When I was a child, I was taught that killing fish was supposed to be relaxing. It was a time to bond with family and friends; a game, or rather a sport, called “fishing”. Thankfully this lesson didn’t stick and even before I became vegetarian and then vegan, I realized that any activity that ends in watching another animal die cannot be called a game or sport; for any true sport requires all players to be willing participants.
The memory I have pieced together from the last time I ever caught a fish is this:
My family and I were in Montana visiting relatives. And as we did almost every time we went back, we decided to go fishing with my grandparents and cousins. We started the day early, perched next to a clear stream hoping to catch a fish for dinner before the warm summer sun cooked us instead.
My father took out a Styrofoam container of earthworms from the local tack shop and baited the hook of my fishing pole for me. I watched him dig the barbed metal in and out of the earthworm’s body, insuring that as this worm struggled against the hook, slowly drowning underwater, it would not free itself and float away.
My father cast out the line for me and let it drift into a hole near the bank, which was bathed in shade. This, he said, is where the fish were probably hiding. He handed the pole to me and I waited with my cousin, as the earthworm drowned nearby. I don’t remember how many worms or how much time it took, but suddenly the line tugged, and we reeled in my first and last fish of the day.
It was a small rainbow trout. As I held her, her iridescent skin glistened in the light. She was cold, slimy and beautiful. I looked up at my father, knowing that this was a moment I should be proud of. He pulled the hook out of her bleeding lip, so that my small fingers would be spared the chance of catching on the hook’s barb.
I remember wanting to throw her back… perhaps I’ve added that detail to my memory as wishful thinking. Either way, although smaller than we would normally keep, she was too badly hurt to return to the water.
Even then she was still fighting as she suffocated in the air so we brought her life to an end, unceremoniously, her head against a nearby rock. We added her body onto the string we were carrying with a number of other fish that had been caught and killed.
The string was threaded through her mouth and out one of her gills, now motionless. As we began to walk back to the car my cousin held the line of fish, swinging it as she went. It was all part of the “game”. But the gills of my small fish could not handle the motion and tore open, sending her flying from the line back into the water, where her body quickly disappeared with the current. I was saved from eating her.
I hated eating the fish we caught. I hated the sight of my father slitting their bellies open and watching their organs spill out. Hated their eyes looking up at me from my plate. These and the crabs that we played with and then boiled alive are the only animals I ever watched die before me.
Even now, although I would never call the killing or maiming of any sentient being a sport or family fun, in me there is still the child that didn’t want to hurt my father’s feelings by condemning these activities. He was sharing his childhood with me on these trips, the beauty of the land and the socially accepted cruelty of fishing all wrapped up into one confusing picture. I loved sitting next to the winding streams and daydreaming, but cringed at watching the fish die. Just as I loved and still love the true gentleness at my father’s core and hope someday that his carnivorous ways will be a thing of the past.
We all have our own programing to overcome. And for some, having empathy and compassion for the sentient beings that live underwater seems far too great a task. For it is often through the love and affection that non-human animals give us that we open ourselves to loving them back. Even though a fish may not wag its tail at your touch, a crab purr with pleasure at a scratch behind the leg or a squid sigh with delight at a belly rub, these sentient beings have the same right to life and liberty as their land-based counterparts.
As we widen our circle of compassion beyond our family, friends and the human race, let us remember the crustaceans, invertebrates and animals that are being caged, netted, hooked and dragged from their watery existence into our foreign and often suffocating world. Those who find themselves gawked at in glass tanks, their bodies mounted on walls or displayed on supermarket shelves. Let us not forget them, or call their deaths merely sport.