Fish provide an alibi for doing nothing – ‘Gone Fishing’. They comfort us after a broken heart – ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. And they help us count our units: ‘drink like a fish’
They’re not just vital for the marine ecosystem – they’re crucial for idioms. Which is why reports of fish jumping to their deaths are alarming.
I was rambling along a pier in a Hong Kong marina this week. There were three fish gasping on the wooden slats. Odd. Was this Dignitas for fish?
Or a cult, led by a big fish, pent on a suicide pact?
I didn’t know what to do. I was a fish out water. Buddies, I thought, we are in this together.
Fish talk: Different kettle of fish. Cold fish. Bigger fish to fry. Language is rich in such idioms – it’s like fish are omega 3 for words.
For this reason, as well as for nature, we must save fish. Fish extinction would mean Eroding Idiomatic Diversity. And there is a substantial threat. Sightings of fish jumping to their deaths are not unusual in Asian waters.
In July, at a port in Taiwan, thousands of fish jumped from the water and onto a fisherman’s boat.
And in 2015, tens of thousands of small fish were reported to be seen flying out of the sea in Stanley, in the south of Hong Kong.
Taking on the role of Saviour of Fish To Protect Idioms (perplexingly but luckily vacant) I started to investigate possible causes.
Dead fish can be caused by algal bloom, which starves fish of water. Or waste being dumped nearby.
Or, more intriguingly, terror. In Taiwan, a big fish chasing the other fish was given as a possible theory.
Jumping fish might also be a natural phenomenon that, quite simply, happens seasonally. This was one guess for the Stanley sardine exodus.
Or insects can lead fish into temptation. Fishy spots a yummy flea or fly above, but its leap towards lunch doesn’t end well.
All reasonable explanations, but now we get to a hypothesis that convinces me: fish jump after getting a fright caused by horns from shipping vessels. Aha.
In 2013, French carmaker, Peugeot Citroen found that car horns are honked 40 times more often in China than in Europe, and they adapted their vehicles’ tooting toughness for the Chinese market.
It’s no fish-style jump to think this tendency towards over-use could extend to horns on board ships skippered by Chinese. Super yachts are being targeted by marinas in Hong Kong. Will more luxury cruisers with Chinese captains mean increased honking locally of horns? And more fish jumping out of the water?
I’ve heard expats fondly call Hong Kong ‘Honkers’. Super yacht captains, do not mistake this abbreviation for the type of person welcome here.
Back at the marina, I gently nudged one fish towards the water. Its flat body didn’t take well to nudge-based motion and flipped over.
I picked it up and, at the side of the dock, let it slither into the sea. It didn’t move. Upsettingly, I was too late.
China is now even using acoustic cameras to catch drivers who honk without good reason. The camera and microphones record a two-second video, and analyse if the driver has reason to sound the horn. If not, it’s a fine.
If horny Chinese super yacht skippers start to erode the marine ecosystem by frightening fish into leaping to their deaths, I suggest the government here installs similar acoustic cameras in Hong Kong waters. Preserve fish. Preserve idioms. We need a ‘Fish and Ships’ law.