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Reef Fish and Oil Don't Mix

Reef Fish and Oil Don't Mix

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, July 18, 2017/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, marine life, sustainability, environment

                                                 Damselfish (credit: Jacob Johansen, UT Austin)

In what might seem counter-intuitive, new ecological research shows that fish which population coral reefs react badly to petroleum-based oil in their environment. Publishing in Nature Ecology & Evolution, investigators from the University of Texas, Austin (UT-A) and the Australian Research Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (ARC) found a laundry list of altered behavior patterns for coral reef fish. According to the new article, Oil exposure disrupts early life-history stages of coral reef fishes via behavioural impairments, when oil-based 'polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons' (PHA's) are introduced into coral reef environments fish make "bad choices" having drastic effects on their survival and reproduction. 

Oil can enter the oceans from many sources including: drilling exploration, spills, transport and urban or industrial runoff. The new study documents that negative consequences are numerous. Working on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, in the Red Sea, in Asia, the Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean the impacts included:

"elevated mortality and stunted growth rates of coral reef fishes; alterations in habitat settlement and anti-predator behavior. and increased risk taking which exacerbate predator-induced mortality. These results suggest a previously unknown path, whereby oil and PAH exposure impairs brain cognitive processing and behaviors necessary for the successful settlement and survival of larval fishes."


                      Life-cycle of Coral Reef Fishes  (credit: Nature Ecology & Evolution) 

The researchers conclude that the environmental stressors cause impairments to individual fish who:

"make inappropriate choices that severely alters the outcome of all early life-history by increasing pre- and post-settlement mortality; reducing settlement success onto suitable habitat; increasing predator-induced mortality; and reducing growth rates of exposed larval fish. These stages form the basis for all recruitment and maintenance of species diversity and abundance in coral reef ecosystems and could have detrimental consequences for ecosystem health and resilience at large."

In other words, some of the most important behavior for fish survival and coral reef sustainability. Now, the question should become how to keep such environmental and reef stressors to a minimum.



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