Mystery fish all the buzz in Barrow

Biologists believe find is a wolffish, a species never seen in region

Posted: Monday, November 23, 2009

BARROW - Charles Maasak Brower was heading out to do some seal and caribou hunting with his four sons when they stumbled upon a beach find - a fish - that has nearly everyone stumped.

Frozen solid, Brower describes the fish he found Nov. 14 as having a long thick body like an eel's, but with a bulging belly. About a foot long, the fish had a blunt nose and pronounced lips.

Biologists believe the find is a wolffish, a species known to live in arctic waters and the Bering Sea, but never seen before by anyone in Barrow.

"It's pretty clear that it's probably not a fish recorded here before," said Anne Jensen, general manager and senior scientist at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation. "It turns out it's a pretty weird fish."

After finding the fish, Brower wrapped in a plastic bag and drove it home before it could thaw. Once there, he mounted it on a tall box outside his window alongside the road.

Still unsure of what it was, Brower asked people around town if they'd seen anything like it. He asked elders, hunters and whaling captains. He asked biologists. He sent out a call on the VHF to the whole town: did anyone know what it was?

The resounding answer was "no." Brower said about 200 people found their way over during the next couple days, stopping by the frozen pedestal to marvel at the mystery fish.

When Brower was home, he'd field questions and give updates on the latest theory of the mystery fish's identity. He took a photo on a digital camera so he could show it to people about town.

"They wanted to know if I got it in a net, if I got it on a fish hook, one asked if I shot it with a rifle," Brower said.

Biologists finally went to Bower's to give their opinion, but they also were stumped. They sent photos and descriptions to other biologists at schools throughout Alaska, Canada and Washington state.

Brower said he even started a list of all the different kinds of fish people thought that it might be - eel fish, wolffish, Pacific cod, rock fish.

Jensen, the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation scientist, said it initially seemed the fish might be a prehistoric species but that was later ruled out. She concurs with biologists at the North Slope Borough wildlife management department that it's likely some type of wolffish.

That wouldn't make the find any less remarkable, because it doesn't look like any of the wolffish that have turned up around Barrow before.

"It's a fairly big deal because it's an indication that things may be changing around here and we're seeing things that haven't been seen before, or it could be that it's such a rare species that it hasn't been recorded," said Jason Herreman, wildlife biologist with the borough.

But for now the fish remains frozen outside, perhaps the hottest road side attraction in Barrow.

"It's my fish they say, I'm still wondering what I'm going to do with it," Brower said.

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