The Fishermen

My grandfather has three passions in life: traveling to Asia (or, “The Orient,” as he calls it), the Georgia Bulldogs, and fishing. And nowhere on earth do these three themes coalesce so beautifully as they do in the lake house that he had built on a stretch of property near the Alabama-Georgia state line. I call it “The Temple of Fish.” On either side of the custom-made red and black kitchen are Chinese scrolls with paintings of koi fish. Bass trophies line the ceiling. A sailfish mounted on the wall gazes incredulously down at a living room straight from the Design Within Reach catalog, color swatches set to red, black, and white.

There is a kind of sacred space on the property, but it isn’t the house, it’s the lake: the real temple of fish.

The lake is called “Mountain Brook Lake,” although to my knowledge, there are no mountains in the area, and the source of the water is ambiguous (I have never observed a brook of any kind on the property). Moreover, I would call it a “lake” mostly by virtue of the fact that it is just slightly too big to be called a pond. Nonetheless, it is still a beautiful place. During the day, the air hangs in a heavy layer over the water, which looks as smooth as glass. Underneath the surface, however, is a swirl of turtles, minnows, and the shadows of elusive, bigger fish. It is creepily silent except when punctuated by bird calls or the faint swish of wings. At night the air pulsates with the sounds of crickets and frogs and the sky is dense with stars.

Several weeks ago I visited the lake for the first time in about eight or nine years. (Somehow high school and college got in the way of weekend fishing trips.) Now that my sister and I are both vegans, fishing is no longer a pastime we partake in. So instead of loading up our boat with bait and tackle, we decided to take our camera instead, and spent the day watching the wildlife and searching for compositions among the thick spray of plants and wildflowers while my father and grandfather fished.

red speckles

That evening, I walked down to the basement of the house to retrieve some ingredients for dinner. In the basement, among a timeline of Georgia Bulldogs memorabilia dating back to the 60’s, is a grid of photos on the wall documenting all varieties of fishing trips, trips to “The Orient,” and Georgia tailgates. Around the mid-nineties is where my sister and I appear in the grid: in the first photo of us, we have white-blond hair and gap-toothed grins, Little Mermaid life-vests and Snoopy fishing poles, each holding a bream on the end of a line. When my sister and I were younger, we would go visit just about every summer to fish with our dad and grandfather. And at the time, it was fun. I wish I were one of those people who could say with confidence that I had a real sense of animal justice as a kid, but although I remember feeling a twinge of discomfort the first time I baited a worm on a hook, or watching my dad and grandfather scaling and filleting the fish that we caught, I eventually assumed that if the adults in my life were teaching me how to do it, then it must be fine. I distinctly remember reeling in one fish that began peeing while hanging on the line, and my grandfather explained that it did so was because it was frightened. I looked around the basement of the house and noticed wood carvings of fish, stone sculptures of fish, ceramic lamp-bases shaped like fish, even paintings of fish that my sister and I had done in our elementary school art class, not to mention the “oriental” renderings of fish on the ground floor. What an odd sort of reverence my grandfather had for the same creatures whose flesh was cut into pieces, soaking in a cut-off milk jug in the sink.

During the afternoon that day, after making our rounds about the lake, my sister and I motored over to my dad and grandfather and watched them fish for a while. As I took pictures of them and listened to them, I was struck by two conflicting thoughts: how happy I was for my dad, getting to spend time outside in a beautiful place with his own dad, doing something that he loves and enjoys, and the fact that no matter how much fun it was for them, and no matter how innocent and innocuous it might seem, I could not fully come to grips with the fact that what they were doing was still killing for sport.

“It’s just a few fish,” said a voice in my head. “There are so many of them in the lake, what difference does a few make? Besides, your dad works so hard, doesn’t he deserve to relax and enjoy himself? They’re going to eat the fish anyway!” And all of these things were true, and none of them changed the fact that when they lifted the wire basket hanging from the side of the boat, the fish thrashed about as if an electric shock had gone through the water. And none of it made that violent flash of scales on the filleting table any less bright.

It can be difficult for human beings to sympathize with fish. We admire them in aquariums or eat them; beyond that, we have little ‘use’ for them. I have a theory that people are drawn to those animals that appear to be smiling: dogs especially, but also cats and even dolphins. But fish don’t seem to be smiling at us, with the exception of maybe Charlie the Tuna, although even then it’s somewhat strange to see a little cartoon of a creature hawking cans of its own flesh at the supermarket. Fish are very easy to abstract away; we consider them to be cold, simple creatures, living a kind of mechanical, stimulus-response existence. There is the urban legend that goldfish have an attention span of two seconds; there are “ornamental” beta fish that, when placed in front of a mirror, will attack their reflections until they kill themselves. The  simple “intelligence” of fish is mysterious to us, and often the entire concept is discredited. But in truth, as more and more scientists such as Victoria Braithwaite and Joseph Garner are discovering, these animals have more in common with us that we think: in particular, an elaborate sensory system much like our own that is very capable of feeling pain.

It is true that fish may be physiologically less complex than other animals. It is true that the environmental footprint of my grandfather and his fishing boat is minuscule. It is true that the total time between capture and death of these animals is far shorter than it would be if they were caught by a commercial net. But in my view, it is all the same pain, and it is still killing. We are not exactly like the indigenous people living off the land hundreds of years ago; we did not need to kill the fish, and we did it anyway, because we found it entertaining. Now we have to ask ourselves, on what basis do we give a creature the right to live? As much as PETA would like to appeal to our cuddly nature and re-brand fish as “sea kittens,”  a fish will always simply be a fish; it seems strange to try to force it into the world of domestic creatures that we bred for our own use and amusement. Does the fish deserve to live undisturbed because we somehow elevated it to the level of a kitten? Or simply because it is another being that shares the planet with us?

red spray

Perhaps my greatest fear about fishing is that if it is seen as a natural or innocuous pastime for individuals, then it must also be harmless on a commercial scale, and so, people continue to buy seafood with abandon (not to mention other animal products). But for every pound of fish extracted from the ocean, between 10-20 pounds of other creatures are caught and killed on commercial lines and nets. You can imagine the impact this has on ocean ecosystems, something saltwater fisherman are obliged to protect for the sake of their own sport.
Hunting and fishing are considered more of a moral gray area than factory farming, and I can think of a number of hunters and fishermen who would be glad to “defend their sports to the death,” if you will, and “shoot down” my viewpoint with reasons why what they do is not really that bad, or even necessary to keep animal populations in check. But there is no getting around the act of killing. And we cannot kid ourselves into thinking that a lesser evil must somehow be good, or that “if it doesn’t scream, it doesn’t mind.” I will admit that I think the aggregate amount of suffering caused by hunting and fishing pales in comparison to that brought on by factory farms, animal testing, and the like. But that doesn’t mean the pain is not real.

I may be a bad vegan because while I felt an impulse to let all of the fish out of the basket once my dad and grandfather had gone back inside, I left them there. I may be a bad vegan because shortly after the trip I drove to the Bass Pro Shop in Gainesville, Georgia to buy my father a birthday gift. I may be a bad vegan because I concentrate my energy on ending factory farming and generally leave the arenas of hunting and fishing alone.

I find myself in the awkward position of not supporting the act of fishing, but wanting to support my dad. For now my protest is finding other ways to spend time outdoors that leave no trace, leaving the fish off my plate, and, to the best of my ability, trying to love my dad unconditionally and appreciate the other things he does that increase the aggregate good in the world. I have no satisfactory answer. For now, the Temple of Fish has another color added to its palette: a deep, murky gray.

alligator log