<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of Linda Snook</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of Linda Snook

On some workdays, Milton S. Love happily sinks to the bottom of the sea in a contraption the size of a telephone booth turned on its side. With only a clammy mat to lie on, for a break he gets to sit upright while trying not to bump his head on the three-foot high ceiling. Through a tiny hole, Milton spends a couple of blissful hours counting fish, speaking aloud the names and sizes he sees as a video camera rolls. In other words, Love loves fish.

Love, a biologist and rockfish (genus Sebastes) specialist at the Marine Science Institute at University of California, Santa Barbara, even makes jokes about fish. When he gives technical talks, he is known to integrate so much humor that he is in demand as a stand-up at fundraising events. One of his rockfish seminars starts with a sing-along...

Some basses now fight for their rights
After lifetimes of onerous slights
When all?s said and done
They?re both sexes in one
Power to oppressed hermaphrodites!

These fishes go others one more
?To us one sex is a bore
It may not be great
But if we can?t get a date
On ourselves we surely can score.?

But lately Love has fewer occasions to laugh about his work. He has produced controversial findings about abandoned oil rigs in drastically overfished regions off the Santa Barbara coast. Love?s data suggest that the petroleum industry, typically not a friend to fishes, may be helping overfished species. Specifically, Love argues that abandoned oil rigs make it difficult to catch species that are on the brink of extinction, including rockfish. He has found that overfished species are present in large numbers near oil rigs, where they are reproducing and remaining for years.

Given the potential benefits of abandoned rigs, the Department of Interior?s Mineral Management Service (MMS) created a Rigs-to-Reef program, under which oil companies turn old rigs over to the states, along with half the money they save by avoiding a cleanup, which can run in the millions. This program has been embraced by the Gulf States, and if California were to sign on, the state could receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

Still, Love?s theory about the benefits of rigs doesn?t sit well with many environmentalists, who argue that oil companies shouldn?t be rewarded for abandoning rigs, which create artificial habitats that might displace fish populations from natural reefs. Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center, located in Santa Barbara, represents the many activists who oppose the Rigs-To-Reef program in California, who argue the onetime payment from oil companies may not cover all costs associated with maintaining these sites. She also implies that Love, who receives funding from oil companies, lacks objectivity.

However, Mark Carr at UC, Santa Cruz, and Ann Scarborough Bull at MMS, two scientists whose names Krop offered as experts to support her assertions, both side with Love, arguing that they believe the rigs? subsurface structures act as protected nurseries. Love admits that approximately 25% of his funding comes from the oil industry, either directly or indirectly. But he also receives money from federal and state agencies, and he is certain that one day he?ll ?piss off the oil companies.? Still, Love, who calls himself an environmentalist, says he?s ?saddened? to find himself on opposing sides with other environmentalists.

To investigate if the Rigs-to-Reef program is good for California, the MMS is shelling out $3.5 million through 2010 for 10 research projects. Much of this funding ? more than $1 million, after removing institutional overhead ? will go to Love?s lab.

So, Love produces controversial findings, prompting lawmakers to invest more funding, much of which goes to Love. Surely such a man can see the subtle humor in that. Indeed, the usually loquacious Love turns pensive while he reflects on the chain of events: ?I view all life as one, long ironic experience.?

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