Fishing for love

By Annie Keig

Featured in Capital #75
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Annie Keig ponders what the male anglerfish would say about St Valentine’s Day, if he still had a mouth.

When the male anglerfish meets the love of his life, his face dissolves. For the anglerfish, living largely alone in the abyss of the Atlantic and Southern Oceans, the cliché “there are plenty of fish in the sea” is wildly irrelevant. Finding a mate is so rare that when they encounter each other, the male anglerfish bites into his female counterpart and fuses his face to her body. Slowly, he disintegrates until he’s nothing more than a pair of gonads, which she uses at will. She can carry six mates, each linked to her bloodstream, gleaning nutrients and fertilizing eggs when needed.

Female anglerfish have lures called esca: long spines of the dorsal fins that protrude out of their foreheads with thousands of bioluminescent bacteria on the tip. With this beacon, a female attracts both food and mates. The food can be twice her size and mates can be 60 times smaller. Who needs a dozen red roses when you can have a harem of sexual parasites permanently attached to your fleshy underbelly?

Humans don’t fuse their faces to their partners, but there is an insidious pressure to find “your other half” around this time of year ‒ someone who will balance out your flaws, complete your life, and ride off with you into the sunset. My problem with St Valentine’s Day is that the way it’s often celebrated perpetuates the idea that being in an insular romantic pair is the be-all end-all. It doesn’t acknowledge other connections that are nurturing and life-affirming. If we have to have a day that’s all about love, let’s include all the shades and shapes of it.

Other countries recognise love as more than romance. On 14 February, Finland celebrates Ystävänpäivä, or “Friends Day”. Ystävänpäivä looks a lot like a classic Valentine’s Day; the major difference is that neighbours, friends, and colleagues are the recipients of chocolate and cards. Platonic and familial love are honoured and community connection is celebrated with delicious chocolate. Honouring wider support networks and strong community ties would foster and strengthen people’s sense of belonging.

Thankfully, we live in a vibrant city that allows much more varied and meaningful connection than the kind the anglerfish have in deep ocean habitats. I say, let’s ditch the roses (don’t get me started on the hidden environmental cost of St Valentine’s Day) and celebrate our support networks and connections in the community. Go swimming with some mates. Create a family trivia board. Take your loved ones dancing in the moonlight or for a stroll on the waterfront. 

Most species of male anglerfish die of starvation if they can’t find a mate. If it weren’t for billions of years of evolution, they might want to rethink this arrangement. As it is, they’re probably thrilled to beat the odds. That’s the thing: for anglerfish, it is necessary to become a sexually parasitic pair, and for humans it isn’t. If the anglerfish had a mouth and a brain capable of giving relationship advice, he might say, “Wait, you get to have a partner AND keep your face?” He would encourage humans to celebrate having partners, friends and family who can grow alongside us rather than attached to us. We matter to many people in many different ways, not just the folks who get to see us naked. 


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