I’ve never been able to get behind catch-and-release fishing. Seems to me it’s fish torture, pure and simple. We’re putting an animal through what must be an unpleasant experience, just for fun.
There are arguments about just how unpleasant that experience is. Ichthyologists disagree about the extent to which fish feel pain, but no one who’s ever caught a fish can believe the fish enjoys it.
The crux of this issue, I think, isn’t the extent to which the fish suffer. It’s the other side of the equation – what we get out of it. When we fish for food, the downside is suffering and death for the fish and the upside is nourishment for us. When we fish for fun, the downside is suffering for the fish (and, sometimes, death – the mortality for catch-and-release is usually estimated at somewhere between ten and forty percent), and the upside is … a pleasant afternoon.
In my ethical universe, the imperative to feed ourselves allows us to kill animals, and killing almost always involves inflicting pain. But to do it for sport is another proposition altogether, and I’ve always held that there’s no excuse for it.
Then the false albacore came in.
False albacore are said to be a great fighting fish. They take your line and run with it, and battle you right up to the boat. They also happen to be the only fish in the tuna family that are reputed to taste terrible.
Last week, we heard that he albies were in, and this past Sunday Kevin and I went out in search of them, but not to catch and release. I wanted to know if rumors of their inedibility had been greatly exaggerated, and the only way to find out was to catch one and cook it.
We put the boat in and headed out Prince Cove, en route to the Osterville cut that leads out to Nantucket Sound. The albies tend to hang around close to the shore off Osterville and Centerville.
The weather was a little hairy. It was about sixty degrees, but there was a pretty good wind. It was out of the north, though, so we thought the chop would be bearable as long as we stayed close enough inshore to be protected by the land.
When we got out there, it was a bit ugly. Just as we were coming out of West Bay, into the sound, a big boat passed us in the other direction. Kevin turned us into the wake, and a big wave came over the bow and drenched us both. I had a waterproof jacket, but nothing over my jeans, so my legs got wet. Kevin was better dressed, and his skin stayed dry.
When you’re out in a boat, the key to staying warm is staying dry, and I wasn’t happy about getting wet first thing. But we continued on through the channel, Kevin navigating the waves to try and keep them from coming aboard.
For the most part, he was successful, and we didn’t get any wetter than we already were, but the conditions were not pleasant. We looked at each other, considering whether we really wanted to do this. And we had just decided that we didn’t, and turned the boat around, when Kevin spotted them.
“They’re over there!” he pointed to a spot some fifty yards away, where birds were diving and fins and splashes were making a boil.
All thoughts of going home were abandoned, and we pulled up alongside the fish.
We’d been told that the way to catch a false albacore was to use a slim metal lure called a Deadly Dick (and, yes, we made all the Deadly Dick jokes). You cast it over the school, and reel it in as fast as ever you can.
It was probably the third cast that Kevin hooked one. I saw the rod bend double and heard the bzzzzz of the line running out. His eyes widened, and he looked at me with a fish-eating grin on his face. And then he started reeling.
The fish would take line, and then turn back toward the boat, which was when Kevin reeled like mad. Then it would be the fish’s turn again, and the line would fly out. And so it went. Fish, Kevin, fish, Kevin, until the fish began to tire and Kevin brought it up to the boat.
Boats always seem to spook fish, and just when you think you have them they make a break for it. This fish did, several times, before I finally netted it and brought it in.
A false albacore is a beautiful fish. It’s silvery and iridescent, with blue-green markings on its dorsal side and little spots on its belly. And it’s solid muscle, much firmer than a bluefish or a striped bass. It’s like the difference between a pit bull and a cocker spaniel.
We admired it, and then we killed it. Kevin cut its gills and bled it.
Although my own little experiment with bleeding bluefish didn’t show a discernable difference between the bled ones and the unbled ones, everything I’d read about false albacore said that, if you even hope to turn one into something edible, you had to bleed it right away.
Once that fish was in the cooler, I had a dilemma. While I could justify taking one to try and eat, I couldn’t kid myself into thinking we’d eat a cooler full of them. I oppose catch and release fishing, but really great fish are right there. Catch and release? Or go home?
Had those been my only two options, I would have had no choice to but to go home. But I had a third option that allowed me to weasel out of having to live by my principles.
False albacore make great lobster bait. They’re smelly and fatty and perfect for luring lobsters into the traps, and, because people don’t eat them, they’re in no danger of being overfished. I won’t catch something I won’t eat unless I can use it as bait to catch something I will eat.
This may strike you as a convenient bit of sophistry that allows me to weasel out of having to live by my principles. It even strikes me that way. It makes it seem like the only reason we have lobster pots is to give me an escape route when my ethics and inclinations collide.
But that isn’t, of course, why we have lobster pots. We have lobster pots to catch lobsters, which we eat. Those pots need to be baited with something, and the second-best choice is fish that people don’t eat. (The best choice, I think, is things like bluefish frames – the leftovers of fish that people do eat. That way, nothing else has to die.)
We went on to catch three more fish. By “we,” I mean “Kevin.” I struggled with casting a light lure into a heavy wind, and made too few opportunities for myself to hook a fish. Luckily, my husband was generous enough to let me reel in one of his, so I got something like nine-tenths of the experience.
For reasons I can’t adequately explain, we let two of the four fish go. It wasn’t because we couldn’t use them; it was because they were beautiful and unharmed except for a little hole through the lip. It was visceral. I could justify catching it and I could justify killing it, but I just didn’t want to do it. I think it’s because the lobster-pot rationale isn’t as compelling as the dinner-plate rationale. If I could have eaten those fish, there’s no way I would have let them go.
What I discovered, to my surprise, is that I think it’s going to be easier than I’d imagined to forswear catch-and-release. As much as I like fishing – and I really like fishing – going out for the false albies made me understand that a big part of my enjoyment comes from the idea that what I’m catching is food. Once we had the first fish on board, I didn’t feel the same about the others as I did about seconds, thirds, or fourths of bluefish or trout. It’s still exciting to catch the fish (or to watch Kevin catch the fish), but if I can’t take it home and make a meal out of it, it’s just not the same.
But we did take that first one home, and I did make a meal out of it. Because I had rendered the edible inedible just the day before, my confidence that I could render the inedible edible wasn’t high. I treated it like bluefish, marinating it in lemon juice and mayonnaise, and then broiling it. It was edible, buy only just. It was perfectly cooked, and looked just like tuna, but it had a nasty, chewy texture and a very pronounced fishiness.
Any additional false albacores we get this season will be lobster bait.
And, with any luck, there will be more. I want to hook at least one, so I know what it feels like, and I’ll admit to being glad we have the lobster pots so I have an excuse to do it. But, once I know what it’s like, I think my enthusiasm will wane. I’m in it for the food.
It’s not that I think catch-and-release is a heinous crime. It’s not up there with, say, ax murdering, and some of my best friends are catch-and-release fishermen. I’d welcome the views of those of you who do it. But I can’t get around the fact that it’s mistreating fish for fun. And it is really fun. But still.