Happy accidents: Fisheries researchers net more than they bargain for

Federal biologists meticulously scour the ocean for commercially viable fish. Sometimes, they stumble across truly rare finds.

James Orr/NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center/AP
A 2002 photo provided by NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Fisheries Science Center and taken during the second leg of the Aleutian Islands survey shows a snailfish.

Snailfish may not be as vibrant as tang or angel fish of the tropics, but they are a real prize for scientists scouring the ocean floor off the coast of Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Researchers surveying the ocean floor there weren't specifically looking for snailfish, but snailfish they have found. And not just any snailfish: Since 1997, they have discovered a dozen new species.

Federal biologist Jay Orr and his colleagues were trawling for commercially important fish species such as cod aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boat when they stumbled across the small, gelatinous creatures.

In the past, biologists have had difficulty identifying snailfish species because they tend to get damaged in trawl nets, due to their lack of scales. Dr. Orr and his team, however, were able to collect undamaged specimens using on the footrope of the trawl that captures small fish and invertebrate.

“We aren’t sure why it works, but suspect it creates a vortex that gently sweeps up snailfish,” Orr said in a NOAA press release.

The boat has also found new species of skate, sculpin, and sole, but snailfish have a special place in Orr’s heart. “My interest was sparked in 1997 when I collected one specimen that represented a new genus, and several that I thought were a known species out of their range,” said Orr in the release. “When I examined one of these closely, I found it was a brand new species. And so was the second, and the third, and finally, a fourth newly discovered species. That’s what started me down this road.”

The names Orr and his collaborators have chosen attest to the diversity in morphology of Aleutian snailfish.

“Mischievous, hardheaded, arbiter, dusty, peach, tomato, whiskered, combed, goldeneye, comet, and comic snailfishes” are names the crew has chosen. “I name some of them according to what strikes me about the fish, its color and morphology,” Orr said. “I’ve also used descriptive words from the Aleut language, in honor of the Aleut people. And some species are named after individual people.” Orrichthys is Orr’s own namesake, chosen by other scientists in honor of his contributions to the field.

Snailfish are not a complete side project for Orr and his peers. "Ultimately we're managing an ecosystem," Orr told the Associated Press. "It's really important to know what each of the elements are."

Information the biologists collect for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center is “crucial to keeping Alaska fisheries sustainable,” Baier writes. The abundance of snailfish in the Aleutian islands is a testament to the ecological productivity and prey availability of the area.

Orr and his colleagues have a paper in press that discusses a specific reproductive adaptation of snailfish, namely their placement of eggs in the gill cavities of king crabs, where eggs are aerated well and protected in the rarely eaten crab.

This report contains information from AP.

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