It’s the summer of bizarro fish in the Northwest, and I’m here for it. A ribbonfish, also known as king-of-the-salmon, was found along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Recentyearshaveseen several wash up, but visits from the deeeeeeep-sea denizen are as noteworthy as the mola mola spotted in Puget Sound, numerous mahi mahi caught off the Oregon and Washingtoncoasts – including the new state record in the latter state – along with bluefin tuna and more.
Reader Gary Weimer said he, his daughter Abbigale Weimer and sister-in-law Terry Maddsen found the ribbonfish “floating next to shore” while on a beach hike near Port Angeles. He estimated it was 5 feet long.
“The fish looked fairly fresh; the gills were still red. It did have a broken tail, so might have been hit by a boat or ship,” he speculated.
Ribbonfish don’t actually have much of a tail to begin with, but even so, they lead the salmon back to the region, according to Makah Tribe stories, and are not to be waylaid – much less eaten – because the Chinook, coho, etc., will stop their spawning run.
They occur from Chile to Alaska, and while it is from the north that many of the Northwest’s salmon return, who knows, maybe this particular PA king-of-the-salmon led the way for the more southerly species we’re seeing this summer.
A more prosaic answer would be the large marine heat wave that moved closer to the coast starting early last month.
Albacore anglers have been enjoying a pretty good bite off both Oregon and Washington, and mixed in with the tuna are tropical and semitropical species you’re more likely to catch off California or Hawaii.
Eric Schindler, ODFW’s ocean sampling program manager, said that through August 27, Oregon fishermen have brought back an estimated 32,133 albies, 107 bluefins (“pretty sure that is the most we have ever seen; highest prior year going back to 2001 was 40 – 2009 and 2019”), 62 mahi mahi (“also pretty sure this is the most we have ever seen; highest prior year was 2019 with 39”) and 10 yellowtails.
Mahi mahi are also known as dolphinfish, dorado and dodos.
“We are in an El Niño this year,” notes Schindler, “and we are most definitely seeing the signs of it.”
That said, in response to my article earlier this week on Washington’s new record 21-pound mahi mahi and the growing recreational and commercial catches of rare fish in recent years suggesting that exotics are pushing more and more north, a prominent guide wondered if it actually might be tied to building effort around the sport albacore fishery and advances in boats, technology, charts, gear and tactics that are creating more and better chances to catch oddball species.
Statistics shared by Schindler illustrate the explosive growth of tuna fishing. From 2001 to 2006, Oregon anglers made just 1,367 to 4,063 annual trips for albies – essentially, a slow week early in the Lower Columbia spring Chinook fishery – catching at best 18,000 or so, but mostly far fewer.
Then, in 2007, they made 12,029 trips and brought back just shy of 60,000 fish, pouring gas on what was fast becoming a craze. The year 2019 saw anglers make 30,645 tuna runs, returning with just over 100,000 fish stuffed in every crevice of their boats. Both 2019 figures are all-time high marks and, what’s more, that year also saw relatively high mahi mahi and bluefin catches.
So, which is it, I asked Schindler – warmer waters bringing exotic fish, or increasingly dialed in fishermen?
“I would speculate that it is likely a bit of both,” he stated. “Certainly more anglers off Oregon and Washington have been out looking for albacore than in the old days, and by that mere fact there are likely to be more caught.”
(Before roughly 2000, did anybody even venture waaay offshore to do more than target the bottom for halibut, a totally different fishery?)
One thing that struck me about Wade La Fontaine’s new record Washington mahi mahi was how warm the water was where he caught it – 70 degrees. It practically screamed, THE PACIFIC IS MELTING!!!
Er, maybe not.
“Warmer offshore waters are not abnormal off the Washington and Oregon coasts in summer and early fall,” notes WDFW spokesman Chase Gunnell, who interviewed La Fontaine for an agency blog about his catch, and said there were internal discussions about that high temperature reading. “Even sea surface temperatures above 70 degrees are not unprecedented, though more common during El Niño years. The distance from shore of this warmer SST water, or ‘blue water,’ is often 30 to 100-plus miles and varies depending on the location of the California Current, storms to our south like the recent tropical storm – which some captains suspect is behind these mahi – and other factors.”
“Similarly, mahi mahi, striped marlin, opah, swordfish, and other pelagic fish may be rare catches in our region, but they are not exactly new or unexpected, at least over the past 15 years. Others like albacore, mackerel, mola mola, and arguably bluefin tuna, are common in these waters and may also occasionally be caught closer to shore,” Gunnell added.
The absolutely most fascinating thing I learned while reporting on that 214-plus-pound Orcas Island bluefin back in July was how, over the eons, outer Northwest Coast tribes developed specialized tactics for hunting the tuna – and not just out on the briny blue in their canoes, but inside inlets of the west coast of Vancouver Island and elsewhere.
It spoke to the deep time of ocean cycles – not to mention bluefin abundance (which may be returning after decades of overfishing) – and our relatively shallow pool of historical knowledge about what’s out there and what’s been and what’s possible.
We can lose sight of that as The Seattle Times, Cliff Mass and everybody else battle it out over whether climate change is to blame for each and every single weather-related thing – and just about everything else under the sun, including why weird fish are here, sucking some of the fun out of a verifiably good-news story like La Fontaine’s record mahi mahi and all the other oddities anglers are hooking this summer.
“We all know anthropogenic climate change will have strange impacts on ecosystems, and the fish, wildlife and people within them,” said Gunnell. “There’s undoubtedly much to worry about, and work to do to build resilience and support adaptation. But I’d offer that to sustain ourselves through this fight we can allow a bit of marvel, too.”