Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rescue of Ocean Sunfish in Little Buttermilk Bay - October 31, 2012

Dorsal fin of the ocean sunfish in Little Buttermilk Bay.

Yesterday, NECWA received a call from the IFAW Rescue and Stranding team about a possible live ocean sunfish trapped in Little Buttermilk Bay, in Bourne MA. Krill and Tammy headed to Bourne late that morning to connect with the gentleman who initially reported this sighting, Lyle Kessler.  Lyle lives with his family on the shores of Little Buttermilk Bay and is the Commanding Officer at the USCG Northeast Regional Fisheries Training Center. Lyle was able to get the afternoon off to help us locate and possibly move the fish into a safer location. A big thank you to our USCG for Lyle's help and assistance this afternoon. This rescue would not have been possible without his help and the help of his family.

Ocean sunfish off the bow of the kayak.

We found the ocean sunfish in the back of Little Buttermilk Bay and in shallow water. Using kayaks that Lyle had borrowed, we were able to direct the fish across the Bay and near the mouth of the narrow channel that separates Little Buttermilk Bay from Big Buttermilk Bay. Lyle was able to get some photos of this fish on his cell phone which will help us later document this individual if we see it again.

Ocean sunfish off the port bow of the kayak.

We were making slow, but steady progress as we continued to direct the ocean sunfish towards the mouth of the channel. On a number of occasions, this animal did something that I have never seen before.  It turned around and swam right over to us and spit large amounts of water at us.  This ocean sunfish exhibited this behavior first to Lyle who was in his kayak and then to me. This behavior was not random, but instead, was quite directed as the fish first turned to spit at Lyle and then me. It must not have been happy with our efforts, but what else could we do?  We were doing this all for the animal's safety and welfare. Obviously, this ocean sunfish didn't realize that. How could it!

Ocean sunfish off the side of the kayak.

Eventually, I had to get into the water this this animal (luckily I had my wet suit on) and grabbed its ventral fin and body in an effort to continue moving it towards the channel.  Ocean sunfish are easy to move even in shallow water. But once they strand, their immense weight works against them. Once in the water, I got a better feel for the size of this animal. I estimated that it was 5 to 6 feet long and must weigh close to 350 lbs.  But the fish was obviously very tired for it didn't give me much of a fight as I continued to tow it towards the channel.

Closer look at the large dorsal fin.  

This animal was quite aware of what was going on for he kept looking at me with his big eyes.  I felt bad about handling this fish, but knew that its only hope was to get into the larger, deeper waters of Big Buttermilk Bay.  Earlier this season, NECWA responded to a dead ocean sunfish in Little Buttermilk Bay who had gotten into shallow water as the tide was going out. This healthy fish stranded in the mud and died an untimely death. I didn't want to see that happen with this fish.

Right head of the ocean sunfish. 

When I finally got it into the channel, Lyle had to get into the water with me for I was getting tired and couldn't handle the fish myself.  The water was over my head and I didn't have flippers on which made staying with fish very difficult and exhausting. We were able to put the fish on a section of dragger net that Capt. Ronnie from Capt. John Boats out of Plymouth had given me a few years ago. Capt. Ronnie and Krill are working together to create a harness or towing platform that can be used to safely tow ocean sunfish behind a boat. But for now, the piece of draggers net made transporting this large fish much easier as we continued to walk the fish through the narrow channel.

Lightish scars on the dorsal surface of the ocean sunfish.

Finally, we were able to get the ocean sunfish into the mouth of Big Buttermilk Bay. Once in Big Buttermilk, we had no choice but to let it go. We really needed to get this fish into the Cape Cod Canal so it could continue its migration south. But that was not going to be possible without a boat of some sort.  So, we did what we could for this animal and we can only hope that the fish will find its way out of Big Buttermilk Bay and into the canal.

Krill and Lyle after the rescue.

Overall, the fish is very tired and did not look in good shape. If anyone spots a fin in Big Buttermilk Bay, please call Krill as soon as possible so we can try to get it into the canal. Krill's cell phone is 508-566-0009.

NECWA is now looking for kayaks and a small boat to use in future rescues of ocean sunfish. Ideally, we need 2 kayaks to help us scout coastal areas like Buttermilk Bay for possible ocean sunfish. And we desperately need a small boat that is stable and able to be used in shallow water. So we have our eyes on a 13 foot Boston Whaler with a trailer.  If anyone has a used whaler for sale or would be willing to donate it to NECWA, please contact Krill at 508-566-0009.

Krill will be using some of the photos that Lyle took of this sunfish in her upcoming talk tonight.  She will be speaking at the Cape Cod Natural History Museum in Brewster tonight at 7 pm on NECWA's work with ocean sunfish and basking sharks. We hope you can join her to hear about this exciting and successful rescue and the other work that NECW has been involved with on behalf of these large coastal pelagic fish.