30.9.10

Fish of the Week: Halibut

[This content recycled from my now mothballed website, excitablemedia.com.]

Let us pretend for a moment that the coming election actually means something, that the political choice before us represents a valid ideological contrast. If so, the latest Pioneer Press poll again confirms what we had already known, that most people have their political minds made up. For the vast majority of the voting population, it seems their resolve is unshakably firm, and come hell or high water they're going to vote for or against George W. Bush.

[A smaller amount exist in the Bering Sea.]


Me, I'm well within that category. I can't think of a single thing that could possibly happen that would make me vote for the [then Republican] incumbent. And I've talked to my Republican opposition, and been struck by similar stubbornness. It seems that no amount argument could make a successful inroad. We are the un-swing voters, and I keep wondering from whence we come . . . Is obstinacy somewhere in our genetic code? Or are we conditioned from birth to be decisive? Do we simply vote the way our parents voted, so that politics becomes a sadistic form of Darwinism: which political party can pop out the most kids? Finally, we must ask: Is it nature or nurture that creates the modern fanatic?

To answer this rather complex question, I'd like to introduce a brand-new symbol for modern politics: the noble halibut. Perhaps you're familiar with the old saying "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." A wonderful saying, both pithy and profound, though I should point out that hardly anyone can understand it. A more modern rephrasing might read: "political paradigmata recapitulates halibuts."

Blind-sided: one halibut's tale

The halibut begins life as an egg, one of roughly three million eggs laid annually by each halibut mother, and our young halibut larva (let's just say he was born off the Alaskan coast, somewhere near Unalaska Bay) free-floats in the water, drifting along with the tides, displaying no sign of volition. Let's call him Harry.

Sometime during Harry's days as a carefree floater an unusual thing begins to happen. His fishy-face, which up to this point looked much like every other fishy-face in the sea, begins to move. One of his fishy-eyes starts to crawl slowly across his face, migrating across the top of his fishy-skull, until it sits right smack next to his other fishy-eye. This side of the fish, the side with the closely-grouped eyes, becomes colorful, eventually boasting a rich pallete of browns and reds while the other, eye-less side pales and drabs.

At this point our hero, Harry, becomes a bottom-feeder, and consumes copious quantities of anchovies while migrating in a clockwise direction through the Alaskan sea. He grows, over time, to the prodigious weight of 492 pounds, at which point he is caught by the longline of an Alaskan fishing trawler, the Partisanship, whereupon his head is solidly clubbed, removed, and his interior fletches are transported to a Red Lobster in Medford, Oregon.


The moral

Q: What does our story teach us?
A: Three things come to mind.

-This essay
As this essay said, our fish tale tells us three things. First, we learn that fish are delicious, and halibut even more so. They have minimal bones, they're rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and they can be baked, broiled, poached, pan-fried, or barbecued. Culinarily speaking, the halibut is most versatile.

Second, questions arise regarding ideology and vision. The halibut is, as I hope you have weened, a flatfish, and a member of the right-eye flounder family, and thus almost one-dimensional. Other members of this family include the plaice, turbot, sole and dab . . . but it is the halibut that stands out as the largest and most plentiful right-eye flounder in the sea. Its size withstanding, it is the flatness of this flatfish that carries profound peripheral consequences. You see, like Rush Limbaugh's audience, the halibut can only peer out of one side of its head, and thus tends to have a very deterministic opinions about which way is up. The world of halibut is definitely one-sided.

We should note that, though a member of the family of "right-eye flounder," many of the world's halibuts actually have two left eyes. At an early age the eyes of the young halibut move either to the left or right side of the fishy-skull, determining forever which side its head will achieve dominance. In fact, the way it breaks down the halibut schools are almost evenly-split between right and left, and were they to be mapped, there would be a distinct red-school / blue-school divide. Along Alaska's coast, Harry's home turf, roughly 70% are right-eyed whereas the "starry flounder" halibut are equally left-eyed. While the California halibut are evenly split, the Japanese halibut are uniformly left-eyed. Truly, the halibut live in a world of stark contrast.

[The secret to successful halibut cookery is to not overcook.]

Our third lesson is more difficult, harsh, almost unexpected: Through halibut, we learn of the innate viciousness of the media-political complex. You see, in our complex conceit, the fisherman represent the hybrid monster that is media-driven politics crossed with politically-driven journalism. These well-equipped titans sail the seafood-rich seas with aplomb and derring-do, ruthlessly harvesting partisan fish to the yearly tune of 25,000 tons. And as recently as 1995 the halibut fishing season was brief, allowing only four short 48-hour windows of halibut opportunity. Fisherman hoping to maximize their halibut catch would take outrageous risks, and halibut fishery became a ruthless competition. The closest analogy would be political campaigning during the weeks leading up to election day.

Now, thanks to the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC), halibut are caught according to an individual quota system. Needless to say, the influence of Canadian common sense means that things have gotten a bit more relaxed for halibut fisherman, though they still go to great lengths to plumb the deep.

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