Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Smallest Ocean Sunfish Yet!

On December 10, 2012 the NECWA team (Krill and Tammy) headed out to South Sunken Meadow in Eastham to look for an ocean sunfish carcass that was reported in that area. Helping out was Michael Sprague from Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay.

When the team go on site, we were really surprised to find a tiny carcass when compared to the other carcasses that we have seen over the course of this research and rescue project. This is the smallest ocean sunfish that we have ever recorded for it was less than 2 feet and weighing only 40 lbs.

All other carcasses have been monsters when compared to this little peanut of a fish! For comparison, the next carcass we examined and necropsied that same day had stranded in Provincetown as was over 6 feet in length and was so massive that we couldn't weigh it with our scale. We estimated that this larger carcass must have weighed over 1000 lbs.

Provincetown ocean sunfish carcass. 
When Krill saw this tiny ocean sunfish, she immediately gave a call to Dr. Karsten Hartel at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. In previous conversations, Dr. Hartel had indicated to Krill that the museum would love to add a "smallish" ocean sunfish to their collection. Mass Audubon was very kind to offer their freezer until Dr. Hartel could drive down and pick up this little wonder.

Provincetown ocean sunfish carcass. 
After stopping by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the team picked up Spring as they headed to Provincetown to look for the carcass that had washed ashore the day before. Unfortunately, this fish had stranded live, but it stranded at the high tide line and the tide was ebbing. Reports coming into NECWA was that the fish was high and dry and it was at least 75 feet from the receding waterline.

There was an amazing rescue effort by the Provincetown Police assisted by local residents. Krill and the NECWA team were not available to help out for they were also responding to an ocean sunfish stranding on the Cape, this one on Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable. But it was so heartening to hear that people were trying to help out this stranded fish in Provincetown.

Unfortunately, the fish died on the beach. Being so large in size, it is difficult if not impossible to move them in an effort to get them back into the water. Even the largest ocean sunfish can easily be moved by hand if it has a little water under it.  But once they strand on the beach, then you are dealing with a massive weight issue.

We want to thank everyone for trying to assist the live ocean sunfish who stranded in Provincetown. How wonderful that a handful of people took time out of their busy lives to help an animal in need. And a big thank you to the Provincetown Police Department for assisting as well.

We realize how frustrating and helpless folks feel when they try to rescue a fish as massive as an ocean sunfish. Currently, we don't have a method of transporting a creature this massive back into deeper water. But it can be done! So if anyone has any ideas and would like to take this on as a project, please contact Krill at NECWA also has some ideas as to how this might be done, but it will take some knowledge of engineering and money (of course) to make some type of lift and cart that can move a fish of this size.

But here is another thing to take into consideration. When an ocean sunfish strands in August or September along the shores of New England, it makes sense to push them back into deeper water. Often these are healthy fish that find themselves in dangerous, shallow tidal areas. Once the tide ebbs, the fish finds itself high and dry and eventually dies.

However, when an ocean sunfish strands in late fall or early winter, these animals are now cold-stunned and are not functioning properly. The physical presence of Cape Cod has blocked their migrations south and they can no longer survive decreasing water temperatures. So pushing an ocean sunfish back into the water at this time of the year is not helpful to the survival of the fish.

This fish needs to be transported to the other side of Cape Cod so it can continue on its migration south. But how do you transport a fish of this size and mass to the backside or oceanside of Cape Cod or to the waters of Nantucket Sound or Buzzards Bay. It is not impossible, but this type of rescue will take a few minds and some money to make it happen. Please contact Krill if you are up for this challenge!