Integrating organismal and population responses of estuarine fishes in macondo spill research

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© 2014 The Author(s). Syntheses of research spanning diverse taxa, ecosystems, timescales, and hierarchies are crucial for understanding the cumulative impacts of the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Four years after the spill, responses of estuarine fishes to oil pollution have been studied at organismal through population levels, and there is an emerging mismatch between consistent negative impacts detected among individual organisms and absence of measurable negative impacts among populations. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, we draw on lessons learned from this and previous spills to consider two classes of mechanisms: factors obscuring negative population impacts despite known organismal responses (e.g., high spatiotemporal variability, offsetting food-web cascades, fishery closures, temporal lags) and factors dampening population-level costs despite known organismal responses (e.g., behavioral avoidance, multiple compensatory pathways). Thus, we highlight critical knowledge gaps that should form the basis of current and future oil-spill research priorities to assess ecosystem responses to basin-scale disturbance.

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