Publication date: 2 March 2019
The body was in plain view, laid out on a tabletop a metre off the floor and framed by a circle of vibrant-green leaves. A good life had been led, but it was one that had been cut short.
A word was uttered, bringing the small group of people to attention. The only sound now came from an air-conditioning unit, which was cooling a room that earlier it had been warming. The three people most interested in seeing the body quickly arranged themselves into a queue and approached the table in turn. The first person peered down and then slowly stepped back, their manner betraying an uneasy feeling. The next stayed a little longer, staring at the body as they wiped a handkerchief across their sweating forehead, before retreating in a similar manner to the first. The third person approached with more confidence. They reached over the body to grab a metal fork and, before moving away, used it to prod the mouth.
A discerning student of light would have noticed an apparent dulling of the fork when it was placed against the lustre of sunlight reflected by the body's scales. (The shafts of sterile light from the bulbs in the ceiling had no part to play in this hypothetical effect.) The scale's reflective properties had helped their bearer, a sea bass, match the incident light of her submarine surroundings and evade the gaze of countless predators during her six-year life. But they were of no use against a vast, cone-shaped net of the type that humans call a 'demersal trawl'. Blindly dragged through aquatic depths, this gaping mouth was grave news for the sea bed and all its dependants.
No one said a eulogy, but if they had they may have found the following facts useful. This sea bass stretched seventeen inches from mouth to tail and had just reached maturity. She was caught while swimming in an aggregation off the south-west coast of Britain, just before she had had a chance to spawn. She might have lived for twenty more fertile years. Chased to the point of exhaustion and crushed into the narrow end of the net, she had thrashed with all her remaining spirit in a vain struggle to pull in water through her gills. And so expired the will of this elegant nocturnal huntress, as tormented in dying as she had been free in life.
Among the other life-forms torn out of the sea by this particular demersal trawl were three longnosed skates. All were fatally injured in their struggle to escape: they were hurled overboard by the humans inspecting the contents of the net. The deaths pushed their species ever closer to 'endangered' status. Also jettisoned were smaller sea bass, who were under the minimum catch size. They were still alive but—with ruptured swim bladders, from the rapid change in pressure, and other disfigurements—they would have severely limited lifespans.
Ting! The holder of the fork was pushing a half-dozen slices of ham onto his empty plate. He was maximizing the privilege he drew from dominant-predator status by avoiding all complex carbohydrates, although he had not himself killed the pig from whose leg the ham had been sliced. In fact, neither he nor anyone in the room knew anything of her life—not even where she had lived.
Presently, all had finished loading their plates and small groups formed. Some people discussed matters they thought most positive among personal and local goings-on: a loft conversion; a bigger car; a new supermarket; a plastic lawn. Others spoke in flurries of enthusiasm about a proposal that their company's directors had delivered before the buffet.
No one talked, or even thought, of the sea bass. Later she was scraped, still whole, off her oval plate and into a black bin bag. There she rested among slices of ham and all the other leftovers.
Life (diminished) went on. ■