At PETA's Web site, users can create their own "sea kitten."
At PETA's Web site, users can create their own "sea kitten." peta.org
"Sea kittens" is the new term being used by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for the creatures they believe are in dire need of an image makeover: fish.
"PETA thought that by renaming fish sea kittens, compassionate people who would never dream of hurting a dog or a cat might extend that sympathy to fish, or sea kittens," PETA campaign coordinator Ashley Byrne says.
Byrne says that rebranding fish as sea kittens was obvious.
"Fish not only have the same ability to feel pain as a dog or a cat, but they also communicate with one another," she says. "They have complex social interactions; they form bonds; they express affection by gently rubbing against one another."
The PETA campaign boasts a colorful, interactive Web site aimed at children and their parents. It offers sea kitten bedtime stories and a design-your-own sea kitten in hopes it will build compassion in families.
"Most parents would never dream of spending a weekend torturing kittens for fun with their families, but hooking a sea kitten through the mouth and dragging her through the water is the same as hooking a kitten through the mouth and dragging her behind your car," Byrne says.
PETA has so far only promoted the campaign in North Carolina but plans to take it nationwide, even to Alaska — a state where fishing is both a source of recreation and many families' livelihoods.
In the small fishing town of Unalaska, population just under 4,000, some people see the campaign differently.
"I don't see fish as sea kittens; I see them as food," says 12-year-old Chastity Haskins.
Haskins is looking at the PETA site with her friend, Harmony Wayner, 11.
"It just doesn't look right," Harmony says. Harmony, the fourth generation of a commercial fishing family, looks at the cartoon fish and reads through the information on the site. "They say that they're intelligent, but they're not really," Harmony says. "They have tiny, tiny little brains. Very miniature."
The girls also take issue with the claims that sea kittens are unhealthy to eat.
"They only talk about farm fish — it's not wild Alaskan, which is very good for you," Harmony says.
"I don't understand how it makes sense," says fisheries observer Mary Powers, who works on fishing boats to collect data on the catches. She thinks the campaign, which encourages people to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the hunting of sea kittens, is misguided. "It seems like it's discouraging Americans to buy our product, which I think is unpatriotic."
But Byrne says that even if people lose jobs in the fishing industry through the success of the campaign, they could find work in more sea-kitten-friendly environments.
"So as there is less of a demand for foods like fish, there is more of a demand for other foods, and jobs open up in those industries," Byrne says.
National Marine Fisheries Service management biologist Brian Dixon doesn't see the change coming anytime soon.
"Well, it may raise some money for PETA, but I don't think it'll change the way we manage the fisheries," Dixon says. "I think I may eat some sea kittens tonight."
Anne Hillman reports for member station KUCB in Unalaska, Alaska.