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Oil spills leave reef fish drunken, sunken and confused

Posted by Priya Surendra - 26th August 2017


Our oceans are full of beautifully surreal species, including fish who dwell in coral reefs. Problem: when oil companies plan underwater drilling, it brings the threat of an oil spill reaching their homes.

Scientists have already figured out that oil spills cause physical deformities in fish, but now they’ve also discovered that exposure to oil affects reef fishes’ brain and behaviour in a way that threatens their survival.

The fish struggle to think straight, swim properly, evade predators, communicate with each other, and even breed.

In short, they act like they’re drunk, for the rest of their lives.

Earlier this summer, conservation and marine biology experts from the USA, Norway and Australia published these findings in the Nature, Ecology and Evolution journal. They warned that industrial oil drilling near coral reefs could have serious consequences for the fellow animals that depend on them.

Even in good conditions, less than 10% of fish survive during the early stages of their life. In larval fish (the tiny new-born ones), the main cause of death is their lack of fear towards predators. They become too brave, not realising that they could be eaten in an instant. Once under attack from a predator, a larval fish must escape to survive.

To reach adulthood, fish have to learn how to identify friend from foe and master protective behaviours; travelling in groups, minimising movement in open waters and swimming quickly away from danger.

When they’re exposed to oil, the reef fish in the study lost these instincts and become dangerously free-spirited. It’s like a person losing their common sense after too many drinks, all of which can lead to extreme danger.

Oil spills – a growing threat to nature

Oil is found in waters globally, as oil exploration and transport have led to 340 major marine oil spills in the past 40 years! This has released over 3,900 million tonnes of crude oil in the environment.

As oil companies push into ever-more remote parts of the world, the threat to nature is only getting worse. The Amazon Reef is a great example of this, where BP are planning to drill for oil near a unique, unspoiled 600 mile long coral reef.

Many coral reefs depend on fish for removing algae that can restrict the corals’ growth and development. Fish eat more algae when they’re surrounded by more fish- which is a bit like humans socialising. Except in fishy terms, it has a lot to do with safety in numbers.

Coral reef ecosystems are among the most diverse and most threatened ecosystems. Hundreds of millions of people depend on coral reefs and their fish for income or food, but things like widespread coral bleaching and over-fishing are threatening this way of life.

Fish aren’t immortal

Oil spills have a huge impact on coral reef fish, physically and mentally.  With toxic chemicals distorting their minds, they’re unable to run from predators and end up close to death (or very sadly, dying). Fish play a significant role in the food chain and keep coral reefs healthy. 

The Amazon Reef contains at least 73 species of fish, which will be highly affected by an oil spill if one occurs.

If we can stop BP from drilling near the Amazon Reef, we can protect the species that live there, and maybe even discover new ones too. Act now and sign the petition to help us defend this astonishingly unique environment.


Article Tagged as: Amazon Reef, Featured, Oceans


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