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Beneath the Surface of an Oil Spill

How is the oil spill making the fish feel?

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hemorrhages toward its third month, there's a big question about which very little is being said: How is it making the fish feel? How is the quality of life for individual fishes being impacted by this latest marine ecological disaster?

This is a fundamentally different question than: "How is the spill affecting fish stocks?" or "To what extent is seafood being contaminated?" Those more typical questions reveal part of the underlying problem with oil spills: the anthropocentric belief that the world was put here for us-that it is something to exploit for our own ends.

Why don't the myriad media reports on the spill include inquiries about the welfare of affected fishes. The main reason for this is that we don't usually think of fishes as sentient individuals. (As a case in point, while I typed this blog my spelling-and-grammar-checker highlighted my use of the subjective "who" [instead of the objective "what"] to refer to fishes.) But new research shows that fishes have minds and feelings. Rigorous scientific studies show that they experience pain, that they cooperate, and that they have individual preferences. Fishes monitor the behavior of others and some even form image scores based on their observations.

Our concern over the impact of oil spills commonly takes on ecological proportions, but rarely ethical ones. We legitimately worry about the impact on beaches and habitats for creatures who live above the water surface. I, too, am concerned about the slick's impact on pelicans, sea otters and marsh life. But we seem to have forsaken the organisms that are perhaps most affected by disasters like this: fishes.

Our use of dispersants-which, as the name implies, break the oil into smaller particles-reflects our bias against fish. Dispersants are not fish-friendly. It is hoped that these particles will be consumed by bacteria, but dispersants also make oil more easily digested by fishes, who may also become coated by the fine oil particles. Both scenarios are lethal. Five years ago, a National Academy of Sciences study concluded that using a dispersant represents trying to save the beach at the expense of the ocean. To date, more than a million gallons of dispersant have been sprayed on the gulf slick.

So, how is the spill making fishes feel? I suspect there are many sick and dying fishes swimming in the gulf these days. There seem to be very few images of affected animals of any sort surfacing in the media, and some have claimed that British Petroleum is trying to suppress such images to minimize the public relations fallout.

How culpable are we for the disaster? We all share a portion of blame insofar as we are oil consumers. What should we do about it? We need to reduce our demand for the stuff. Eat lower on the food-chain, leave the car keys at home, get a programmable thermostat, solarize-these are all worthwhile steps. And we should start giving more consideration to the scaly beings beneath the surface, who are already under unprecedented assault to satisfy the palates of those who still want fish on the menu.