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Big fish eats little fish?

This fish story, like all fish stories, begins with a father, a son and a holy fish.

I had always loved fishing, but I as long as I had fished I had always despised the one moment after the thrill of a catch wears off, when I had to look into the trapped, clueless fish and decide his fate. Until now I had invented all kinds of rationalizations for my usual decision to fillet my catch.

I prided myself on my belief that it is the hunter who kills for sport who is most savage. Killing for food, however, seemed ethical. If I only killed what I was prepared to eat, would that not be most responsible? I would never hunt down a fish and torment him, just to let him go. It was a nice thought, and a dependable excuse, but it always left me with a freezer full of dead fish.

I joined my father one one summer morning to catch fluke, the plentiful, flounder-like fish native to New York waters. Casting off into a Long Island bay, tempting the fluke with sliced squid on our hooks, we waited.

I soon bagged one -- a 14 inch fluke, large enough to legally keep and, I was certain, tasty enough to eat.

As the fish gasped in the dry heat I watched his bright red gills fluttering. Was his blood not red like mine? Perhaps my ancestors evolved from his ancestors? He did kind of look like my cousin.

I wrestled with the flapping fluke, and made a decision that I would later regret. I decided to keep him -- hook him to a pier to keep him trapped and barely alive until I was ready to take him home.

But would it be ethical to to kill this fish when his death was not a matter of my survival? I was not depending on him to become my next meal. He would be frozen and eaten later like one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims.

Killing mammals, or your next door neighbor, would clearly be immoral. After all, they are intelligent beings. Fluke are, well, stumps.

Then again, perhaps all life is equally sacred, from the swiftest of Course VIII majors to the dullest of graduate students. Does that mean I should cry for the bait, too? Hadn't I thoughtlessly cut the squid up into tasty, appetizing morsels?

But that was different -- a squid is a lower form of life -- a spineless, toothless blob. It could never conceptualize its own existence, use tools, or comprehend general relativity. But neither could the fluke, or my freshman roommate for that matter. Should I had eaten my roommate?

Intelligence tests couldn't decide who should live and who should die. That line of reasoning was getting me nowhere. Besides, the bait was handed to me dead and frozen rock solid in a cardboard box. No amount of moralizing could change that.

What was I thinking? This fish did not share my concerns. If he was a little bigger and I was a little smaller he would have gladly swallowed me whole and flashed a toothy grin. He deserved to die.

I searched for precedents and examples.

What would Hemingway have done? Kill the fish, eat it, and like it, probably. But then again Hemingway was a psycho, who liked to watch bullfighting, and went to fight in the Spanish Civil War just for the trigger time.

What was wrong with me? Was I turning into an animal rights activist? Should I grow a beard and get a bongo?

No.

Hell no.

Hell no, we won't go.

Stop! Get a grip.

I don't think animals should be spared from medical research, or be allowed to vote or run for public office, even though many do. And I still love the smell of barbecued beef.

Sure, I respect the fish all right, broiled in bread crumbs and lemon juice. I could eat one, but I could only kill one myself if I were hungry -- really hungry -- or if it were trying to kill me.

Did that make me a coward -- or even worse, a hypocrite? Am I someone who would ask others to do what he could not? No. If I needed to eat the fish I would have killed him with a clear conscience.

But that fish didn't need to die that summer morning, so I threw him back.

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Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.