Weird fish in Southeast waters

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2003

Fish are alien creatures to most of us. But if we knew more about their lives, many kinds of fish might seem even weirder than we thought.

Take, for example, the common Dolly Varden. Some members of that familiar species engage in a practice known as "streaking." It's an attempt by small, precocious males to outsmart larger spawning adults in producing the next generation. At the precise moment that large males and females are busy spawning - mouths agape, bodies quivering, sperm and eggs being extruded - the young males "streak" through, release their own sperm, and dart off.

If you really want to impress your fishing friends, get hold of a copy of the 1,037-page book "Fishes of Alaska," which inspired us to write this article. It was written by Juneau residents Catherine W. Mecklenburg and T. Anthony Mecklenburg, and Lyman K. Thorsteinson from the Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle.

The book is not just a comprehensive reference for specialists. It also would be very useful in helping to identify fish you have seen or caught.

Simple line drawings in the key to families of fish can help narrow your search. Then by going to family accounts you can compare your fish to bulleted descriptions, range maps and very detailed line drawings that should help you decide which species you are dealing with.

"Fishes of Alaska" reports 309 fish species from 76 families have been found in the waters of Southeast Alaska. Many of their family names suggest how weird they seem to us: ratfishes, spookfishes, daggertooths, dreamers, tubesnouts, grunt sculpins, lumpsuckers, wolffishes, sand lances and rag fishes. Do these sound like creatures from some alien planet or what?

Sculpins make up the largest number of fish species in Southeast - 56 species in four families, to be exact. And many of them are really weird.

The 2- to 3-inch grunt sculpin is an active little saltwater fish that jumps and crawls about on the bottom. The female chases males until she traps one in a rock crevice, then she keeps him there until she lays her eggs. Grunt sculpins get their name from the grunting and hissing sounds they make when they're removed from the water.

Another species of sculpin, the staghorn, also makes sounds - it hums when under stress. Try to take one off your hook and you may feel the vibration from the humming. Staghorns are probably the most common of the weird fish that sport anglers catch, especially if their bait nears the bottom. They're the ones many anglers call "double uglies," and they have sharp spines in their first dorsal fin and in "antlers" along the sides of their heads.

Sculpins also are masters of disguise. Staghorns may bury themselves in the sand so just their bulging eyes are visible. Buffalo sculpins can look exactly like the rocks around them. If you look at one in an aquarium, its irregular patches of dark brown, green-black, white, and purple look like a rock with a mouth.

One of the weirdest piscatory disguises can be found on the decorated warbonnet. Members of the prickleback family, these fish look as if they have miniature forests of lichens growing on their heads. Among certain plants and coral, warbonnets are virtually invisible to their predators and prey.

The small Pacific spiny lumpsucker can look like a reddish brown or pale green round rock complete with barnacles. However, the spiny tubercles on its body are probably more useful in discouraging predators than for camouflage. If they're attacked, these fish can inflate themselves. The combination of sharp spines and an inflated shape and size provide a substantial defense. Lumpsuckers also possess a disk on their belly, formed by modified pelvic fins. They use it to cling to rocks and other objects.

Scuba diving is a great way to observe weird fish in their natural habitat. Some are amazingly tame and can actually be touched and hand-fed by divers. By sitting quietly near a Southeast tidal pool you might see the bizarre-looking grunt sculpin. Turning over rocks can reveal eel-like gunnels and pricklebacks. At very low tides, sandy areas are good places to look for Pacific sand lance, small silver-sided fish that burrow tail-first into the sand and can actually survive out of the water in damp sand for at least five-and-a-half hours.

The easiest way to observe weird fish is to visit the aquariums at the Auke Bay Biological Laboratory and DIPAC hatchery in Juneau. These aquariums are open to the public, and at DIPAC, which has a $3 entrance fee, you can arrange for Rich Mattson to give you a tour and discussion of the aquarium's inhabitants. At both aquariums the fish species present may change from time to time. When we visited recently you could see such fish as decorated warbonnets, spiny lumpsuckers, buffalo and staghorn sculpins, sturgeon poachers, ronquils and wolf-eels. You could also stand eye-to-eye with more common fish such as salmon, Dolly Varden and walleye pollock.

We've been able to touch on only a tiny fraction of the strange and fascinating creatures that live in Southeast waters. Many, in fact, are still being discovered. We do know there are as many species of fish as there are birds in our region, and we know each has its own niche and ways of making a living.

Next time you pull up some weird finny critter at the end of your fishing line, perhaps you'll recognize it as one we've discussed here, or you'll take notes and try to discover its identity. At the least, we hope you'll be inclined to treat it gently. Ugly and bizarre as it may be, it's part of the colorful and precious natural world surrounding us here in Southeast Alaska.

Contact Juneau Audubon Society at Monthly meetings resume in September.

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