5 things you might not know about oarfish

Last week 2 giant, shimmering oarfish washed ashore in southern California. This is not a common occurrence and some speculate that it may be a means to warn of an impending earthquake. Others say that it could just be a “banner week for weird fish photo ops“. In either case, I’m making the most of the teachable moment and sharing some facts about the prehistoric looking bony fish.

1. Oarfish, nicknamed “King of the herring,” are the longest bony fish in the sea reaching a length of up to 56 feet. This fact is not to be confused with the largest fish in the sea or the largest bony fish in the sea.

2. Oarfish got their common name from their long extended pectoral fins. Another identifying feature of oarfish are the long red plumes stretching from their head and other fins.

3. Oarfish swim holding themselves straight up and down in the water column. It’s believed that’s how they search for food.

4. Oarfish are inedible with a gelatinous body texture and hold no commercial value.

5. Oarfish tend to reside in the deep-sea up to 660 feet below the surface of the water. They only come to the surface of the sea when they are sick and vulnerable and often wash ashore after storms. Because of these sightings they’ve tended to prolong sea serpent lore. It wasn’t until 2001 that a oarfish was captured on film by the US Navy.

Image (c) Catalina Island Marine Institute

The first of the 2 sighting from last week was found by some very lucky environmental educators. Image (c) Catalina Island Marine Institute

3 truths on the fables about ‘dolphin-safe’ labels

It all started recently as my 2 year-old showed those tendencies towards becoming a picky eater. I embarked on a supermarket safari for proteins and soon enough I found myself in the canned tuna aisle. Have you been there lately? It’s a little overwhelming with all of the labels. I usually just go for the salmon for the additional omega-3s, but I had a feeling the toddler would turn that down. Also, I am all about rites of passage and isn’t canned tuna with mayonnaise on toast right up there with peanut butter and jelly and macaroni and cheese? Given that I do care, especially with the recent findings of an Oceana report that states 1 in 3 fish are mislabeled,  the nerd in me had to navigate the meaning behind all those ‘eco-safe’ labels found on canned tuna.

Here’s some surprising truths behind the fables about the ‘dolphin-safe’ label you’ll need to know before baking your next casserole:

1) The U.S. wouldn’t sell anything that’s not ‘dolphin-safe’ – label or not. While it’s true that the U.S. has the most restrictive definition of what it means to be ‘dolphin-safe’ it’s also true that canned tuna is the #1 seafood import in the U.S. The internationally accepted definition of ‘dolphin-safe’ is “tuna caught in sets in which dolphins are not killed or seriously injured,” but the U.S. requires that “no tuna were caught on the trip in which such tuna were harvested using a purse seine net intentionally deployed on or to encircle dolphins, and that no dolphins were killed or seriously injured in the sets in which the tuna were caught.” Unfortunately, if we’re rarely eating tuna from the U.S. we can’t say how it’s caught.

2) ‘Dolphin-safe’ labels are designated by the government. I was shocked to realize that its independent observers (i.e., private organizations) making claims to what is ‘dolphin-safe’. But, then I remembered that tuna are an especially difficult species to manage given that they migrate all over the world. The good news on the horizon is that during his State of the Union address in January, President Obama mentioned the U.S. will begin negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union. What does this have to do with tuna fisheries? Well, apparently the talks for the FTA would include discussions on non-tariff barriers. Non-tariff barriers include “things like labels indicating a product’s country-of-origin, whether tuna is dolphin-safe, or whether your breakfast cereal has genetically-modified corn in it.” The need to be more consistent as to how we label tuna was also acknowledged by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO noted that, “while well-intentioned, the ‘dolphin-safe’ labels are deceptive to consumers and quite outdated”. Also, according to the Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna, “There’s no denying that more than 98% of the tuna in the U.S. market today is sourced from unmonitored and untracked fisheries where thousands of dolphins are killed every year.” That’s a frightening statistic if you’re trying to make the right choice on what can of tuna to purchase.

leatherback_worldwildlifedotorg

Image (c) World Wildlife Fund

3) If it’s ‘dolphin-safe’ it must be safe for all marine life. Let’s cut to the chase here. Canned tuna that is troll or hook-and-line caught is the best choice for a conscious consumer. Other methods of fishing for tuna (e.g., backdown technique, purse seines) have been shown to cause long-term stress to dolphins (leading to their eventual death), including heart and muscle lesions. You might also be disheartened to realize that sharks, billfish, birds, and sea turtles (see image) are often the unintended catch (known as ‘bycatch’) of fishing for tuna. The fish aggregating devices (FAD) commonly used to catch tuna are known as some as the most destructive fishing practices man has ever used.

