'Tsunami fish' are a surprise

Until March, nobody thought debris could carry vertebrates

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photoIn this March 22, 2013 photo provided by the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife, a striped beakfish is held for display above a water-filled well or bait box aboard a 20-foot-long Japanese boat that washed ashore recently at Long Beach, Wash. Biologists say five of the fish, plus other Japanese species of sea creatures, arrived alive, apparently hitching a ride across the Pacific Ocean on debris believed to have come from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami. (AP Photo/Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Travis Haring)

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LONG BEACH -- What a long, strange trip it's been for a small striped fish native to Japan that apparently hitched a cross-Pacific ride in a small boat believed to be part of a tide of debris from that country's March 2011 tsunami.

State Fish and Wildlife Department biologists found five beakfish living in a water-filled bait box on a 20-foot-long Japanese boat that washed ashore March 22 at Long Beach in southwest Washington.

Invasive species specialists also found a host of other Japanese species of sea anemones, cucumbers, scallops, crustaceans and worms living in what they call the very rare "aquarium" of water that pooled inside the upright boat.

Except for one fish that the Seaside, Ore., Aquarium has agreed to quarantine and exhibit, the critters were euthanized to minimize the risk of introducing invasive species to Washington, said biologist Allen Pleus.

The surviving beakfish is on display at the aquarium. Curator Keith Chandler says his staff dubbed it the "tsunami fish."

"It's pretty cool. It's about 4 inches long," Chandler said. "We're trying to get it different things to eat … and it may have eaten, but it's a shy little guy."

Researcher John Chapman at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport is just back from a trip to Japan. He calls the find "stunning."

"We said this couldn't happen," he said. "And nature is, like, 'Oh yes it can.'"

Chapman says the fish is probably young since mature beakfish turn black. They can grow as long as 15 inches.

"There were five fish total we found in the boat's compartment, and this is the first time we've seen vertebrates come ashore in tsunami debris," said Bruce Kauffman, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist in Montesano. "Finding these fish alive was totally unexpected."

So how did the creatures survive such a trip?

The boat apparently drifted bow up, with its stern below the water's surface.

The containment area there that was open to the ocean "became a little cave of refuge," Pleus said. "The fish could go out to feed and come back in. The boat was their home, their house."

It's common for fish to associate with larger debris floating in the ocean but "nobody's seen fish that have traveled with debris this distance," Pleus said, adding, "It indicates there could be other fish floating with debris that we never see."

Most such debris gets roughed up in the surf as it nears shore, which would disperse any fish, but Pleus says this boat came ashore upright.

All of which raises some troubling questions.

"There could be other types of fish associated with this debris that we don't see, but down the line we could find new populations of fish established on the coast," Pleus said.

The other euthanized creatures -- at least 30 different species -- were preserved and sent to scientists around the country for analysis, he said. The boat, the Saisho-Maru, was removed from the beach.