Now. What I want you to imagine first is a large circular structure with no roof. Maybe the image that comes to mind is something like a corral or a bullring, but that’s too big. Maybe you think of a circus ring instead, which is better, but this thing is much deeper than that. It has much higher walls. Like a Wall of Death, you wonder? Think Wall of Death if that helps. But filled with water, almost to the brim, and emitting a dull industrial hum. Hear it, as best you can. See it from above. Like you’re hovering above it, looking down, the way they say you hover above your own body in a hospital bed when you’re just about to die. Like in the movies, you think? That’s good. That’s exactly what I mean. We’re on the same wavelength now. From that height, you can see the water inside this thing swirling, not unlike water going down a plughole. Slightly dipped in the centre and swollen at the circumference. But looking closer you see that this swirling is not the only movement in the giant tub. Wedded to it is something deeper or darker, as though an invisible hand were twirling a giant length of seaweed round and round, entraining the rotation of the water itself. In fact, looking closer again, you notice not one but dozens of dark ribbons wheeling, from the hollow bullseye right out to the rim. More, you see that each circle is not a continuous thick thread but many segments – it’s all coming into focus now, as in a particularly vivid dream – it’s a huge tank filled with water, and full of huge fish, all the same colour, shape and size. The same does not mean similar. It does not mean merely of common species. These fish are all replicas, down to the last detail. Do you understand? In colour, they are a dull tin underneath and up the sides, and on top a dull brown, like trout. No green or blue. None of the glitz or glamour of tropical fish. Round and round they go, all at precisely the same pace, making it impossible to tell if it’s the current carrying them along, like flotsam, or if it’s their own effort that produces the unending clockwise wash. Maybe the image reminds you of those old cowboy movies you watched on Saturday mornings as a kid, with the Indians (as you called them then) circling the wagons endlessly, getting picked off one by one, and still they kept circling, circling, which never made any sense to you, did it? I’ve put that image in your mind and now I want you to forget it, if you can. That’s hard, I know. But I want you to focus on my words as you hear them, in strict sequence, and one after the other to enjoy the concrete images they create in your mind. Now, for instance, I want you to look up and see dozens and dozens of identical tubs laid out in perfectly spaced rows in every direction, almost as far as the eye can see. It’s some kind of laboratory fish farm on a scale beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Looking into the distance, you see that what you’d taken for fairly shallow tubs resemble, in fact, roofless silos, of the kind used in the food and feed and petrochemical industries. The sides are corrugated-metal sheets, giving them a vintage look, and several storeys high, meaning each must contain tens of thousands of circling fish. Looking directly down again, you see no bottom to the well, if you can think of it as a kind of well, the light can’t penetrate so much living flesh, it’s so tightly packed, think crowd surge, think pilgrim crush, wheeling about the Kaaba, moving as every human crush moves, with what seems a commanding biological drive. Each individual is man-sized, with certain features – the pointed tail fins, the pointed head – not altogether unlike those of a shark. It also has a ridge running the length of its back that would not be out of place on a dinosaur. They are sturgeon.
Now I want you to imagine a change of scenery, but with the same cast. Same family, new house, if you will. I want you to imagine those same man-sized fish, in their tens of thousands, still turning those same circles, but doing so in the middle of the Atlantic. I don’t mean dispersed. Exactly the opposite. They’re still gathered in a tall, tightly packed column that goes from the surface down into the depths. Still contained, no longer within a sheet-metal silo, but within a cage more or less the same shape and size. This cage is moored to massive apple-green buoys, which are in turn anchored to the sea floor, a few miles off the coast of Tenerife. In the seawater, the circling fish are no less stunning than before, they haven’t changed, and no surprise there, they’ve evolved so little in a hundred million years, living fossils they’ve been called, yet here they’re treated like battery hens, just as the open sea under their cages is treated as an open sewer. I mean the dead zones on the seabed under the endless rain of antibiotics, uneaten feed, dead flesh, shit, I’m ranting now, I know, I like to rant, it calms me, it’s a way of draining off some of this rage I have, there’s so much of it, what a waste. I blame the cages, not the fish. Sea trout, salmon, shrimp, it doesn’t matter, they’re all as bad and they’re spreading, even to the world’s most remote havens, like the seaborne raiders of old – Greek, Trojan, Viking, take your pick – bringing death and destruction wherever they go, from the jewelled waters of the Aegean to Sicily, to Gozo, north to every Irish estuary, as far off as the Outer Hebrides, to the Norwegian fjords. Off the Azores there are cages stuffed with triggerfish, tuna, amberjack. There are gilt-head sea bream off Madeira. Red porgy and yellowtail off Lanzarote. And here, in Tenerife, in their cages, is where our giant sturgeon are to be found. I could go on, but I won’t. These remote volcanic islands are the perfect place to stop.