Where does that leave me in the decision of what type of tuna to purchase for my family? As I mentioned, choosing hook and line (also known as ‘pole-caught’) canned tuna is the most sustainable choice. Fishing for tuna with hook and line 1) enables fish that are too small to be returned to the ocean, 2) practically eradicates any bycatch, and 3) ensures the ocean ecosystem to remain intact eliminating the potential loss of biodiversity. Be careful though since ‘line-caught’ can mean using a longline to catch tuna. However, this method produces ample bycatch as well.

Please feel free to comment below or email questions on this article to Ann McElhatton, Beach Chair Scientist, at info@beachchairscientist.com.

10 brief facts on bioluminescence

We all get excited thinking about bioluminescence in nature. Ironically, that excitement is only one of the reasons animals glow like an elf in Middle Earth. Here are some ‘basics on bioluminescence’ you can share with your friends and family the next time you all ogle a firefly and wonder ‘why?’.

    1. Insects (e.g., fireflies, glow worms) and deep sea ocean animals (e.g., squid, hatchetfish) aren’t the only ones that emit light. Many plants (e.g., jack-o’-lantern mushroom, algae) also produce bioluminescence.
    2. Bioluminescence is light emitting from a living organism. Bioluminescence is produced through a chemical reaction, which is what sets is apart from fluorescence or phosphorescence.
    3. Luciferin and luciferase are the two chemicals that must be present for an organism to luminesce. Luciferin produces the light and luciferase is the catalyst. Life in the sea most often use coelenterazine, a type of luciferin.
    4. Sailors commonly saw waves glowing in the wake of ships. This was caused from dinoflagellates, a single-celled algae, which glows when its startled.
    5. Anglerfish use a long illuminated appendage, called a protuberance, to attract young and vulnerable prey. Luring prey is one way bioluminescence is used to an animal’s advantage. They may also use it to stun prey or to attract or recognize a mate.
    6. Conversely, many animals use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism. They’ll cleverly create smoke screens or burglar alarms, as well as counterilluminate or startle predators.
    7. Some animals that luminesce use it defensively and offensively.
    8. Sperm whales, the deepest divers of all the whales, depend on bioluminescence to help locate food. Echolocation is also key to locating food.
    9. The U.S. Navy tapped into the science community for help to develop products that monitor bioluminescence because bioluminescent algae have been known to endanger military missions.
    10. The pulsing light of creatures found in the deep sea is “perhaps the most common form of communication found on our planet”. That phrase was from a video (below) which takes us on a visual journey of what the first deep sea explorer, William Bebe, described in 1934 from his expedition off the coast of Bermuda. This video was produced by National Geographic.

Do you know your seafood?

With the holidays right around the corner there will no doubt be plenty of indulgences. It is important to keep in mind that seafood can also be considered an extravagance if you’re choosing an unsustainable option to serve or taste. Did you know that the global fishing fleet can catch up to two and a half times what the ocean produces? 80% of fish stocks are harvested at or above maximum sustainable yield? Check out this infographic by One World One Ocean that was released last month for National Seafood Month  for those facts and a whole lot more, including 1) fish on the red list (not good) and green list (good), 2) reasons why these fish are on these lists, 3) chefs and grocers to support, and 4) important guides to download.

From 'One World One Ocean'

From ‘One World One Ocean’

5 (more) fun facts about seahorses

Seahorse at the National Aquarium in DC

Seahorses are a fascinating species to observe. I took my nephew to the National Aquarium in DC this past weekend and we were memorized by the  aquatic centaurian-like bony fish (pictured right).  I’ve written about seahorses in the past, and from the traffic of that post I can tell that a seahorse post is much appreciated by the BCS readers, so I thought I’d take a some time to delve into more of their hallmark traits.

Here are  5 more fun facts about seahorses to add to the list (written almost 3 years ago!). Please feel free to comment below or email info@beachchairscientist.com if you have something you’d love to share about seahorses!

  1. The genus name of the approximately 35 species of seahorses is ‘Hippocampus’. ‘Hippo’ is Greek for ‘horse’ and ‘kampos’ is Greek for ‘sea monster’. The cross section of the hippocampus in our brain is shaped like a seahorse.
  2. For over 400 years many Eastern cultures have been using seahorses in medicines to cure asthma, lower cholesterol, as well as prevent arteriosclerosis.
  3. Seahorses uses their strong prehensile tail to grasp onto sea grasses and other stable plants. They are decent (not strong) swimmers and use their snout to suck up food (plankton, as well as tiny fish and shrimp).
  4. Often storms are a threat to adult seahorses as they will pull the seahorse off its anchoring plant. Other natural threats can include sea turtles, sharks, rays, and tuna. A major non-natural threat are divers that like to scoop up seahorses for aquariums (although, many ‘seahorse ranches’ are popping up).
  5. Seahorses lack the scales that a ‘normal’ fish might have and instead have bony plates arranged as rings. The bony plates are very similar to that of the Stegosaurus. Each seahorse species has a unique number of rings.

