Who is a fish? Is he a pet, food or a sovereign being? Can he be all these things at once? Those were questions that came to mind after a recent debate at Gulf Harbour Marina. Residents have befriended local snapper which come to the surface for food. People are awed by the fishes size, apparent tameness, and their golden and gleaming scales.
But at the beginning of April, some young men were seen harvesting at least one of the large snapper from the pier. Previously, in 2018, a much loved resident 1.2m kingfish was speared by some fishermen, who arrived by boat, killed and gutted the fish from the pier, and then sped away. Even MP Mark Mitchell got involved in the hunt for the perpetrators.
You’re not supposed to fish off the pier and there are signs advising against it, but it’s not illegal. It’s not a marine reserve, and the fish there have no more or less protection than fish pretty much anywhere else in the Gulf, and that’s not much at all. But the killing of these tame fish was called unsportsmanlike, barbaric, lazy and disrespectful. Online, the men were threatened with violence. Their actions were “disappointing”, “callous” and “unnecessary”. People loved those fish. The wanton killing and their senseless deaths hurt many.
Some observers pointed out that the concerned fish lovers themselves may head out over the horizon and kill fish. But those distant fish are not a community’s loved pets, so that’s okay. Other people understood why the young guys killed the snapper from the pier. Not everyone can afford a boat. Maybe the fishermen didn’t know the Gulf Harbour snapper were pets; they obviously thought they were fair game. And how could they tell? Fish are generally pretty friendly in my opinion, which might explain why they so easily get caught, no matter where they are.
To befriend an animal and then see it killed and eaten feels wrong. It probably feels pretty wrong to the animal, too, who may or may not know its status as pet or prey. Because, after all, the fish is in his watery world doing fishy things, trying to keep fed, alive and happy. He’s living his own life as best he can. When we offer bait as food, should he trust us or not? In Gulf Harbour Marina, sometimes yes, but out 250 metres maybe not.
The debate at Gulf Harbour wasn’t resolved. Fish are food to some but friend to others. But science proves that fish have a sense of self, form inter-species relationships and co-operative behaviour. They use tools and have developed cognition. They have long memories and remember individuals. They’re capable of having, and being friends. The “feelings” people in Gulf Harbour showed, to the inshore fish at least, demonstrated that we can sometimes be friends to fish, too.