Fish Kill: Psychology and Taking Action

by Dr. Anne Moyer

The Ecological Culture Initiative’s Media Director and Meteorologist Jeff Schultz’s November 17th reflection “Responding to the Fish Kill(s)” outlines the local, regional, and global contributors to the increasingly frequent and shocking fish die-offs witnessed in our area. These include low oxygen levels, fish predators, shifting ocean currents, and trapped heat from greenhouse gas emissions. As Schultz points out, at the root of many of these factors is human behavior, such as nitrogen pollution, fishing and fishing regulations, agriculture, construction, energy consumption, and transportation. The Ecological Culture Initiative is invested in launching programming and projects that involve alterations in human behavior such as regenerative land use, low impact design, sustainable living, and ecologically-responsible practices.

In recent decades social scientists have begun to study how to influence behaviors related to the environment. For instance, psychologists have noted that climate change is an issue that provides particular barriers to inspiring people to act: it is a problem that requires collective action, in that it entails shared costs as well as benefits; individuals and nations are differentially responsible for and differentially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; some of the remedies, such as refraining from culturally-meaningful practices will be socially destabilizing and potential sources of conflict; and, finally, climate change’s threat is temporally and spatially diffuse, challenging people’s cognitive capacity to process information and motivate action. 1

Accordingly, social scientists suggest several strategies based on their understanding of humans’ cognitive, affective, and social tendencies. These strategies include: highlighting personal experiences rather than analysis; using relevant social norms to motivate behavior; emphasizing the local and present aspects of climate change; describing changes in terms of what can be gained as opposed to what will be sacrificed; and tapping into the intrinsic motivation that people have to care about the well-being of others as opposed to the less apparent effect of abstract external rewards. 2

News stories about fish die-offs in our own neighborhoods (i.e. November 14 / Shinnecock Canal) are certainly salient locally and temporally. Being confronted with the stark reality of the senseless suffering of other species as well as our own as we witness these events will perhaps activate our intrinsic motivation to change our behavior, such as purchasing only biodegradable personal care, household, automotive, and boat cleaning products or refraining from using lawn fertilizer  (see Ten Things You Can Do: to nurture the local ecosystem 3). 

We have only to change some old habits; our enjoyment of the healthy waterways around us, and the satisfaction we gain from protecting them is the richest of rewards. 


1 Pearson, A. R., Schuldt, J. P., & Romero-Canyas, R. (2016). Social climate science: A new vista for psychological science. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 11(5), 632-650. doi:10.1177/1745691616639726

2 van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Improving public engagement with climate change: Five 'best practice' insights from psychological science. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 10(6), 758-763. doi:10.1177/1745691615598516

3 "Ten things you can do to nurture the local ecosystem"


Ten Things You Can Do: to nurture the local ecosystem

•  Purchase and use only biodegradable personal care, household, automotive, and boat cleaning products

•  Use only biodegradable / inert packaging and building materials (glass, metal, paper wood, etc), then compost and recycle

•  Grow your own food in healthy soil produced on site or purchase food from local organic farms or farm markets

•  Collect kitchen and gardening debris as well as raked leaf litter on site and develop long term compost / gardening projects at home or in a community garden

•  Employ native / novel permascaping and food forestry around your home, and advocate for its use on public land

•  Harvest rain, then slow, spread, and soak all rain and storm water so that it can be processed through the widest array of soil biodiversity and have the longest route to our aquifer or bays

•  Be mindful and prevent the destruction of the unique assets that Hampton Bays offers through its historic shingle-sided cottages and natural terrain, employ historically referenced architectural practice, and draw from and build upon its traditional fishing, farming, and ecological heritage

•  Advocate for the creation of additional private conservation easements and the development of regenerative stewardship programs on both private- and publicly-owned land

•  Cultivate ecotourism, unite private, town, and county-owned conservation land to integrate ecosystem and community amenities, reduce paved areas, merge lots, create permeable pathways and constructed wetlands, and work to define our community as environmentally benign and in possession of an abiding heritage

•   Define a cultural identity based in ecosystem knowledge. Every child in Hampton Bays should grow up understanding the vast processes of evolution taking place around them, should spend time as a child in the woods and marshes, on the bays, in the ocean, and forming a personal understanding of the relationship between all organisms and their non living environments

This list was generated in cooperation with the Hampton Bays Civic Association as part of a regenerative design lecture series