Minding Nemo

How fishes live and die in the human world.

By: Jonathan Balcombe

My boyhood relationship to fishes probably was not untypical of other boyhoods, with the possible exception that I was born with an unusually strong empathy for other creatures. A summer camp fishing outing when I was 8 years old left me confused when my mentor, an otherwise kindly man, was all of a sudden plunging a long knife into the fishes’ skulls. I also fretted privately about the worms, and worried whether some of the “keeper” fishes[1] were dying slowly in the wire basket hanging from the side of the boat. The next year I was recruited to help move school supplies from one classroom to another. Concerned that it might be imperiled in the hands of a less able student, I offered to carry a goldfish bowl with its lone occupant. All went smoothly until just before I reached the countertop in the destination room. The bowl slipped from my hands, smashing on the floor. It took two minutes to find the fish, who had somehow bounced onto the inner lip of a radiator. Goldie barely survived, and to this day the memory makes me shudder.

Against this backdrop of concern for individual fishes, I blithely participated in the consumption of anonymous ones who ended up in my Filet-O-FishTM sandwiches on family trips to McDonald’s, and in the processed “fish sticks” my mother served with dinner. My inchoate ethics were unready to make the connection between the bass on the line, the being in the fishbowl, and the flakes of white flesh disguised beneath oily batter. Had I been counseled on this moral misalignment, I believe I might have taken action. As it was, the consumption of fish—indeed, all animals bred for the menu—was tacitly endorsed by family and friends, so I, like virtually anyone else, went along with it…

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