Oregon Welcomes Wayfaring Fish

Jim Burke of the Oregon Coast Aquarium is caring for the 20 yellowtail jacks and lone knifejaw that arrived on flotsom from Japan. (Photo by Lee Sherman)
Jim Burke of the Oregon Coast Aquarium is caring for the 20 yellowtail jacks and lone barred knifejaw that arrived on flotsam from Japan. (Photo by Lee Sherman)

THEY SCHOOL SILENTLY in a big blue tank, their slender, 2-foot-long bodies slipping through the saltwater like silken sashes. In their midst swims a different fish, smaller and blocky with black-and-white stripes.

Outwardly, nothing about this scene at the Oregon Coast Aquarium seems especially noteworthy. But on this Friday afternoon, April 10, TV crews jostle on the platform around the tank, their cameras emblazoned with station IDs as they videotape the fish and interview the man in charge of their care as they rush to make the 6 o’clock news.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jim Burke is telling the reporter from KOIN.

Conceding that the full story never will be known, Burke, director of animal husbandry at the aquarium, relates what he and marine biology experts from Oregon State University, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and other agencies have been able to piece together. It goes like this:

On April 9, a 25-foot chunk of fiberglass was spotted floating in the ocean about three miles off Seal Rock. After state officials inspected the wreckage, Captain Dave de Belloy was called in to tow the seaweed- and shellfish-encrusted vessel to Newport behind his sleek white fishing boat, Enterprise. On the wreck — its surface thickly blanketed with a ton (literally) of green algae, goose-neck barnacles and other marine organisms — there were several open, water-filled compartments, each big enough to hold about 500 gallons.

Inside two of those compartments swam live fish, the same fish that attracted so much media attention the following day at the aquarium’s big blue tank. “They were skinny but otherwise healthy,” Burke reports. Adds OSU marine ecologist John Chapman: “All of these fish are semitropical. The jacks were very thin.”

If that were the whole story, it would seem less than newsworthy. But the intriguing backstory is what enticed Portland media teams to Newport and garnered headlines from National Public Radio, the Associated Press and the Washington Post and even an inquiry from the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. A likely remnant of the 2011 Japanese Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the wreckage carries the grim cachet of a catastrophe that killed 15,000 people and triggered a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

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Encrusted with goose-neck barnacles, the remnants of the Japanese fishing boat float in a Newport marina. (Photo by Lee Sherman)

“The overall construction of the boat matches fishing boats common in Japan,” notes Chapman, who specializes in invasive species at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. And then there are the stowaways, a handful of hapless fish that somehow survived years adrift through raging winds, pounding rains and searing sunlight. By now, most everyone involved believes the mystery boat got smashed up during the tsunami and sank. Its bow eventually broke loose, bobbed to the surface and floated 5,000 miles across the Pacific.

How the fish — identified as yellowtail jacks and a rare barred knifejaw, which is native to Asian shores — got into the tanks in the first place and survived four years at sea is a guess. Burke believes the yellowtails started their long journey as larvae, first floating free as plankton in Japan’s coastal waters until becoming random passengers on the drifting wreckage. (Another possibility is that they were caught by fishermen before the tsunami and stowed in the tanks, which were designed to hold live fish for the Asian seafood market.) As they grew in their confined compartments, constant waves and swells infused the tanks with fresh seawater, bringing in smaller fish for the predatory yellowtails to eat. Meanwhile, colonies of mussels, crabs, tunicates, barnacles, oysters and other invertebrates that had taken up residence on the surface of the wreckage, as well as inside the tanks, produced enough food to keep the fish alive during their incredible voyage.

“A few of the invertebrate species we found, such as the rosy acorn barnacle, are unknown on the West Coast of North America,” says Chapman. “This barnacle is known only from Asia.”

Nearly two-dozen semitropical fish survived several years at sea inside this tank aboard a wrecked Japanese fishing boat. (Photo by Lee Sherman)
Semitropical fish survived several years at sea inside this tank aboard a wrecked Japanese fishing boat. (Photo by Lee Sherman)

At the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the wayfaring jacks and knifejaw will live in the big blue tank bathing in an antiseptic to kill parasites for a month before becoming attractions for aquarium visitors.

Watch for more details on the scientific findings from the wrecked boat, including DNA analysis of the onboard organisms, in future issues of Terra magazine.