Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian. Or was – not because I am squeamish, or because I subscribe to some mawkish anthropomorphism, but because I thought long and hard about it. At some point in 2015, I came to the conclusion that the (significant) pleasure I derive from eating animal flesh, couldn’t be worth the death, and probable suffering, of the being in question. All animals were off limits, because, while I suspected that prawns weren’t capable of much self-reflection, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
That’s why it’s surprising, come early June, that I’m excavating the cruel barb of a fishing hook from the silver-white belly of a cod fish. The day is unholy calm, sky – blue and cloudless. The sea’s an even deeper blue, its surface like hand-blown glass, almost motionless. We’re eight of us on a roughly 30 foot boat. It’s six in the morning. One of us does this for a living, and the other seven are still drunk. Two of those seven are asleep on the narrow berths nestled into the bow, and four have their lines sunk into the still water. Another, the youngest, is leaning helplessly over the side, feeding the fish with the remnants of last night’s schnapps.
The cod twists its body only now and then, playing the part with tepid boredom. The fish is slippery with sea and it’s body is never fully in my grasp. I want to keep my fingers clear of the sharp hook embedded in the cod’s belly. It could just as easily pierce my skin. I work the barb from the flesh and a small string of guts follow. Itt’s with some relief that I throw the fish into an iced tub, now full with plump cod, snugly fit together like some slick, living puzzle.
The two colossal plastic tubs are both approaching capacity now, hundreds of kilos of cod, a little for the gulls, a few for us. Most are for the tourists and residents of Malmö, who’ll eat the fish with brown butter, boiled potatoes and freshly grated horseradish. Denmark is port side, Sweden, starboard, and this is the Øresund, the straight which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea, past Hamlet’s Helsingør and under the now famous bridge of the eponymous Nordic Noir.
We hunt using radar. The captain, Torbjörn, spots the schools of fish – tiny white clusters on his display. He manoeuvres the boat over the calm water and on his say so, we drop. Long lines, weighted and ribbed with rubber squids and heavy barbs, designed to bait and catch cod. We scoot about the waters, between Denmark and Sweden, in stops and starts, sometimes driving a few seconds, and sometimes minutes. To an unknowing observer, the game would be unfathomable.
We had been drinking last night, quite a lot: fishing bowl glasses of gin and tonic and cucumber, on the summer decking in the slowly intoxicated dusk; beer out of bottles; small measures of wine in big glasses; and Swedish schnapps and songs, which I enjoyed but didn’t understand. These latter were sung at every conceivable opportunity, and with increasing gusto. Today, after stumbling from our beds at four with the couple hours’ sleep required to turn drunkenness into semi-permanent fog, we are jaded, but happy. Except for Johan, who is happy, but sheepish and vomiting.
Torbjörn jokes that he has never had anyone be so sick on such calm waters. Every time we stop over a school, someone gets a fish. Sometimes three on a line, or a huge bastard as long as your arm. That takes some effort to haul up. These moments are occasionally captured on camera, but more often with simply worded recognition – ‘Shit, that’s a big one,’ or something like that. I struggle for a few minutes with a hefty cod, and when I get him up, I’m relieved – a warm, happy, pleased-with-myself relief. Linus slaps me on the back, but I’ve got to work the hook out of its eye first. Torbjörn comes to the rescue, yanking the barb from the skull, and with breathless motion, throwing the fish into the tub.
My rationale went something like this: Empathy, the Golden Rule, is the foundation of morality. From East to West, Confucius to Isocrates, it was as common a principle as it is today. Obvious, yet difficult to live with, the rule makes evolutionary sense. It is the emotional glue by which the societal contract is preserved, and it is as near a thing as an atheist can have to an absolute source of morality. I do not kill, because I do not wish to be killed, and I recognise that this man I might want to kill is a person like me.
But it’s hard to love someone who you don’t understand. Empathy is easiest with friends and family. We are tribal beings. But we know we should make the effort. There is something noble about protecting one’s family, but there is something holy about loving strangers. At least Jesus implied as much. Vegetarianism simply extends the Golden Rule’s sphere of influence, from family, through humans, into the animal kingdom. For most vegetarians an obvious hierarchy remains, a pig’s life is not worth a person’s, but there is nonetheless a recognition that they deserve a greater place in your patterning of empathy. Even if they couldn’t offer you a place in theirs, you shouldn’t kill them simply for the pleasure of eating their flesh.
There are many more barbs to dig from the belly flesh of cod today. I wait for Torbjörn’s ‘go’, and drop the line. I feel a tug at once and begin my battle. Oscar, next to me has something too. The rod bends to the weight of a fish, and the line spins. I adjust the drag and reel in what feels like a monster. It’s not, but I can still feel the weight of what turns out to be two pretty big fish. Torbjörn rushes to help me haul the catch into the boat, but Oscar has snagged two cod on the same hook, with a third one on the line. ‘Shit look at this’, he says. He wins the unofficial competition for fish slaying recognition, but apart from Johan, who’s passed out on the berth, we’ve all done a pretty good job. In the beautiful calm, and surrounded by decent people, we’d had almost stereotypically perfect Sunday morning.
Heavy with cod as the sun comes to its full height, our boat heads back to shore. There are more people on the water, in motorboats, and bigger vessels, from across either side of the straits. We wave to some grinning rednecks, who sit drinking beer in their boat. When Torbjörn goes to work, I watch him with the dated appreciation of a landed gentry, revelling in the beauty of a tradesman’s skill. He works quickly, setting up buckets of fish, cutting and gutting hundreds of cod in one seemingly single, fluid movement. He works with the confident, (careless to a casual observer) speed of someone who has been doing this most of his life. He probably has. Gulls chase the boat, swooping for the guts thrown overboard, falling behind as the boat speeds ahead, before catching up again, blotting out the sun and cawing for their more. Torbjörn ignores them with casual grace. ‘What do you call these birds in English?’ Oscar asks. Seagulls. ‘Ah… they’re fish gull in Swedish’. The last cod is in Torbjörn’s rubber-gloved hand. Dappled copper flanks, stained seaweed brown with ocean foam white on its belly. Alien eyes, staring into god knows what. It doesn’t flinch as Torbjörn rips out its belly.
In the space of less than an hour Torbjorn has gutted and cleaned over 200 kilos of writhing fish. He hoses the place down with a gigantic stream of seawater that sends us scuttling and laughing like little children. That night we eat the cod at Christian’s beach house. It is cooked to perfection, flakes of tender flesh dripping with butter, freshly grated horseradish and colourful baby potatoes served alongside. The next morning, our gracious host serves us brimming plates of bacon and egg. I think about refusing the offer, about explaining that I’d compromised on my morals last night only because fishing on the Øresund had seemed too precious an opportunity to pass up. I think about explaining that I hadn’t refused the plate of delicious fish the night before because I’d felt no shame in gutting the living versions of its kind. But then I imagined Christian’s crestfallen expression, his jovial, ruddy, middle-aged face struggling to understand my difficultness. The Christian who slapped me on the back when I made my big catch, and the Oscar who sang Swedish songs with me over shots of schnapps, wouldn’t be able to fathom this new, growing rift between us. The weekend had forged a Hemingwayesque bond between us, and the plight of my four-legged friend seemed remote.
And so I let the salty Danish bacon sing on my tongue, nobody noticing my moral dilemma, and the conversation turning to the fishing of the day before.