It’s Valentine’s Day for hogfish, too. Named for their elongated pig-like snouts, which they use to root around under the ocean floor for mollusks and urchins, the fish are in the thick of their mating season, which peaks in February and March.
This time of year, schools of hogfish come together in warm coastal Florida waters to spawn: Known as harems, these schools typically consist of five to 15 “smaller females dominated by a larger male,” according to research from the University of the West Indies. A male who successfully woos a group of females into forming a harem with him will guard over and exclusively reproduce with them over the course of the mating season.
Recently, a very different group of female specimens have recently expressed their romantic interest in hogfish. A survey conducted by the data analytics team at Fishbrain — a social networking app for fishermen — of 235 members of the Virginia Tech chapter of the Tri Delta sorority found the hogfish could be rather attractive to humans, too.
The women were given a series of anonymized photos of men on dating apps posing with different species of recently-caught fish, and were asked to rank the fish based on which type made the men holding them seem more attractive. Each of the species received a cumulative rating: the hogfish triumphed, with a rating of 6.1, followed by the queen snapper with 5.8. The lowly striped bass came in dead last, at 2.3.
The aphrodisiac qualities of the hogfish may be no surprise to the reader. A close relative of parrotfish, with whom they share a bold tropical palette, the hogfish has delicate fins that give them an effervescent quality more akin to birds than swine. And their Spanish nickname is appropriately glam: “doncella de pluma,” or “lady of the feathers.” (They’re also prized for their sweet, tender meat.)
Still, would-be Casanovas might want to leave the camera at home next time they go spearfishing in the Florida Keys.
Eighty five percent of the women surveyed said that seeing a man holding any kind of fish in his dating profile made him less attractive altogether. (A representative for Fishbrain tried to put a positive spin on this finding in a press release, stating: “More than 1 in 7 (15 percent) women find that men who include photos of themselves with fish on their Tinder profiles are more attractive than those who do not.” Well, sure.)
By now, jokes about men on Tinder holding fish are a shopworn cliche of digital media snark.
The concept was lampooned ad nauseam over the last decade: in a 2013 tumblr, a 2015 Buzzfeed listicle, a 2017 New Yorker satire, and so on. In fact, the topic is such a consistent source of clicks that Fishbrain has previously conducted similar studies to grab media attention. In a 2016 company survey of 1,000 women in the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority, reported by the Washington Post, 46 percent of the women said that seeing men hold recently caught fish in their dating profile pictures made them more attractive. (That time, the great northern tilefish received the highest score.)
If we were to compare the two studies, we would have to conclude that fish pictures have lost more than two thirds of their efficacy at attracting women online in just five years!
And yet men continue to fish and use their catches as dating app fodder. Fishbrain reports that, this year, in a sample of Tinder profiles of 100 men between the ages of 18 to 25 who live within a 50 mile radius of Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg Campus, 42 percent contained photos of men holding up a fish. Some cliches are here for a reason.
In his 1933 painting A Little Fish, the German artist Max Beckmann depicted a man kneeling on a beach before two women, offering up a freshly caught catfish with a fragile smile. The women seem cosmopolitan and knowing; he comes across as a bit of a provincial buffoon. One woman scowls while the other lays a hand on his arm, looks at him with a worried expression, and holds up a finger, perhaps as if to reject his weird gift. The ocean beyond seems to capture the depths of his yearning.
Beckmann painted a lot of fish this way. They “usually appear in his paintings tightly held by a person,” wrote Peter B. Moyle, a professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis in a 1991 research paper on the history of fish in art. “Their symbolic meaning is often blatantly sexual, seeming to represent the trap of human sexuality, which can drag its participants into a dark abyss of mutual imprisonment.”
Such imagery evokes the plight of the Tinder fishermen a century later, caught like everyone else in the universal net of desire. We’re all awaiting judgment, holding up our pitiful trophies and begging someone out there to love us — or, at least, to drag us down into something we might later regret.