If you want to learn more on seahorses (in particular – how humans have learned to immortalize them in artwork, literature, and myths),  I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Poseidon’s Steeed: The Story of Seahorse, From Myth to Reality by Helen Scales.

How do fish give birth? Revisited

From time to time, I like to revisit the more popular posts and present either new material or the material in a new format. Below is a simplified understanding of the three general ways that fish give birth (i.e., Within each category below there are sub-categories that I did not get into here). Please feel free to comment below or send me an email at info@beachchairscientist.com if you have any additional questions.

What are the fastest fish in the sea?

Not too long ago, I provided an update on the fastest fish in the sea, the Indo-Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus). I thought it would be interesting to do some research on how fast this fish is in comparison to other animals on land and in the sea and create a graphic to illustrate it.  First, some notes, there are some outliers I left off the chart. For instance, the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) at 325 miles per hour (mph), as well as pretty much the entire family of swifts (Apodidae) averaging a 106 mph flying speed. Also, I am certain there are many other species of terrestrial and flying animals that can be included in this list, I only added a few to compare. Please feel free to comment below or send me an email at info@beachchairscientist.com if you have something to add to the list!

THE LIST

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) 200 mph
Swift (Apodidae) 106 mph
Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) 70 mph
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) 70mph
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) 61 mph
Striped marlin (Tetrapturus audax) 50 mph
Wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) 48 mph
Southern blue fin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) 47 mph
Yellow fin tuna (Thunnus albacares) 46 mph
Blue shark (Prionace glauca) 43 mph
Ostrich (Struthio camelus) 43 mph
Bonefish (Albula vulpes) 40 mph
Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) 40 mph
Tarpon (Megalops cyprinoides) 35 mph
Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) 33 mph
Hawk moth (Sphingidae) 33 mph
Human (Homo sapiens) 27 mph

For more information I recommend The Travel Almanac and The Top 10 List.

An important call for more forage fish to remain in the sea

A report titled “Little Fish Big Impact”, written by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, came out earlier this month recommending that the amount of forage fish (e.g., menhaden, herring, shad) that we take from the ocean should be cut in half. However, since forage fish have an annual value world-wide of $5.6 billion dollars and are almost 40% of the world’s commercial fish catch these suggestions might be a tough sell to get passed through many decisions makers. But, here is why it is important we do.

You may not typically think of forage fish, also know as ‘bait fish’, as being a high commodity for fishermen or as playing an imperative role in the ocean – but, they do indeed! It’s surprising how much these little fish play a role in our daily lives.

Within the marine food web we begin with the tiny microscopic phytoplankton (plants that get their energy from the sun). Phytoplankton are  then in turn grazed upon by tiny copepods and  they are then fed upon these forage fish and crustaceans that are fed on by larger fish (e.g., striped bass, bluefish) that are then fed upon by the top predators (e.g., tunas, swordfish) that then feed us. Easy, right? Well, Dr. Daniel Pauly pointed out that within fisheries what is happening today is an imbalance of ‘Fishing Down the Marine Food Web’.

Time increases toward the right along the blue arrow. Scale on the right gives the trophic level in the food web. (Pauly, 2003)

This is the concept that when top predators are removed smaller fish become more of a target. Which would mean that the average trophic level of the food web would shift (Trophic being the level an organism occupies within a food chain). Specifically, forage fish are the primary source of protein for penguins, marine mammals, cod, salmon, tuna, and even puffins. We use these species for the production of fish oil supplements, food for livestock, and food provided to the fish we’re farming via aquaculture.

The Lenfest Report provides information and recommendations to fisheries managers in a three-tiered approach that the Task Force says was lacking prior, which is why we’ve currently been able to harvest the amount of forage fish at such high levels. The three-tiered approach involves understanding the 1) dynamics of the fishery, 2)  knowledge of the status of the trends of the fishery’s predators, as well as 3) recommended management actions.

“Traditionally we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs, or some of the industries, they support. As three-fourths of marine ecosystems in our study have predators highly dependent on forage fish, it is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small but significant species,” stated Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University (they led the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force).

Most recently, managers in the Mid-Atlantic have noticed the increasing importance of forage fish and voted to reduce the annual harvest of menhaden from 183,000 metric tons to 174,000. Read more here on the report and what other measures are being done to keep menhaden levels more sustainable.

