“These were not just animals”
STUART, Florida––Florida authorities, for the fifth time in sixth years, are pursuing a case of alleged cruelty to fish, a category of offense barely recognized anywhere else.
Paradoxically, four million Floridians fish, more than the fishing populations of California and Texas combined, and indeed more people than fish in any three other states.
Identified from surveillance video and now facing charges are eighteen-year-olds Giovanni Del Greco and Matteo Dal Vecchio, along with a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old.
The four allegedly broke into the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center on August 5, 2022, killing a tarpon and stealing a snapper.
Sheriff denounced cruelty
The three older suspects were charged with burglary, but Martin County sheriff William Snyder made clear to WPBF reporter Sooji Nam that cruelty was also a consideration.
“People catch tarpon all the time. It’s a game fish,” Snyder said. “They’ll pop off a scale, and then release the fish gently. And in this case, they caught the tarpon, ripped the hook out with so much force that it took part of the fish’s insides out, and they just left the fish there to die.”
“These were not just animals,” said the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center in a prepared statement. “They were long-term members of our family who taught our community about wild marine creatures and how to protect them. The animals that were killed had lived with us since they were juveniles; this was their home. The amount of care, time, and effort that we put into raising them is impossible to measure.”
Florida Man is not a philosopher
Florida has led the U.S. in criminal investigations of alleged cruelty to fish and related offenses since 2017, when four men faced felony charges for torturing a wounded shark they dragged behind a speed boat.
But why Florida recognizes cruelty to fish under certain circumstances, while promoting the world’s largest sport fishing industry, is unclear from any perspective.
(See Florida fishers break ranks to denounce cruelty to fish, Last convicted shark-dragger Benac will get fishing license back in 2022, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission acts against cruelty to fish, Cownose ray massacre, following shark-dragging, outrages Floridians, and Felony charges filed against Florida shark-draggers.)
Fishing pond deaths outrage Japan
A similar paradox was evident in Japan earlier in August 2022. Japan consumes about 47 pounds of fish per capita, 8.5 million tons of fish per year altogether.
Only China, with ten times the Japanese human population, consumes more.
Yet a midnight burglary at the Tsuribori Honpo indoor catch-and-release fishing pond in Toki, Gifu Prefecture, shocked the nation. The burglars, before stealing cash and electronics, cut the electricity to the building, shutting down the security cameras and alarms, and the air pumps and filters that kept the Tsuribori Honpo fish alive.
More than 3,000 fish were dead, leaving only about 30 survivors, before owner Kazunori Yamada arrived in the morning to discover the damage.
“Fish are living things”
“Fish are living things, and I wish [the thieves] could understand the value of their lives,” Yamada told media.
Donors and volunteers helped Yamada to recover from the loss of fish and reopen.
Fish Feel founder Mary Finelli, meanwhile, was unimpressed with Yamada’s professed concern for the dead fish, whom Yamada described as his “employees,” and with his whole business model.
“’Employees’? Tortured captives,” Finelli responded on the Facebook page for Fish Feel, “but of course he makes himself out to be the victim. They are beings, not ‘things,’ and he only values the money he could make off of them,” Finelli charged.
Tap water kills
Almost simultaneously, the Center for Aquatic Biology & Aquaculture at the Davis campus of the University of California on August 12, 2022 reported the deaths of about 21,000 fish from chlorine exposure.
Among the dead fish were reportedly green and white sturgeon, chinook salmon, tilapia, and koi, including representatives of two salmon runs that are considered endangered and seven that are considered threatened by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
“Something similar happened at the University of Alberta in 2017,” the Washington Post recalled and Catherine Offord of The Scientist summarized, “when around 9,000 fish were killed by chlorine exposure. In that instance, the cause turned out to be a power failure that halted two dechlorination pumps, allowing a subsequent influx of chlorinated tap water into fish tanks.”
“Very distressing for the staff”
Like the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, the University of California at Davis issued a prepared statement emphasizing the emotional impact of the fish deaths on the aquarium caretakers.
“The people who conduct and support the research at this facility are conservationists, ecologists and veterinarians whose life work is devoted to understanding and supporting these species,” spokesperson Andy Fell said.
“We recognize that this loss is particularly devastating to our community. “It’s very distressing for all the staff,” Fell added, noting that staff had raised some of the fish on site from eggs.
Meanwhile, the Utah Investigative Journalism Project disclosed that, “In June 2022 the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources had been raising almost 500 pheasant hatchlings they planned on releasing into the wild for the fall hunt. Then an employee went on vacation and a miscommunication resulted in 470 of the hatchlings dying for lack of water and food.”
Since the pheasant hatchlings were to have been shot for sport within a few months anyhow, no alligator tears appear to have been shed for them.
Neither were tears shed, any humans mentioned to be suffering, or anyone criminally investigated when, also in mid-August 2022, the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission conducted what it called a “chemical renovation” of 300-acre Wagon Train Lake, southeast of Lincoln.
What that meant was poisoning the lake with the pesticide rotenone to kill “unwanted fish species” including common carp, white perch, and gizzard shad, alleged to have been “threatening water quality and crowding out game species,” such as channel catfish, crappie, bluegill and bass, all of which were also killed but were to be restocked.
Exterminating fish in order to save them is business-as-usual in wildlife management for the benefit of hunters and fishers.
At that, the toll on fish from wildlife management is a fraction of the numbers killed for disease control in fish farming.
On July 14, 2022, for instance, SeafoodSource reported that “Norway Royal Salmon has elected to cull all 800,000 fish at its Elva salmon farming site in the Alta Municipality, Finnmark County, Norway, after it detected the presence of the disease Parvicapsulose. Norway Royal Salmon confirmed the decision in a filing on the Oslo stock exchange, saying that the cull will take place for “welfare reasons.”
Had the cull not affected the Norway Royal Salmon stock price, it most likely would never have come to public notice.
“Speciesism” or just hypocrisy?
One might ask whether prosecuting the killing of a single individual fish while ignoring the deaths of hundreds of thousands constitutes speciesism, or just hypocrisy?
A parallel to the human treatment of fish also exists in the human treatment of farmed animals: injuring one pig, sheep, goat, cow, or chicken may be criminal, but systematically killing millions is agribusiness.
Comparably, killing one person is commonly prosecuted as murder, for which the perpetrator may be imprisoned or executed, yet killing millions is warfare, whose surviving practitioners are routinely awarded medals and elected to high office.
In this light, how humans value animal life and view other human lives may not be remarkably different.
And how humans perceive such situations may not differ much from how fish do.
While a single fish is conspicuous, and therefore vulnerable, for a school of fish there is safety in numbers, with any one fish much less likely to be isolated and eaten, at least until humans arrive with nets.