saline-solution’ trouts were wary of the LEGO blocks and kept their distance while the ‘vinegar’ trouts regularly swam near the tower. The researchers concluded that the vinegar-trouts were distracted by the pain and less able to perform a higher order cognitive function; awareness and avoidance of a novel object. To further test this, they added morphine after injecting saline to one group and vinegar to another. This time, both groups avoided the LEGO. These and other experiments helped to confirm that fishes experienced not just a reflex response but a long-term engagement with pain.
There has been similar research done on a range of fish species, all pointing in the same direction; fishes experience pain in ways that we have not previously understood. Brown and Dory make it crystal clear: ‘[T]he evidence for fishes feeling pain is just as good as it is for non-human mammals. Further, it is better than that for birds, reptiles and amphibians.’
This important research has yet to penetrate the wider culture, and more importantly, the economic systems built around the use of animals’ bodies (there is still a wider ethical issue of suffering, involving more than just pain, that I have not discussed here). There still appears to be a need to prove fishes (and other non-humans for that matter) suffer. Surely, given the ethical implications of suffering, it is better to assume they do, with the burden of proof to demonstrate that they can’t. Sometimes I feel like Beckett’s Vladimir, instructed to wait, but to no avail.
Waiting for Proof
During much of my professional life I have worked with scientists, including some doing animal welfare research. There was, for example, research trying to scientifically establish the extent to which pigs experienced pain under different confinement technologies. Much of this work focused on industrial scale pig farming. It is not for me to question the motives of the scientists, who were all smart people. But, given much of the funding came from the pork industry, it seemed there was never quite enough ‘scientific evidence’ that conclusively ‘proved’ pigs suffered in unacceptable ways in such systems. There are slow and incremental changes to management techniques, but this is no revolution. Indeed, the pressure of public opinion seems more important in producing new animal management standards than the science itself.
If we could have asked the pigs (oops, anthropomorphism, sorry!) I wonder what answer we would get. It is all too easy for research to serve the interests of the animal agriculture industry and use uncertainty in research as a smokescreen to justify the status quo. At what point could the industrial (I use this term purposively) animal industry say; ‘that’s it, the evidence is in. We must radically change what we do’? Anyone who has ever read Upton Sinclair’s devastating 1925 book, The Jungle, will struggle to look at the industrialised animal food industry the same way, even with subsequent improvements to food safety, animal welfare and labour protection.
Given the enormous capital and cultural investment in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with their massively destructive environmental impacts, labour exploitation and large scale enforced suffering of the animals, I doubt any amount of scientific evidence of animal suffering could be enough, by itself, to change the industry.
Yet, perhaps ironically, it was precisely science that finally persuaded me to stop eating fish. The research I outlined above hit me hard. Even though I had stopped eating non-fish meat, the emerging research on fishes was genuinely challenging; I was raised on fishing and was still emotionally and culturally attached to a fish diet. But, as I discovered, this story was only beginning.
Knowledge and Action
By any measure this extraordinary pressure we are putting on the planet is clearly unsustainable
Each year 80 billion land farm animals are killed by humans for food. Compare this with the between 51 and 167 billion farmed fishes and up to 2.7 trillion wild fishes killed each year (this does not include recreational fishing and by-catch). They are caught by being hooked in the mouth and dragged from the ocean depths, scooped from the ocean bed by giant nets or captured in long haul fishing nets. Unlike the majority of pigs and chickens, which are at least subject to planned slaughter though electrocution, a stun-bolt to the head and then neck cutting, fishes are not accorded even that level of respect. They mostly die through crushing in nets, barometric-trauma and asphyxiation. There are some recent small-scale attempts to harvest wild fishes in a more humane way and while welcome, this will never be the fate of most fishes that are killed.
The more I investigate large-scale industrial animal farming and fishing, the more it became clear to me its devastating impact on the terrestrial and ocean ecosystems and the enormous suffering wrought on sentient animals, including fishes. Much of this is unnecessary. There are now alternative ways to feed ourselves without this vast exploitation of non-human animals.
This matters. When I was born there were three billion humans living on the planet and we slaughtered seven billion farmed animals each year. Today, there are just under eight billion of us, but we now slaughter around eighty billion animals and upwards of three trillion fishes. The vast amount of meat Australians and Americans eat bears little relationship to survival (obesity is now a far bigger issue than malnourishment). In fact, the World Health Organisation and the Australian Heart Foundation have called for rapid reductions in the amount of meat consumed. They advise diets should contain no more that 18 kg of unprocessed red meat per year. The average Australia eats twice that, with total annual meat consumption per person at 122 kg per year. American diets are even higher. This over consumption is driven primarily by the ‘meatification’ of diets through capital markets seeking ever expanding profit frontiers, marketing and lifestyle status. By any measure this extraordinary pressure we are putting on the planet is clearly unsustainable. We have little choice but to change our ways.
