What’s the fascination with fish and water?

Fish have played an important role in the economy and culture of humans for as long as we have records, pictorial or otherwise. Fish are prominent in the myths and legends of many cultures, including Australian Aborigines, and have featured widely in art throughout history. Part of the explanation for their popularity, besides their palatability, is probably because of their variety, beauty, size and abundance. With about 30,000 species, ranging in size from the diminutive (8 mm gobies) to the gargantuan (20 m whale sharks), and from the ugly (like the appropriately-named blob-fish) to the breathtakingly beautiful (like the leafy sea-dragons), it is not hard to see why people are fascinated by this diverse group. Many species occur in immeasurably huge schools in the oceans (e.g. pilchards) or as endless runs up rivers during the spawning season (e.g. salmon), and have inspired understandable, but naive, perceptions of inexhaustible supply. Fish are also ubiquitous. They occupy every conceivable aquatic (and even some terrestrial) environments, from desert springs to the Antarctic, the deepest oceans to tidal mud-flats, and from underground rivers to mountain lakes.

And then there is the primal fear that species like sharks produce, which is monumentally disproportionate to the relatively low rate of human deaths due to attacks throughout the world. There are few animals, besides perhaps tigers and lions, that generate such reactions in humans. And yet even these last predators have a cuteness factor rarely directed towards sharks…except by the odd ichthyologist. The mystique, and perhaps fear, of the world’s water bodies and their inhabitants has inspired many stories over the millennia. Some of our most famous and persistent myths, legends and tales involve the sea (e.g. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey), fish (e.g. Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea), whales (e.g. Melville’s Moby Dick), seabirds (e.g. Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner) and giant sea creatures (Verne’s Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea). Similarly, the world’s religions take much from the sea, both literally and figuratively. For example, The Qur’an and The Bible make frequent references to the sea: two of the disciples were fishermen, Jesus is portrayed as a “fisher or men”, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, Moses parted the Red Sea, Jesus walked on water and divided a few fish in such a way that thousands could eat. The ultimate disaster story has to be the Great Flood, where God effectively destroyed and then re-created the earth through a vast deluge. Except during floods, when the physical power of water has to be seen to be believed, freshwaters generally, however, inspire quieter sentiments than the sea; but often with dark, hidden undertones. Enduring myths and legends of creatures from black lagoons, Loch Ness monsters, Chinese dragons, Slavic Rusalkis, Celtic supernatural water horses, Encantados in Brazil, and the bunyips in Australia all testify to the mysterious nature of, and unseen dangers that lie in wait for us in, freshwaters.

But the salt- and freshwaters of the world have a powerful generative and restorative side to them, acting as a mirror-image to the destructive one. Thus, the oceans are seen as a source of living and mineral wealth. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo encompasses this sentiment well:

“Yes, I love it! The sea is all! It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is clean and healthy. It’s an immense wilderness where a man is never alone, because he feels life quiver on every side….The sea is a vast pool of nature. Our globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who can say that it won’t end with it!” (Verne, 1870 Chapter 10).

And even today, as humans exploit almost every resource in every corner of the globe, we are still shocked when the sea is despoiled by an oil spill, or when we discover high levels of heavy metals in large, long-lived fish. Freshwaters also invoke ideas of creative and curative powers. Henry David Thoreau said: “Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything”.

And Mark Twain, probably literature’s most famous lover of rivers, said:

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but with told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them without a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day” (Twain 1883, Chapter 9).

Consider also the number of supposedly holy, restorative, miracle-producing waters around the world, like Lourdes in France or the Ganges in India. The reverence for fresh water is quite understandable, considering the fact that on fresh water we, and most of our fellow creatures on earth, depend. Ever since humans domesticated animals and began agriculture, water, and a steady supply of it, has been instrumental in our ability to expand, populate and prosper. Fish, as inhabitants of this water, are a tangible and obvious reminder of its productivity.

Whilst the waters of the earth and the strange creatures that reside there are endlessly intriguing, one cannot escape the fact that fish are for the most part delicious and a great source of protein, oils and minerals. Whether humans harvest wild populations or cultivate them in ponds, we want to know more about their life histories so that we can continue to exploit them into the future, we want to understand the composition of their bodies so that we know what they will do to us when we eat them, we want to know what they feed on so that we can mimic their preferred prey when angling for them, and we want to know about their habitats so that we can predict the effects of changes in population size and composition will have on ecosystems in general. In other words, in the end, most of our attraction for fish is because we like to catch and eat them!

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