Fish oil

First, thanks to all of you on Facebook for wishing me a happy birthday; I did indeed enjoy a wonderful day. Seeing all your good wishes brought a smile to my face; I understand that’s somewhat out of character for the traditional man turning 40. So be it. I’m smiling, so thanks, y’all! Now, yesterday’s post was about WD40, which is NOT made of fish oil. So today’s post needs to be about, well, fish oil.

What is it good for? Everyone knows, nowadays, that fish oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which apparently we need in order to be healthy. (Can you imagine what life would be like if we had only lean acids in our bodies? We’d probably all die of scurvy, or something.) These fatty acids bioaccumulate* in the fish (they don’t produce the acids themselves), which makes oil derived from fish high in the substances, and, it has been argued, has led to overfishing. (Industries such as commercial fishing, whose existence depends on denying this possibility, naturally tend to disagree. And some of their arguments are quite reasonable. But I’d hate to rely on the fox’s assessment of the health of the henhouse population…)

In addition to the fatty acids found in fish oil, the substance itself used to be used as a digestive aid, a medicinal tonic, and many other things. In addition to all these properties, it turns out that fish oil–in this case, a cupful of unrefined cod liver oil ($100+/gallon back in 1990)–is absolutely what you need to attract a large gathering of pelagic birds. Here’s how Rich Stallcup describes it in his incredibly useful book, Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific (Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 1990):

On 27 August 1983, Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit, and I were 40 miles west of Westport, Washington, with a boatload of birders. The trip was going great, the water was glassy, and there were lots of birds. Four working shrimp trawlers were accompanied by over 5,000 shearwaters of five species, and we had seen Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and several alcids on the way out. It was still quite early in the day, and Terry said, “Shall we go out to albatross habitat?” Sure! So we left this area of teeming activity, put the bow on the compass’s big green W, and powered west. Birdlife promptly declined, and there was only the odd Sooty Shearwater to be seen. When we got to about 50 miles, there wasn’t even that. I did a 360-degree scan. Nothing. Nothing but water, and Bill and Terry said, “This is the spot. Stop the engines.” Passengers were glancing at each other in wonder as gloppy, smelly, clear liquid bloop-blooped from plastic bottles, clinging to itself in patches, floating on the surface of the sea. I scanned. Nothing. Then, at a great distance, a wheeling albatross! Within ten minutes there were 61 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting near the boat, a Long-tailed Jaeger circled near by, and two Tufted Puffins came roaring in like spiraling, black footballs and splashed to stops. Sabine’s Gulls and storm-petrels appeared from nowhere. Everyone was impressed.

Of course, as Stallcup writes, it doesn’t always work this way, but when it does, I can just imagine the excitement that must come over the boat. And, in a few days, I hope to be able to see it, or something like it, with my own eyes, when I take my first pelagic trip.

When I get back, I’m going to try to drum up some interest in our local Florida birding group to motor out to the Gulf Stream some day to see what’s what. I just recently got some leads on local captains who might not mind a charter without the pressure of finding fish…

* Now, don’t get all excited just because I used the word bioaccumulation. The word may have come to prominence because it’s how environmental toxins like DDT move up the food chain, but the word, and the process itself, is fine, even necessary. We rely on bioaccumulation constantly. Can you imagine trying to go out and capture or manufacture each and every essential protein or nutrient in the food chain independently? Much better to rely on bioaccumulation in the food web, from primary producers (autotrophs like algae and phytoplankton) on up, to aggregate all of these packets, which we then just appropriate through the magic of killing and eating those animals in which the required substances bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation, at its simplest, is just digestion.