This essay is more than about my own journey out of fishing. It is a reflection on our relationships with other sentient life. What lies underneath my personal (and deeply inconvenient) decision to stop eating fish is a more fundamental conviction that if we are to have any chance of surviving into the future, we cannot do it alone. We evolved in an entangled relationship with other species and ecosystems that support life. If we lose sight of this and treat other creatures as mere objects for our gratification and with little empathy, our own species will also lose out. Plundering our planet at such scale with such little care and much ignorance of the consequences clearly signals our demise. It is critical to remember (or re-remember) the earth does not provide us with just resources; it entangles us in relationships, providing a home for the forms of mutual interconnection that allowed us to evolve and that will sustain us far into the deep future. I came to realise I had much more to learn about what such relationships entail. Unsurprisingly it was a fish that provided the greatest insight.
Alaskan Halibut are large deep-sea fishes living in the North Pacific, commonly living for 25 years though capable of living up to fifty years. Females only reach sexual maturity at about twelve years of age. They are ocean floor predators, rarely eaten by other fish, growing up to two and a half metres long and weighing over 200 kilograms. We know a fair bit about their migration patterns, lifecycle and population densities and responses to fishing pressure. These depersonalised population data help us to catch Halibut but tell us nothing about how a Halibut experiences their own life.
We now know that fishes are sentient, bringing with it desires, agency, wants and needs. I can’t ‘prove’ what being alive for twenty or more years feels like for an individual Halibut. The inner life of a Halibut is almost certainly very different to mine. Yet, because we privilege our own experience as the benchmark for ‘inner lives’ and then demand of other species scientific proof of their inner lives, we all too easily dismiss the idea that they have their own feelings (including fear), wants and needs, and the desire to live out their own lives on their terms, including, presumably, not being eaten by human predators.
In the light of the compounding climate and ecological crises we face, it is clear that we have lost our way
There is a bigger issue here than just a story about Halibut. In light of the compounding climate and ecological crises we face, it is clear that we have lost our way. In disconnecting ourselves from the rest of the living world, we maintain the increasingly shaky mythology that we can continue to rule the planet unrestrained by natural limits. We may have smart phones, but our genetics binds us to the evolutionary journey of the planet. If we forget that we are part of this entangled living system, we will perish. Perhaps if there were only a few million of us, the planet could tolerate our localised impact. But that world no longer exists. We now dominate and therefore are poised to destroy the very foundation of our success. Salvation for our species will not lie in escaping the earth, as Kim Stanley Robinson suggests in his magnificent novel Aurora. It lies in reconnecting with life on earth through growing empathy with all living creatures.
The Last Supper
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is set in one of the world’s most beautiful locations. I was there in the spring of 2019 at the University of Alaska to participate in the first ever Arts and Climate Change Incubator held outside of New York. I am a musician and had just written the first draft of a new song, I will keep you in my heart, a call to not forget the more-than-human world. By then I had (almost) decided to stop eating fish. In the song I wrote:
How do non-humans become objects?
How does a web of complex entities
Vanish from our consciousness and identity
Like the million species we farewell this century?
These lines were ringing in my head as we wound up the Incubator and headed into the city for a celebratory dinner. The seafood city does not make it easy for someone wanting to stop eating fish. I hadn’t eaten fish for probably over a year at this point. But there was virtually nothing without meat on the menu. Then I spotted the Halibut steak. With fries! By this stage it was late and I was famished. I knew the fish was wild caught. I ordered the Halibut.
I don’t recall if it was tasty, though it likely was. As I ate, I became increasingly conscious that this was a sentient being who, until a day or two ago, had been living their own life subject to their own agency and choices. It was likely to be several years old and living in a network of relationships. But on the plate it was not even a generic fish, just anonymous flesh. Did I really need to inflict suffering on this previously alive animal, even if indirectly? Was it necessary for my survival? Perhaps in days long gone it may have been, or if I was part of an indigenous community practising traditional lifestyle, I probably would eat it. But I am not. Now I have different choices.
That was the last time I ate a fish.
I did not make this decision because I believe it will slow the rapid growth of aquaculture or improve the welfare practices of commercial fisheries, although these are things I would like to see. I have a deeper reason for my decision. I know our world has to change if we are to reorientate from the dangerous and exploitative way of life we inflict on the other species and living systems. I also came to understand that deep change must start with me.
I genuinely miss my fish and chips (plant-based fish don’t cut it … yet at least). But more importantly I needed to recalibrate my own empathetic relationship to the non-human world. If we are to have a fighting chance of a viable future, it will not come from increasing our dominance over ‘nature’ but rather re-learning that we are a deeply entangled part of this living world. This requires new levels of care and empathy for all creatures. And some new, even inconvenient and difficult, choices.
My dinner plate seemed like a good place to start.
Dr Simon Kerr is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Inland, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia, a climate activist, writer, musician and creator of the multi-media music project, Music for a Warming World. www.musicforawarmingworld.org.