Flush with the surface of the Atlantic, a metal walkway rounds the top of each sea cage, outside a handrail, like the paddock at a racetrack. The cages themselves are not visible. That is the ocean’s great advantage. Almost everything unpleasant happens out of sight.
If I had more time, I’d love to recite a list of my favourite words, to see their effect on you. I call them crimes. The aquaculture industry calls them something else. Benthic. Infestation. Faecal. Algal. Bloom. The jargon has a feudal music, to my ears, and simply saying those words aloud has a calming effect I can’t quite explain, just as my rants calm me when I’m in a rage. Think of me as an anxious child, if that helps. Think of this as a story I want to hear over and over again, especially the scary parts. I’m someone who’s always liked picking at threads, stickers, scabs. There’s something in loosening a knot, too, I’ve always found hard to resist. If that rope is bound to something at sea, better still. For once, I say, let something or someone else take the reins. Let tide or current tow the cages away, into an orbit from which they’ll never escape. It is abandon, in every sense of the word, like leaving a comatose drunk on a fairground carousel.
I say loose, release, abandon, but even as I unmoor the sturgeons’ sea cages I know well where they’re bound. They will sail the same current that drew Columbus down from Cadiz to the Canaries, where we are now, and onward, west, and then north, across the calms of Cancer, then east, past the Azores, back to the starting point to begin again, and what’s particularly pleasing, you must agree, is to imagine those magnificent fish spinning endlessly as they go, even as each cage itself turns a vast, slow circle, the same way our planet spins on its axis as it makes its year-long orbit of the sun. The Portuguese and Spanish navigators called that great wheel of wind and current the volta do mar. Today it is known as the North Atlantic vortex – the gyre – famous not as a sea route but for the world of waterborne rubbish it reels in and traps in the area the ancients called the Sargasso Sea, because of the masses of sargassum seaweed trapped there too, spiralled across the surface like strings of human waste, as by the endless reel of a sewage-treatment plant, brown on blue, a striking combination, this year’s black. Year after year, winds and currents make their unhurried round. Think of a giant tongue (not as thing but as sensation, a teasing, graceful thrum) endlessly rimming the asshole of the world. Turn, turn, turn, is the song, and everything obeys. Everything returns, to precisely this spot, where New World and Old ship their floatable disposables to meet and mingle, their bottle tops and tampons, their Q-tips and fag butts, syringes and lollipop sticks, in the same way and by the same routes they famously send their eels here to spawn, and die, and hatch. I will return are the first words everyone learns. The circuit that leads the eels away, north and west, to the estuaries and inland waterways of their fathers, is the same circuit that will one day bring them back. Everyone wants to die in the place they were born, I’ve heard said. Growing up, I often heard my mother recite the legend of a well in a distant corner of our farm, in the townland of Carrigadrohid, in which an eel had been living for five generations, my mother – the legend – said. That eel could only have got there by slithering across the fields from a lake half a mile away – a lake that had not existed when the eel or my mother were born, either one. It was a mere stream until they built the Inniscarra Dam. That didn’t matter. There is no expiry date to most of the orders we obey. It was written, as they say, and my mother regularly announced the miracle to come: one day that eel would crawl back up the walls of the well and start to trickle through the long grass, like something washed downhill during a flood.
Like those man-sized sturgeon in their cages, the eel too is a dinosaur. For 70 million years, it has been living inside the same dream, down its well. And there it waits, as far from the sea as it ever will be. This is its lesson, which I was absorbing all through my childhood, unawares. How to wait. How long exactly? Who knows? Who knows what makes it the right year to stir, or the right day? But one day the time for waiting is over, and the time comes to act. One day the eel stirs, as if waking from its dream, and knows it is time to go home.
All those years, biding its time, it ate everything, alive or dead, organic or synthetic, that ever bred or blew or fell or was dumped down that well. When I was a boy, I myself often threw down bottles and cans and old shoes and even once a whole tyre, just to hear the splash, and later, when my mother was sick, I threw in coins and made my wish, and after she died I threw in all the boxes of pills she left behind. But now, on the day of departure, the eel takes its very last bite, and both ends – cakehole and arsehole – shut and shrivel and seal. Which reminds me of my mother again. One day she stopped eating too.
