I read somewhere recently that, up until its recent tourist boom, 70 per cent of Iceland’s economy came from fishing. I don’t know what the population of Iceland is (larger or smaller than Australia? How ignorant of me!) but this seems like a lot of fish, not even taking into account how much of it is exported to its regional neighbours. Maybe the figure seems so high, too, because of all those dire warnings we keep hearing about dwindling world fish stocks, and how, because of overfishing, the world will have run out of viable fisheries by the middle of this century. Even for a vegetarian – not a pescatarian, though, ahem, some of my best friends are – this forecast sends a chill down the spine. I have not, weirdly, eaten fish since my uncle made such an idea appealing to me for the first time around fifteen years ago (has it really been that long?!) when I was undergrad, and had travelled to Bunbury, south of Perth, to spend some rare time with my mother’s side of the family. I can’t remember what kind of fish it was, just how simply it was cooked – on the barbecue, in foil, drizzled in a little lemon and oil. Perhaps, thinking back, there was a herb too – dill? When I became a vegetarian, a few years later, I did an odd thing – began to eat prawns for the first time. I’d never particularly liked them, just as I’d never particularly liked any kind of seafood (with the exception, perhaps, of anything deep-fried, especially calamari that wasn’t as chewy as rubber). But I had been spooked by the warnings – become a vegetarian, people said, and you’ll struggle to get enough protein, enough iron, enough anything. Fine then, I thought. I pile a few prawns into my pastas and curries, will hardly notice them, and, I thought, prawns are more like jellyfish than octopus in the intelligence stakes (jellyfish, I’d learned somewhere, don’t know they’re jellyfish, whereas octopi are like clever little children – there was a story about one that had fired a jet of ink to short-circuit the electricity supply to its tank, and escaped via a drain all the way to the sea – did it know all along the sea was there? Now that I write this, I wonder why I didn’t just eat jellyfish). Anyway, I stopped with the prawns after too long, probably because they were being overfished too, or maybe because I realised that it was perfectly possible to be healthy AND a vegetarian without seafood.
I’m quite sure I had fish as pets when I was in primary school and shared a bedroom with my youngest brother, Chris. I say I’m quite sure because I remember my mice better – they were named, probably like everything else in my life at that time, according to my youthful obsession with Doctor Who: Leela, Ace, and (I think) Nyssa, all names of 1980s companions. I think I must have had fish though, in the same tank before or after the mice, because I have an image of them, broken-lunged, floating near the top of the water, those little plastic shipwrecks and Atlantisian archways below, marking out space over the expanse of multi-coloured gravel that seemed to be the favoured method of decoration back then. I remember the mice being dead, too, though in a way that was more distressing than the fish. It’s not obvious at first when a fish has died – looked at a certain way, it just keeps floating as if nothing had happened, whereas the disjunction between the frenetic activity of mice when alive and the somehow heavy stillness of their deaths seemed vast. And their there were their death rites – the fish flushed down the toilet, the mice buried in the backyard. There seems nothing strange about this, but these rituals seem to say a lot about our relationship to different kinds of pets. A mouse, I imagine, would flush away just as easily as a fish, and there’s no reason why a fish couldn’t be buried. Is there some sense, I wonder, in which, by flushing the fish away, we are returning it to the sea, its natural habitat, like the ashes of a hiker being scattered over some windswept mountain range? But that indicates a level of care, of veneration that I don’t really think is there. After all, what does it say that the commonest way we dispose of pet fish is the same way we dispose of our human waste?