Born to Die: If fish produce millions of eggs – why is there a crisis in the oceans?

PICT0025 The author at 24 in the dry lab. Barbados, WI.

The first time I saw a life begin – was in Barbados.

On that day, rain pounded on the corrugated iron roof above me. Like a Texas cattle stampede, the semi-annual monsoons had pummeled the Lesser Antilles for five days, with no end in site. But I didn’t notice. I was on a mission.

A Masters student in Oceanography. My second year living on the island, working at Bellairs Research Institute of McGill University, I sat on a stool in the dry lab over a microscope. On the microscope stage – a glass petri dish. In the dish, three fish eggs – my crucible of life.

I waited. My dive watch beeped 11:05. Five minutes since I placed the eggs in the dish.

Outside the lab, the gutters thundered with rain roaring through them. The stream of sound called the life in the dish forward.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the orb of light on the stage – where the eggs floated.

Were they be fertilized? Would they divide?

Fresh. Fifteen minutes before, I had plucked them from the Caribbean Sea. My surfboard, net and bucket stood outside the door of the lab.

The eggs had been spawned five hundred feet from where I sat. At the southern most edge of Bellairs reef above my favorite pillar coral, Genus Dendrogyra. One of a few hard corals that feed during the day. It’s tentacles a fine rug of moving threads retracted when you touched them. Then immediately poked out again to feed. I loved to play hide and seek with the coral – but not today.

Above the pillar coral an iridescent bluehead wrasse, a terminal male courted a yellow female. Rising together vent to vent in the water column almost to the surface, they released a stream of eggs and milt. A cloud of pale life hung for a second in the sea.

Then with one swipe it filled my fine aquarium net, with what I hoped would be fertilized eggs. I dumped the contents into a bucket of seawater on the surfboard, and finned hard back to shore.

Dragging the surfboard up the sand trying not spill the contents of the bucket, I ignored the beach vendors’ cries from under the palm trees dripping rain. Their, “Hey missy have a looook. Good t’ings today. Best deal you ever see,” trailed behind me. No time today to look at jewelry – usually tempting for my 24-year-old brain. No – I was on task.

Up the driveway, through the dining hall and kitchen with its scents of Jerk chicken, beans and rice, Anita, the Bellairs’ cook glanced up as I passed the kitchen’s louvered windows. Each day over the past five I’d dashed from lab to sea, and from sea to lab – in the rain. Bajans (the local term for Barbadians) hated rain. I knew Anita thought me crazy, she’d said, “You just one of ‘doz, crazy white girls, who wants to be a doctor of fish. Fancy ‘dat!”

Ignoring Anita’s smirk, I skirted the cats playing in the breezeway, and ran straight to the Dry lab, one of the only air-conditioned buildings on campus.

Over 90% of all fish in the ocean fling their eggs and sperm into the middle of the water. It’s amazing they find each other through the currents and waves. More amazing is that most larvae, the stage that follows hatching, die.

Less than one larva in a million ever make it. At the microscope these thoughts chased themselves in my head, as I watched the eggs in the petri dish.

Would these eggs die too, before they were born?

The rain cooled on my skin in the air-conditioned currents. I shivered. I wanted coffee to warm up – or maybe some jerk chicken. But I daren’t leave. I might miss it again.

Then – under the light – one of the eggs began to divide.

Life accelerated within the 1.5mm diameter (about the size of a period on this page) saran-wrapped shell. One cell multiplied into hundreds. Doubling almost every second. A slim band marking the fish’s backbone appeared cradling a clear yolk. The back bone, just like yours or mine – announced the life to be.

In tropical fish eggs, where water temperatures of 27 to 30 C (80-86 F) stoke the fire of life. It takes only ten hours, for the tube heart to beat. After twenty-four, the pectoral fins flutter. The fish ready to swim, although not yet free. Then the tail twitches, followed by a violent shake that contorts the pin sized body, and from the top of the fish head, complete with black eyes, enzymes spill and weaken the eggshell – until it tears, and a new fish is born into the world.

Twenty-four hours after fertilization this larval fish is ready to die. Either eaten in the ocean full of predators, or of starvation. As a hunter it often fails, unable to swim well enough to catch its prey. When it runs out of yolk, death is often near-by.

Watching fish eggs morph from one cell into a whole living being ready to swim in the ocean in less than a day, fascinated me as a graduate student. It launched my career in science. Urging me to understand why, if fish spawn millions of eggs, we have a global fisheries crisis.

From my work on raising eggs, from coral reef to commercial fish like Atlantic cod, I developed a desire to conserve what is left. To bring back health to the oceans. For the health of OUR oceans and that of human beings is tied tight to each other. Most do not realize this. Most do not even acknowledge that the oceans or we as a species are sick.

There is so much we don’t know about some of the richest places on this Earth, like the Amazon rain forests, or its oceanic cousin, the coral reef – yet in the dense jungle or between the coral polyps may be the knowledge and the ticket to our survival. If we destroy it, we destroy ourselves.

If you want to learn more about what inspired me to become a Marine Biologist, stay tuned for more personal stories. Maybe they’ll encourage you to ask questions – you would not normally ask. Give you the courage to explore your greatest dreams, as I did. Plant seeds for you and your children’s future.

If I can do it, you can too. What are you dying to know about ocean conservation? Or about sustainable seafood? Or about becoming a Marine Biologist? Ask me.

THE FISH DOCTOR IS IN.