From here on, everything goes backwards, like a film reel run in reverse. You see the eel moving – with weird, jerky motions – up out of his well, then downhill through the fields, to find the little stream by which he arrived a lifetime ago, and from there start the long journey back towards his birthplace, with a blind sense of self-importance we ourselves would do well to imitate. By day he hides. By night he threads the ditches, the phantom rivers, the misplaced lakes, in search of a seascape no less real to him than the landscape I’m now picturing for you. I repeat: in reverse. Every glimpse you catch, any time he must leave the water, the eel looks smaller than before. A little more shrivelled. A little more pale. With only one certainty: not eating, he will last longer than my mother did.
Which way to go? And how to know? By some internal compass, or by the stars? By some map tattooed in his brain, of his journey’s outward leg? No. He follows gravity. Lets himself be carried downstream or downhill. Like you, he has finally learned to surrender, and once he starts he soon learns to love it, and then he cannot be stopped. No obstacle is his match. No road, no wall, no dam. He will dry-hump his way over it, shamelessly, and find the river again, every time, all the way to the estuary, to that first taste of salt. This is what he’s wanted, without knowing it, all his life. With hundreds and thousands of his fellows, to be flushed like waste out into the ocean from which he came, and sucked anonymous back into the great Atlantic gyre, route of the great explorers, the slavers’ silent collaborator, and final home of the North Atlantic’s waterborne trash.
By now, unfed, the eels are shrunk and faded beyond recognition, almost. They look like used condoms by the time they leave the coast. As long and as milky and as flat. Already they seem too insubstantial to make their last great journey, thousands of kilometres, swimming months on end, not towards safety or sustenance but to exhaustion, to reach the place where all their kind are born, and where they spawn, and where they die. The further they go from land, the thinner and paler they get, like everything washed out to sea, so that by now, from any distance, it’s hard to pick them out from the mess they’re swimming in – lengths of optic cable and fishing line and floss, and orphaned iPod earphones, bud and tail, outriders for the shrivelled eels, think tadpole, think sperm, think Gathering, every wrinkled straggler the gyre pulls in, from all points of the compass, like the drawstring pucker of an old mouth. Carried on the ocean currents, they look like nothing that’s ever lived. Not so long ago they were elvers, now they’re glass eels again, and still the reel keeps running backwards, until they shrivel to leptocephali, from the Greek leptos, thin, delicate, slight, and kephalē, head. By the time they reach the Sargasso Sea, they look like nothing more than the shreds of a contact lens.
On the same current, at the same time, comes our flotilla of giant sea cages all the way from Tenerife, still full of sturgeon, each packed column still turning, turning, like something drilling down into the sea. No great leap, in my mind, to the swim tanks in which fish farmers now put wild-caught glass eels for months on end, hoping to simulate the odyssey their bodies are programmed to make, trick them into believing their life cycle is complete, they’ve found their way home, it’s time to breed – no great leap because that’s precisely the type of tank my own mother bought (the Endless Pool, she called it) when I was still a kid and she was still part of the eternal youth brigade. It doesn’t work. They refuse to reproduce in captivity, unlike you and me. The wild eels are after something else. Even when they finally arrive (now shrivelled, remember, to little more than larvae) they refuse to stop, even to rest, they keep going, straight down, as though fleeing the light. Imagine that. Minus one mile. Minus two. Imagine that other-worldly world down there, neither Old nor New, populated by larvae, plankton, flecks of plastic, shreds of rubber, microscopic jellyfish, God knows, retch and wrack of what the brains call the Photic Zone. The French call that moult La Neige Marine. In English, Marine Snow. In the depths of the oceans, even in the height of summer, that snow falls softly on the continental shelf off Cadiz and Casablanca, and farther westwards, beneath those sea cages still moored off Tenerife, and beneath those loosed into the Canary Current and spiralling west, over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, deep down into its valleys, and over its plains. At the ocean floor, the drifts are deep, swaddling wrecks and relics of every kind, every type of ship ever sailed or sunk, caravels and cogs, Byzantine dromon and Viking drakkar, U-boats and Greek gauloi, the silt of centuries slow-motion swallowing the hulls, the crosstrees, the mast tips. You know that joke: Bono onstage, bringing his hands together overhead, over and over, then telling the stadium, Every time I clap my hands, somewhere a child dies of hunger, and from the crowd the wit shouts, Then stop clapping your fucking hands! You know well it makes no difference, the snow keeps falling if you imagine it and keeps falling if you don’t, it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing to see, it falls out of and into total, permanent dark, and nothing to hear, because it makes no sound. Yet how easy it is to follow. How easy – minus image, minus sound – to feel the same pull. Everything that floats or swims meets the same end, it breaks up or it breaks down, big and small, whale and plankton, and the plankton-like larvae to which our eel has now shrunk, and the plankton-like scraps of plastic and debris, down they all go, wayward and flickering, fading to grey, to black. With them dissolves and dwindles the green, solid world in which they once lived, and all hope of a future that resembles the past. On calm days, the surface is melted glass. Beneath it, the snow drifts further and further from the light, forever falling, silently, through the liquid part of the universe, and faintly falling to its final end, beyond the rival indifference of the living and the dead.