It will be interesting to see how this report impacts forage fisheries in the future. I certainly hope it does.

Check out this video from the Task Force to learn more on the importance of forage fish.

Lastly, here is a quick overview of what it means to be a sustainable fishery:

  • If we are referring to a sustainable wild fishery (one that is not farmed) it could be the measure of the abundance and resilience to fishing pressure, how well-managed the fishery is based on current research, and/or that the fishery is harvested in ways that do not harm the environment or have negative interactions with protected species as bycatch.
  • With farmed species a sustainable it is typically a measure of minimizing marine resources, preventing escapes or diseases to wild stocks, as well as ensuring that the fishery is not associated with high pollution or other ways of negatively harming the habitat.
  • For a good resource to discover what fishery is sustainable in your region,  please check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.

The Bluefish by Isaac McLellan

Bluefish

Bluefish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you enjoy this poem about a very popular Atlantic coast recreational species, the bluefish. I have some fond childhood memories aboard my grandparents boat, Irish Eyes, learning many life lessons while seeking out bluefish.

Issac McLellan (1806 – 1899) was a New England author and poet. Coincidentally, he was born in Portland, Maine which is where we’re headed today! Enjoy.

The Bluefish by Isaac McLellan

(Pomatomus Saltatrix.)

It is a brave, a royal sport,
Trolling for bluefish o’er the seas;
Fair skies and soaring gulls above,
A steady blowing breeze;
A shapely yacht whose foaming prow
The billowy plain divides,
That like a gallant courser speeds
Far, free o’er ocean tides.

First from West India seas they came,
Haunting the Cuban coast,
Cruel as Spanish buccaneers,
A fierce, rapacious host.
But now by Northern seaboard shores
Their murderous way they take,
From Mexico Gulf to Labrador,
Wherever billows break.
The weaker tenants of the main
Flee from their rage in vain,
The vast menhaden multitudes
They massacre o’er the flood;
With lashing tail, with snapping teeth
They stain the tides with blood.

Rakish are they, like pirate craft,
All matchless to assail,
With graceful, shapely, rounded sides
And the sharp, forked tail;
And when the angler’s hook is fixed
They fight, they struggling bleed,
Now leaping high, now plunging deep,
Darting with lightning speed.

And yet these sea marauders,
These tyrants of the main,
By fiercer, mightier ruffians
Are hunted, conquered, slain;
The tumbling porpoise hunts them,
Dorado fierce pursues,
And when the shark assaileth,
Blood-stains the waves suffuse.

Can you name the state fish of Hawai’i?

It’s “Humuhumunukunukuāpua’a” in case you missed it when the bartender mentioned it in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As a bonus, I’ll also give you a rundown of all the other states with a state saltwater/game fish. Some you may already know, but  some might surprise you! I never would have thought that so many states have striped bass designated as a state fish or state saltwater fish. After all, there are over14,000 species of saltwater fish out there.

(If I missed one please feel free to let me know and I’ll add it to the list. All you have to do is leave a comment of email info@beachchairscientist.com.)

Alabama:
Fighting tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) – These fish can absorb oxygen and live in waters with almost no oxygen.

Alaska:
King salmon  (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – These fish regularly exceed 45 lbs and the largest on record was a 126 lb caught in 1949.


California:
Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus) – These fish are very territorial and call kelp forests home of choice.


Connecticut:
American shad (Alosa sapidissima) – These fish only have one dorsal fin and one anal fin.


Delaware:
Weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) – These fish are not weak at all but quite strong fighters. The name refers to the easily torn part membrane in its mouth.  A fond memory of my childhood involves my grandfather always giving my folks some weakfish he caught on his boat, Irish Eyes.


Florida:
Atlantic sailfish  (Istiophorus albicans) – These fish are the fastest fish in the sea and have been observed at speeds above 65 miles per hour.

Hawai’i:
Humuhumunukunukuāpua’a (Rhinecanthus rectangulus) – This fish has blue teeth.

Maryland:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish are also commonly known as rockfish.

Massachusetts:
Cod (Gadus morhua) – These fish will change colors depending on where it spends its days. If it prefers the sea floor it will appear gray and if it prefers algal areas it will appear greenish.

North Carolina:
Red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) – These fish got their name from their coloring and from the drumming sound produced by their  their swim bladder.

New Hampshire:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish prefer coastlines and are most active in the spring and fall. Sport fishermen love to catch them during the striper runs.

New York:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish are the most popular sportfish on the Atlantic coast. 

Rhode Island:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) – These fish prefer to eat before dawn and at dusk. 

South Carolina:
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) - These fish do not have eyelids so when the sun is out they prefer to retreat to deeper waters.