The Ooligan
by Charlsey Ford,
Temple, Texas

Have you ever seen a fish in which you could put a candle wick in the fish's mouth and light it and it would burn? The ooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus) is a member of the smelt family that has such a high oil content in its body that this can actually be done with a dried fish. Natives in the area have called the ooligan by a number of names--oil fish, salvation fish, and candle fish just to name a few. All of these are descriptions that relate to the incredible importance of this fish to the people of the Bering Sea.

The ooligans are 5-7" long, have an olive green or brown color on top, and a light-colored bottom. Ooligans live in schools in the ocean and spawn by running up large rivers in the spring. Their food consists of crustaceans, cumaceans, and copepods which their bodies convert into an oil which has the consistency of butter at room temperature. The females will lay about 60,000 eggs which have oil globules in them. When the eggs are deposited, the outer membranes rupture and turn inside out. The membranes stay connected to the eggs by stalks and stick to the sand on river beds. When the eggs hatch, the baby ooligans emerge as larvae which float down the stream out to sea.

Ooligans are a major source of food for white sturgeon, salmon, halibut, cod, and dogfish in the ocean. Because of their high oil content, they provide nutrition that is critical for these fish in these cold waters. They have few predators as they migrate up streams so their reproductive success is high. After laying their eggs, the females die; and because of the oil content in their bodies, they float in large numbers and can be harvested by all kinds of birds and animals, including humans. They arrive in such numbers that natives in the area can scoop them up in nets. For humans, ooligans have been a major resource. They actually have been used as a fuel due to their high oil content, but they also are a major food source--used in stews and as a major condiment in bread. Ooligan oil is very nutritious and is used as a substitute for cod-liver oil. The ooligan oil has such a high lipid content that it absorbs low levels of organic compounds. This has allowed it to be used by man as a monitor of pollutants.

The importance of the ooligan to the ecology of the Bering Sea area and to humans living in that area cannot be exaggerated. This fish may not have gotten the press that salmon have, but mankind would have had a very difficult time surviving in that area without them. We would suggest that this is one more demonstration of the design and planning that has gone into all of the earth. When we read in Romans 1:19-22 that we can know there is a God through the things He has made, we can see the practical application in the survival of mankind in a very cold and hostile environment. To be able to light up a fish to give you light and warmth would seem to many people to be a fantasy, but the incredible ooligan enables man to do just that.

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