Aug 19, 2016 I Brett Tingley

The Strange Relationship Between Fish Urine And The Sea

I don’t know about you, but the real reason I don’t drink sea water isn’t the salt - it’s all that fish pee. I don’t even like swimming in the ocean; it’s basically one giant toilet for fish and the unfortunate mammals who haven’t evolved legs yet. Keep hoping, whales…

It's best not to think about it.

Despite being gross, it seems that all that fish pee might have some benefits for our planet’s oceans. A team of marine scientists published recent data in Nature Communications that shows fish urine is a vital part of marine health. Specifically, fish urine is high in phosphorus, an element necessary for the growth of coral communities. The phosphorus from fish pee combines with the ammonia that fish excrete through their gills during aquatic respiration and provides vital nutrients for coral. When fish pee concentration is not adequate, pee-starved coral reefs do not fare as well as their pee-soaked peers.

This thing actually enjoys being peed on. Well, ecologically speaking.

Researchers came to this conclusion after studying the health of a number of different coral reef ecosystems. Some reefs were not as healthy as others despite having a diverse coral population. The difference was found to be the amount of fish living nearby. Researchers found that the reefs which had lower numbers of fish were accompanied by a decrease in coral growth and health:

We show that targeted fishing of higher trophic levels is reducing the capacity of coral reef fish communities to store and recycle nutrients by nearly half. Fish-mediated nutrients enhance coral growth and primary production, and may regulate nutrient ratios at the ecosystem scale.

That moment when you realize just how much fish urine you're swimming in.

Many countries have begun efforts to curb overfishing and begin harvesting seafood in a more sustainable manner so that fish populations do not suffer. However, the extended effects of recent overfishing on the entire food web have yet to be seen. The researchers in this study recommend thinking outside the box in order to ease the harm done to coral reefs:

We suggest that in addition to well-acknowledged conservation targets such as biodiversity protection, a broader perspective that incorporates predictable impacts of fishing pressure on nutrient dynamics is imperative for effective coral reef conservation and management.

Does this “broader perspective” mean that future efforts might involve dumping truckloads of fish pee into the ocean? You know what, I think I’ll just avoid the beach altogether from here on out.

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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