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Strange travelers: curious catches offer clues to fish odysseys.

Out on the water, don't ever take for granted that the mystery fish you just caught has been seen before--by anyone. Most people simply throw the thing back in the water and tell no one, which leaves us all in the dark. But scientists still discover new species of marine life all the time, and in Florida, strange catches help us to identify the newest interlopers from other waters. Your catch may be an unrecorded occurrence of that species in those waters, which can lead to important information, too.

While growing up in Sarasota I remember biologists telling us via posters, lectures and television interviews how to roll up oarfish like a rug, put them in the freezer and call the strange fish emergency number. If anyone has ever seen an oarfish, you would have to wonder how in heck such a strange fish ever managed to wash upon a Gulf coastal beach. This deep ocean fish had to swim, or float, across the broad shallow Gulf continental shelf, 80 to 100 miles of distance, to reach the beach.

Other species get around with a little help from our own species, of course. While watching a recent news broadcast showing biologists trying to eliminate a pond full of voracious piranhas in southeastern Florida, I thought of all the unrecorded fish that might be out there reproducing without notice at this very moment.

One day, years ago, a fisherman brought in a pacu, a relative of the piranha in the family Characidae, but without cleaving teeth. Oh, it had teeth all right and bit the hand of the fisherman enough to make him think he had a piranha. He caught it out of a large canal, RIM Ditch, west of Fort Pierce. He was casting on a school and had caught several. This one bit him. That led him to bring the voracious monster to this biologist.

Other times, there might at first seem to be no possible explanation for a species' appearance in your area, but with a little investigation, science usually discovers the probable source of the traveler's motion.

One spring day the phone rang and the caller said, "I have a 500-pound fish tied to my dock at Thumb Point, Indian River Lagoon. Could you come see what it is?" This guy had jumped in the water and tied a rope around a 500-pound-plus Mola mola, popularly known as the ocean sunfish. Over the years I compiled enough sunfish records for the Indian River Lagoon to note that, if they end up in the Lagoon, it usually is in the spring or early summer, meaning coastal currents carry them adjacent to the narrow ocean inlets where tidal velocities are sufficient to suck them into the Lagoon. One came in to Jensen Beach, over 12 miles from the nearest ocean inlet.


Such tidal transference probably also explains why flyingfish and larval deep-sea jellynose fish end up 65 miles from the nearest tidal ocean inlet. One day some years ago, zipping along in a little Boston Whaler miles from an ocean inlet we were startled to see a flyingfish soaring along beside us. But it's not such an isolated occurrence as you might think.

The most recent observation of this kind came across my desk from Capt. Fox Watkins of Fort Pierce, who saw a mahi mahi, dolphinfish, Coryphaena hippurus, tooling around a Fort Pierce marina. Remember, all these fish have to do is stay alive and keep floating and they can go anywhere the water temperatures are right for them. The ocean currents take its denizens to many unexpected realms. Jump off your boat in the Gulf Stream with a raft and enough beer for a couple of months and you might wash up on the beach in Cornwall, England.

So don't be too surprised if you pull up a big bright blue oval fish with gold polka dots and scarlet red fins with a huge eye looking at you. That's just an opah that lost its way.

If you're baffled by the identity of a fish that you've caught, snap a photo before release and take notes on the catch so that you can ask someone in the field what you've come across. There are no fences in the oceans, after all. You never really know what might be turning up in our waters, or why, and neither do scientists, though they're doing their best to understand such appearing and disappearing acts all the time.

By R. Grant Gilmore, Ph.D
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Title Annotation:The Sportsman's Biologist
Author:Gilmore, R. Grant
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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