How nice that sounds. And how easy to feel you’ve been left behind. Which you have. You’ve been good. You’ve been listening with your eyes closed, trying to picture my every word. But now, opening your eyes, the world you saw when they were closed is gone. You are not underwater. There is no snow. You find yourself standing, instead, on the viewing platform of one of those sea cages unleashed what feels like a lifetime ago. Looking down, you can’t see far, the light can’t penetrate, the giant sturgeon are too tightly packed, with no obvious difference between any one specimen and the next. They’re all too alike, every individual seems striking, unique and exactly the same – these magnificent man-sized fish with the pointed tail fins, the pointed head, the wicked dorsal ridge. They all look the same but they’re not, the swimmers are male and female, mixed, but you’d have to be an expert – fish fanatic or marine biologist – to tell them apart, and even then the fish would have to be out of the water, and completely still, to locate all the little signs its body bears, like clues at a crime scene, to tell which is which. Imagine that scene now. Rewind the film, one last time. Rewind it all the way back to the lab. Imagine one of those prehistoric fish hoisted by pulley and cradle into the air, then laid – it takes several men to carry the thing – onto a bed of crushed ice. Watch the way the cold gets to work. Watch a lifetime’s struggle flag and calm, until the creature is perfectly quiet except for the gills, flaring and pinching, like an accordion respirator by a hospital bed. An operation is about to be performed. See the stainless-steel kidney tray close by, holding various surgical tools, of the kind that terrorised your mother the night you were born. The woman leaning over the fish certainly looks a consummate professional, from the surgeon’s scrubs she wears, cucumber, and the surgeon’s latex gloves, and the surgeon’s mask, cucumber too, gently puffing and sucking, in sync with the giant gills. She selects an instrument from the tray and, holding the thing like a pen, moves it along the underbelly of the stunned fish, as though it is indeed a pen and she’s marking where best, later, to make the actual cut. But when her hand comes away you see the cut already made, and already beginning to open, like swollen lips, like a soft-centred but thick-skinned fruit – think grenadine, think passion – burst or split, and by its own ripe- or rottenness being forcibly turned inside out. But as the fish’s insides seem to expand, sympathetically something swells inside you, unease growing to fear, that the internals entire are about to splurge out onto the ice, even as the gills keep up their tired gossip, like that bedside ventilator by your mother’s bed at the end. The surgeon seems to feel your horror and want to calm it. At her nod, two anonymous hands close the wound the way they would a book. Then she herself takes a needle and thread from the tray. Watch her sew. She is Vermeer’s lacemaker. She is Penelope. She is a fine-art restorer, and a heroic surgeon, working with the kind of care normally reserved for a gash in a famous canvas or face, doing her best to bring the severed parts together exactly as they were unpieced, with no unsightly tightness or looseness, no folds or wrinkles, no gather, no pucker, to make it an all but invisible repair.
Why cut a fish open, then just sew it up again? you might ask. What’s the point of that?
It’s a caesarean section, is the simple answer.
Then where are the eggs? is the question that in turn probably provokes.
The answer to that is even more simple. There are none. For the moment, everything you see is practice. It’s a caesarean section performed on a male fish.
Practice for what? you ask.
Practice for female fish.
So male plural too?
Practice makes perfect.
Not at the start it doesn’t. Isn’t that the whole point?
So you lose some fish.
