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Seattle’s Pike Place fishmongers under fire

In this noisy den of brine and ice, scales and slime, fish always have been part meat, part missile.

One man points to an enormous white-bellied fish, and another man in a wet apron scoops it up from the ice, hoists it over his shoulder and sends it flying 15 feet toward the counter.

“Hali-BUT! Hali-BUT! Heyyyyyy!” six men scream in unison. “Goin’ right home! Goin’ right home!” The counterman catches the hurtling fish neatly between the head and tail fin and slaps it onto a wrapping sheet.

The Pike Place Fish Market is the legendary home of the flying fish: Halibut as big as a wrestler’s thigh, spiky medallions of crab, the smooth, rainbow flesh of Chinook salmon, all become rapid-fire marine rockets in the hands of Seattle’s fishmongers -- who are as famous for the speed of their fish as for its freshness.

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But did anyone ever think of the fish?

Asserting that the practice of lobbing fish above the heads of patrons and tourists at the market and other venues is disrespectful to creatures that already have gone through a lot, an animal rights group is protesting plans to stage a flying-fish exhibition at an upcoming national veterinarians conference in Seattle.

Ultimately, they would like to see the practice banned at the fish market too. They argue that tourists would not be nearly so eager to snap photos if dead kittens or gutted lambs were sailing over their heads.

“Killing animals so you can toss their bodies around for amusement is just twisted,” said Ashley Byrne, senior campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington, D.C.

“And it particularly sends a terrible message to the public when vets call it fun to toss around the corpses of animals. If anyone should be promoting compassion and not callousness toward animals, it should be vets.”

The 102-year-old Pike Place Market is perhaps Seattle’s most important institution, a cacophony of commerce in the middle of the city that hosts 10 million visitors a year, including flocks of tourists and Seattleites in search of lunch and fresh flowers.

Stretching three levels down the hillside above Elliott Bay, the narrow, crowded rows of stalls and shops begin in the open-air bustle along Pike Street and Western Avenue, opposite the original Starbucks. The air is fragrant with the smells of fish, hot fried mini-doughnuts, Hmong flower sellers’ fresh blooms and sizzling gourmet sausage.

In the seemingly endless warrens of shops in the basement and nearby alleys, visitors might find anarchist treatises, herbal tinctures, vintage comic books and last Friday’s newspaper from Sarajevo.

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The market’s flying fish have become such an institution of the Pacific Northwest that the fishmongers often are hired to give demonstrations at conferences, hospitals, schools and company retreats.

Jeremy Ridgway, one of the managers at the market, said that he has done fish shows for the ministry of manpower in Singapore, for schoolchildren in Oklahoma and at countless other venues.

“People get excited about it. They get to hold a fish; they get to touch it. A lot of people have never held a salmon before. In Oklahoma, they don’t have wild fish, unless you count catfish,” he said.

He said fishmongers are bewildered at the notion that their toss -- which they describe as merely the quickest way of getting fish from display cases to the counter -- shows any lack of reverence for a creature that is, after all, their livelihood.

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“I mean, the fish are dead,” Ridgway said. “The thing is, we’re not laughing and making fun of them. . . . It’s just Point A to Point B. That’s why we do it.”

“Two crabs!” somebody yells, and the smart ones in the crowd quickly duck.

In a letter to the veterinarian association, PETA Director Sarah King said the flying fish demonstration represents callous disregard for the suffering the creatures undergo before they come to the table.

“There is more than enough scientific evidence to prove that fish feel pain and that they do not die well at the hands of the fishing industry,” she said, citing numerous studies that show fish have intelligence as well as sophisticated social structures.

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“When the fish used in these ‘tosses’ are pulled up from the depths of the ocean, they undergo the excruciating pain of decompression. The intense pressure often ruptures their swim bladders and damages other internal organs. Then the fish slowly suffocate or are bludgeoned to death. Others are still alive when they are cut open. The fish toss celebrates cruelty to marine animals,” King wrote.

W. Ron DeHaven, chief executive of the American Veterinary Medical Assn., said that the flying fish demonstration was scheduled during the convention’s July 11 opening session as a team-building exercise for as many as 10,000 veterinarians, receptionists and veterinary technicians.

“We start from a fundamental standpoint as an association, where we support the use of animals for human purposes, such as food and fiber, exhibition and for use as pets and companions, and we think this is consistent with our principles,” he said.

At the same time, he said, “we wouldn’t want to do anything that would appear to be disrespectful of animals.”

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PETA has butted heads with the association in the past, criticizing it for not opposing the force-feeding of geese for foie gras or the tight confinement of mother pigs.

So simply switching to rubber fish for the convention demonstration -- after PETA offered to buy such substitutes -- may not be a good option either, DeHaven said.

“The vast majority of our members would support the use of fish for this purpose, and if we are perceived as caving to political pressure from PETA, there is vulnerability for us there, and I don’t want to ignore that,” he said.

Ridgway said the fishmongers were willing to throw the rubber variety for the vets, but wonders what the point would be. “It would be like throwing basketballs,” he said.

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“It’s probably no more disrespectful than eating them,” said Sue Carter, visiting the market one recent afternoon from Mukilteo, Wash., smiling as her salmon sailed toward the cash register. “I wouldn’t want to see a fish gasping for air coming flying through the air. But one that’s already on the way to the table, why not?”

Sympathy was on ice. Few were inclined to think it through, and those who did came up hungry.

“As far as whether I’d want to see dead cats being thrown around, well, who’s going to throw dead cats, unless you’re in China or something?” said Vancouver, Canada, resident Robin Graham. “A dead fish is a dead fish.”

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kim.murphy@latimes.com


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