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Requiem for a Pompano

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Confession: As a Leo, beaches make me want to walk more than swim. I love to pace along the ocean’s edge, but I’m not the Amazon who rushes into the waves, peeling clothing as she goes, then dives like a porpoise into the sea’s watery embrace, bobbing up slick as a seal and laughing. Nuh-uh. The sea delights me visually and conceptually, but unless the water’s bathtub warm I’ll leave the frolicking to those who are better at it.  

So while Phoebe and Liam dared the waves I walked. On a beach, I tend to pick a visual point, be it bird, carcass, pier, or fisherman, and walk toward it.     

I noticed a small flurry of bird activity near an orange-clad fisherman, and made that my destination. Wheeling back occasionally to watch the kids through binoculars, I finally reached him and sat a respectful distance away photographing the gulls, grackles and shorebirds attracted to his station. He made a crack about being the birds’ agent and demanding I feed them before photographing them. With that little gesture, he set me at ease and let me know it was all right for me to share his space. I thought I detected a native Floridian in his easy demeanor and that hunch was confirmed. I really just wanted to find out what was happening between him, the sea and the birds. I figured there was food involved, and was intrigued by the assemblage of eight species he’d attracted: sanderling, ruddy turnstone, boat-tailed grackle; great black-backed, laughing, herring and ring-billed gull.

Soon enough, I noticed a couple of sand-covered Florida pompano Trachinotus carolinus (Jack family, Carangidae) 

 breathing their last on the beach, and the little assemblage of avian undertakers suddenly made sense. The fisherman was winding up his day, and he took the fish down to the waves to wash them before processing them. Pompano is said to be delicious, commanding the highest price dockside of any fish. Sadly, I wouldn’t know, never having been in pompano country.  I'm in farm-raised catfish country :-/

One pompano had departed this mortal coil, turning ghostly silver-white in the process. Still it was a gorgeous creature, with touches of yellow on tail and fins. I turned to the live one. It shimmered with blue, lavender and rose, the colors playing across its impossibly satiny, fine-grained skin. 

I wondered what it was thinking as it glared at me, this huge hominid pointing a black box at it, and it made a mighty flex of body and tail as if in response. If you aren’t going to kill me, throw me back, idiot; I’m dying here.

It was a tricky moment for a compulsive helper of the helpless. I don’t know what the pompano knew at this sorry nadir in its short life; whether it perceived me as a possible savior or just another awful spectre in its dimming eye. What I’m sure it couldn’t appreciate is that I was a guest in this state; on this unmarked spot on the beach. It wasn’t my place to take dinner out from under the Florida native who so genially tolerated my presence.

I am sorry, so sorry. I can’t help you. I could throw you back and take off running down the beach, I suppose, but this man has been here all day waiting for you to take his lure, and you struck it, and this is what happens when you make the last and worst mistake a fish can make. Besides, whether I throw you back or not, you are done for, my silvery friend. You’ve been too long in the thin cold air.

You are never going back home to the waves.

 I screwed my heart’s porthole closed again and kept shooting. While I’d been talking to the still-living fish, the fisherman had filleted the dead pompano.

The fisherman came and got the live fish and washed it in the surf. I pointed out the lavender, blue and rose still playing across its skin. I asked him if they always turn white when they die and he said he’d never noticed. He held it up to let me admire it for a moment before deploying his filet knife.

And with the first cut, he quickly turned a living being into food. 

So this is how it's done.

First he cut the muscle off one side, then he flipped it over and cut the other.

He cut two smooth filets off its sides, leaving the head, spine, ribs and organs in place, taking all the muscle the fish had and leaving nothing, really, and I wondered as I watched with dry amazed eyes when in the process the fish finally died. He dropped the filets into a plastic bag and I felt a little envy because at that moment they looked like very nice food to me. We had been eating out in a bland, unimaginative sort of way for several days and the cook in me was yearning for something fresh to prepare. I asked him if the two small pompano would be tonight’s dinner, and he said no, if you came out here expecting to catch your dinner a lot of times you’d go hungry. He would put them in the freezer for later. For some reason that made me feel bad. I hoped his freezer wasn’t like mine: a place where meat lies in state until it’s fit for offering to the vultures.

And then he unceremoniously tossed what was left of the beautiful pompano to the birds.  

I kept watching, of course...


Oh Julie, I am glad you do what you do so well. Not many humans would have seen the beauty in this portrait of life and death and/or captured it with balance. Thank you for your work yet again.

I don't know what to say, Julie. I really love your writing, but this piece really speaks to the depths of me. I'm gong to carry this story with me for a long time. Thank you for leaving one more bright and beautiful shell on the beach for everyone to see instead of hording it away.

Erica and I had an oddly similar experience near Stuart, Florida just a few weeks ago. That experience, plus my recent work with TravelChannel's Wild Within (Guyana episode, of course), have forced me to re-confront this issue of life-as-food. Your prose brings a welcome stream of thoughtfulness to the topic. Thanks.

Posted by Michael McC. February 22, 2011 at 8:15 AM

You've really made me think about the dilemma of being a person who loves and cherishes nature, and at the same time being a predator who loves eating fish!

I don't begrudge anyone who catches and kills their own food, because they are far more in touch with the "natural order" of things than I...but it's why I became a vegetarian, knowing I could not look an animal in the face and dispatch it myself.

I think the most important thing, though, is not whether or not you ultimately eat the creature, but whether you treat it with respect and reverence and gratitude--as you clearly do, Julie. Thanks for the thought-provoking post; like Jamie, I'm going to be considering it for a long while.

P.S. Word verification: "Perro"! Must be time for another Chet Baker post.

We have beaches.
Dead fish too.

Hint, hint

I have never understood the high price for pompano. I'd much rather eat a whiting or flounder.

What a timely post.
I spent Monday on the Gulf and caught a wide variety of fish, some tastey, some not so much.
There was a time when all of the tastey's would have been kept, but these days I tend to catch and release.
Not always and some species are more at risk from me, but I find myself much more selective about who becomes my prey.
There was a redfish Monday that was just the right size and would have been delicious dredged in cornmeal and fried in hot oil ... (as would I probably) ... but, I let him go.
It was such a perfect day, made even more perfect by the school of redfish that kept us busy ... it just didn't seem right, at that moment, on that particular day.

I may keep him another day.
It doesn't bother me to be the predator, but, like you, I can't bear suffering.

When I do keep him, he'll go on ice immediately, where the extreme cold will stun and quickly kill him.

I can't bear a fish flopping and suffocating slowly on the sand or in a bucket anymore.
Once I didn't think about such things, and I have cleaned many a living fish in my youth.

Not anymore.

The pompano didn't give a second thought(fish brains are small and smooth) to the animals it preyed upon, but we have this three and a half pound wrinkled brain that allows us to feel the suffering of another.
To those to whom much is given, much is expected.

I was waiting for that. Thank you.

As a Homo Sapien, I'm glad to be an herbivore.

Posted by Charlotte February 24, 2011 at 9:54 AM
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