Monday, April 25, 2011

Admiring the beauty of fish and then killing them

I’ve been told that Australians are the only people who eat the animals on their country’s coat of arms. While not especially common, both kangaroo and emu can be found on menus throughout the country. And why not? Is it not possible to admire and love an animal in the wild and also eat it? It seems to me that if we are going to eat living things, admiration of their beauty should be a part of the process. With vegetables we admire a particularly juicy red tomato, or a perfectly ripe avocado. The native Americans loved and admired the buffalo which was one of their major food sources. Carlos Casteneda’s Yaqui Indian guide Don Juan Matus would apologise to mushrooms on picking them and then thank them as he ate them. So why shouldn’t I admire the markings of a beautiful fish and the graceful way that it moves through the water just before I brutally kill it to feed my family? I’ve spent so much time looking at and admiring fish through a mask over the last couple of weeks, that to be actively hunting them for food seems somewhat of a contradiction. There are a range of conflicting emotions when you haul a beautifully coloured Spangled Emperor up on to the deck of a boat. Being filled with awe at its stunning pattern and colours while it has a spike driven into its head, its throat is cut and then it’s thrown into a plastic tub containing a whole lot of other recently murdered fish. Only days ago I may have been watching this particular fish in the water and pointing out its majesty to Jaz as we swam through the coral reef. Today it’s on my plate.

Paul, Pete and Andrew
Along with a group of people we’d befriended a couple of sites down from us at the Yardie Homestead caravan park, we went out for a day on a charter fishing boat. It’s always a serious effort for our family to be ready on time to go anywhere, let alone at what seems like the crack of dawn. But there we were in the car at 7am to get to the Exmouth marina to catch the boat. Along with the eleven of us were eight other eager fishermen on board. One dreadlocked guy seemed more awake than anybody else and was good naturedly introducing himself to everyone. He was so excited at the thought of a day’s fishing and the almost certainty of us bringing back a big haul from the fish filled waters of the Exmouth gulf. Whereas we were relying on the crew to provide us with a rod and reel, he had brought along his own fine looking kit and was somewhat disappointed to be told that the line he had wasn’t heavy enough and he had to put it away for the duration. The hour and a half trip out was quite calm. Everybody taking the opportunity to slowly awaken, with the roar of the diesel engines making it almost impossible to converse in anything less than a shout. As I can only deliver inaudible grunts at the best of times when it’s this early in the morning, I didn’t bother with any real attempts of communication. Just took in the disappearing coastline on the horizon and relaxed back to enjoy the ride.

Finally we arrived at the first designated fishing spot and the calm that had been the journey was replaced by a vicious rocking from side to side, the boat lurching a couple of metres up and down with every wave. With nobody really acclimatised to being in a boat on the open sea yet, it seemed a good chance that somebody would be flung over the railing and into the drink. The big swell got the better of one guy and he pushed past me to get to the rail just in time to send a large stream of projectile vomit a couple of metres from the side of the boat. I was extremely impressed with the range he managed to achieve, but thought better of congratulating him as he seemed a particularly ominous shade of white. I didn’t fancy wearing the next stream. He spent the remainder of the day lying down on his back just wishing the whole thing was over. Quite an expensive investment in an uncomfortable sleep. In the meantime, the crew had distributed hand lines around the deck for everybody to use. What?! I’m sure the brochure said rods. Still with the sea that rough, I guess a whole lot of people waving around long sticks with heavy sinkers and sharp hooks on the end of thick lengths of nylon line seems a bit of a recipe for disaster. So we accepted the tools we’d been provided and started the business of fishing. Nobody even had a nibble at that first spot and so we soon moved on. The sea was now a lot calmer and I’m sure that projectile man wished that we’d come straight to this location in the first instance. From here, fish started to be caught with good regularity. In our group were our neighbours Pete, Paul and Andrew and a group of their kids. Pete was in fine form early and reeled in two large spangled emperor fish before anybody else had really got going. But through the course of the day, everybody caught fish. Jazzy did well catching a redthroat emperor for dinner, as did Tori and as did I. Among the other fish caught were a procession of Charlie Court cod, that were quickly dispatched by the crew as bait fish, bar cheek coral trout, rankin cod and the much prized spangled emperor. A couple of large trigger fish just got a free feed and were thrown back to the water as undesirable for humans in any capacity, being neither food nor bait. The undersize fish likewise went back to the water to be caught again next year when they are larger. Some less desirable small fish ended up in the bait bucket, squirming around in the throes of death for quite some time as the crew seemed not bothered to be too humane in dealing with the bait and actually finishing them off. Everybody was so intent on catching fish that the dolphins swimming to the rear of the boat were given scant regard. On another day, the same group of people have probably all paid to be on a boat to view dolphins, but today there was no interest. The largest fish caught was a huge golden trevally. A fit looking guy with a European accent who was using his own surf rod rather than the yellow plastic wheels the rest of us were armed with, realised he had a fight on his hands. It was clear that the fish on his line was quite large as his rod began to bow almost in half. Everybody gathered around as he continued the fight. And with a loud snap, his rod broke in two. But still he fought and somehow with a broken rod, managed to bring the large golden trevally up on to the deck. And with the fight over, in what seemed like a sad waste, he handed the fish over to the crew who flung the prize catch of the day over into the bait bin to be used for the next fishing trip. Finn had the largest “one that got away” for the day. Feeling somewhat of a pull on his line, he exclaimed that he thought he might have something. The crew looked over to see the nylon line slipping quickly out through Finn’s hands and realised that in all likelihood he had a good size shark on the end of his line. They quickly took over and struggled with all their strength to pull it in. And then the line went limp. They reeled it in to see that the hook, swivel and the sinker were all gone, most likely in the belly of the shark along with the fish that had been on the end of Finn’s line acting as live shark bait. As we returned to shore, the crew filleted the catch and placed them in the appropriate tubs. Our group of eleven had a whole swag of fish. Enough to feed our combined contingent of around 16 people on at least two occasions.

The day on the boat had been enjoyable for all, with the obvious exception of our sick colleague. Dreadlock man finished the day a lot less buoyant than he began. His friends had caught a few fish but he failed to pull one fish out that was able to be taken as food. We returned to the camp ground and prepared for a fish banquet. The filleting was only half done by the crew so I got an education in filleting and skinning fish as we finished off the job. I’m sure this will come in handy when we next fish somewhere from the shore, assuming that we break our duck and actually catch something we can eat. Dinner was an exquisite feast. We devoured the fish hungrily and meanwhile talked about the plans for the following day. Everybody would be heading back to the water, this time with snorkel, mask and fins to view these spectacular creatures as they swim gracefully around the coral of the Ningaloo Reef.

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