Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gus the Grouper, Part 2: So How Do You Tell a Good Fish Tale?

Part 2 of a series on angling and conservation in Florida focused on the Goliath Grouper. Inspired by Jeremy Wade’s by-catch at Fort Pierce Inlet, which was broadcast on River Monsters, the series looks at many different ways of interpreting this fish and its relationship to human interests. Click here for all posts labeled “gus the grouper.”

Photo courtesy of via Creative Commons.  This isn't Gus, by the way.

This is what I’ve recently caught at the end of my hook: a story about a famous extreme angler named Jeremy Wade and a 350 pound Goliath grouper from Fort Pierce named Gus.

It all started out when someone from the Florida diving community pointed out that Jeremy Wade's catch of Gus was illegal on the River Monsters Facebook page. I had posted a photo of Jeremy Wade and Gus not once, but twice, prior and after the season four premiere, unaware of the regulation.

Ignorance is indeed bliss, because once I read the regulation, I felt like a hypocrite. How would anyone ever take my fishing stories seriously if I turned a blind eye to conservation? Especially as a female in a sport dominated by men who both cast lines and pen lines about fishing?

This series is my retraction.

It’s also much more than that.

Ten interviews and many more pages of notes later, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone I spoke to was in one way or another passionate about Gus.

And I got sucked into it.

Gus has been on my mind. He has almost become an obsession. Knowing what I know now, how does the journalist in me remain impartial with cold, empirical facts when Gus himself is no longer a mere fish but the object of human passions for the sea and its creatures?

And how does the storyteller in me resist the temptation to weave a good yarn?

This isn’t just a story about fishing. It’s a story about passion.

This is a story about passion conflicted with science, business and politics, all seemingly impossible to untangle like a bird’s nest on a miscast reel.

Honestly, I can tell this story in three sentences: “Goliath grouper are protected. According to official sources, Jeremy Wade violated a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission regulation about possessing the fish above water.  Angler gets slap on wrist for broadcasting.”

That’s your Cliff Notes. End of story.

But this is also a narrative about storytelling. About me trying to figure out how to even tell this convoluted story. Because it's bigger than River Monsters or Jeremy Wade.  It's about Gus and the people who interact with him in Florida: recreational anglers, commercial fisherman and divers. It's about a consciousness -- or lack thereof -- particular to Florida regarding our natural resources.

Anyone who has watched enough River Monsters episodes knows that it’s never really about the fish. Compelling fish stories aren’t mundane; no one ever regales you with facts about gear, hooks and leaders. Those stories are clinical.  If that's what you want, browse the pages of a technical manual.

It’s the human interpretation of the fish and its relationship to culture that matters. It's the experience of the angler, his or her contact with the animal that moves us, brings us closer to something primal within. It's these stories that capture our imaginations and redefine our relationships to the natural world.

We don’t exist in a vacuum, separated from denizens of watery realms. What we don’t know fascinates us and what we do come to know, beckons our innate curiosity. These fish, suddenly, so remote and alien, become part of our world, our casual dinner conversation.

Well, that was just a lot of hot air from me about the mystery of fishing for sport.

To be frank, every single time I hook a fish and release it I ask myself the same question: why the hell am I doing this if I'm not going to eat it?  What's the point? This is the moral dilemma of every angler who doesn't fish for subsistence.  The very conservation community, the divers whose point of view I respect, are in conflict with my own compulsion.  At the end of the day, the best conservation is to never touch a fish at all, but we are humans, some of us eat fish and to not fish would be impractical.

In many ways, the series River Monsters has mastered the art of fish tales for mass audiences, bringing finny creatures to the fore without espousing their destruction. But many would disagree. Some say Jeremy Wade demonized Gus, when the fish is really just a gentle giant.  And then there are those who wish to ban the laws that protect Gus, even though his kind was nearly fished to extinction just a few decades ago.

And somewhere in this murky water there is a truth that gives the fish a fighting chance while we humans co-exist with our environment.

"Gus the Grouper" isn’t just some fanciful idea I concocted to feel less guilty about my own lack of knowledge about a particular regulation. It isn’t just about what Jeremy Wade did in Florida last summer. There’s also a great opportunity here for education, to get to know Gus and his kind, to be more mindful as anglers.

Armed with as much knowledge as I can possibly acquire before going down into a deeper research wormhole, I’m going to tell this story the way I know best, from my heart, without losing sight of the facts.

Part 3, coming up soon.


Christy said...

:) :) :) - Love, Gus the Grouper.

Terry Ginis said...

The message of River Monsters is to show that large species of fish are disappearing from freshwater locations around the world. Jeremy is mearly the catalist for a worldwide problem that should concern everyone, not just those of us that seek to find and catch the world's large freshwater fish.When the largest species can no longer be found, smaller species will be the next to disappear. The ocean is undergoing many species reductions, but since there are so less freshwater rivers and lakes in the world-the problem is in a more critical state.