That doesn’t matter?
Because males don’t lay eggs.
But you need them to fertilise the eggs, don’t you?
Fertilised eggs turn into baby fish. Is babies what we really want?
How would I know what we really want? you very reasonably ask.
What we want is unfertilised fish eggs, is the answer to that. For what? To eat. Which is where these magnificent, man-sized sturgeon come in.
So why not just kill the females and take the eggs? you say, which makes me angry, which I like to be.
You’ve seen how big they are. Imagine how long it takes to grow to that size. Think. Every time you kill an individual, that’s a whole new life cycle to start from scratch. So isn’t it better to take the eggs, sew them up, put them back in the water, and harvest them year after year after year?
But what about the males? you ask. Once they’re sewn up, they go back in the water too?
Why? If we don’t need them to fertilise the eggs, aren’t they just taking up space and water and food?
A male presence makes the females more prone to lay eggs, and to lay more of them, and of better quality. How and why is unimportant here. The important thing is what happens when you look down into the cage again, and see everything finally coming into clear focus, indeed frighteningly so, like this year’s must-have camera Christmas ad, big push, every eye, every scale, every louse, every single fish – in this and in every cage in the northern hemisphere – all wheeling clockwise, as if bound to some pitiless astronomical principle. Looking down from a great height, you see fish beyond number, or more precisely of a number the human mind can reach for but never grasp. Some are female. Some male. Of the males, some have had their bellies slit open and stitched shut again, but that is of almost no consequence, because everything you see – even here, at the eye of the vortex – is practice. The laying season is not yet quite come in, but come in it will, soon. Meanwhile the vertical columns whorl, as water whorls when being sucked down the drain. In their cages, the males have not the slightest foreboding of what comes next. Nor do you. But watch long and close enough and you will see a little red spot appear in the water. I would say, like a lone drip from an aquarelle paintbrush, but that might imply it came from above, not from within. It comes from within. It is a wound starting to tear itself apart. Keep watching and in time you see another red spot, more generous, perhaps flowering, and perhaps the first sign of protest from one of the fish. Eventually – more writhing, more red – you see that fish trailing a darker, more solid stain, and sinking, sinking, all the way down, a slow-motion explosion, even as the faithful thousands turn about it, stirring away the soil, mixing it with the falling snow. You are perhaps the least surprised of anyone at what you see, because your expectations were so few or so vague, when you started listening to me. The woman you watched perform the operation is less fortunate. Remember her – the lacemaker, in surgeon’s scrubs? To her, it’s more than a fish she sees come apart and disappear. She feels bad, but is not to be blamed, because the performance of such C-sections is a novelty to her and her teams. The huge quantities of equipment and fish she has charge of might seem to say otherwise, but everything – the entire industry, you might say – is still at an experimental phase. Only now that the laying period is finally coming in has she started practising the surgery she must have perfect, later, for the ladies. The surgical thread she used for the stitching is designed to hold for about seven days, then slowly dissolve. May dissolve sooner in salt water, the label says. That would be adequate healing for human flesh, for which such thread is intended, but is too quick for fish, whose flesh takes much longer to bind well enough to withstand the natural pressure exerted from within. The woman with the needle and thread does not know that yet. This was her first batch. One by one, then – and each time about a week after its pseudo-caesarean – the bellies of the males begin to split, tear and burst. And after a while, though still standing on the cage’s walkway, the lacemaker stops looking down at them, less afraid of what she knows she will see than what she suspects she will feel. You and I can both sympathise. Nothing we ever remember or imagine feels that long ago or that far away when we close our eyes. We feel that when we open our eyes we’ll be right back there in the middle of it, in its fullest confusion, like a dream where you’re young again, yet feel overwhelmed with a foretaste of all the troubles to come.
The poor choice of thread came to light too late, after the operatedfish were all back in their cages. Even if those cages were still anchored off the coast of Tenerife, and not adrift, it would be practically impossible to remove and redo them. The males would be too hard to identify, and catch, and extract. They are too alike. To everyone but themselves, they are not worth the trouble. In any case, there is not the time. Even in the best-case scenario, only a lucky few could be saved. In the meantime, they turn in circles – those in cages still anchored offshore, and those adrift in the open sea. That is their great duty, which they perform with such vigour, and such tenacity, and with such a remarkable absence of joy.
Photograph © Bernhard Lang, Fish Farms 003, 2017, from the Fish Farms series