Friday, December 28, 2012

Update on Ocean Sunfish Strandings for 2012

Ocean Sunfish Strandings for 2012.

Hot off the Press!

Google Maps of Ocean Sunfish Strandings for 2012

With a little down time on my hands, I wanted to use Google Earth and plot the location of each of the 39 ocean sunfish that stranded dead this season. As you see, most stranded along the shores of Cape Cod, those that border Cape Cod Bay. But a few individuals stranded along the shores of Buzzards Bay and many of our live animals that we rescued were in this area.

The top map shows all strandings of dead animals for the 2012 season. To date, we were able to locate and examine 39 carcasses. Three additional carcasses were reported to NECWA, but we were not able to get to those carcasses before the tide washed them offshore. This is the highest number of stranded animals of any season to date and almost twice as many as last season. The bottom maps show close-ups of specific areas that turned out to be hot spots for strandings this season.

2012 Ocean Sunfish Strandings, Barnstable and Dennis MA.

Please remember that strandings of ocean sunfish are an annual event. Ocean sunfish migrate to our cold, productive waters to feed on jellyfish and other gelatinous critters. As winter approaches, they start to head south for warmer more tropical waters. Unfortunately, some animals become trapped by the physical presence of Cape Cod or they become trapped in back bay areas and inlets. This big fish can not tolerate cold water and will eventually become cold-stunned, typically washing ashore dead.

2012 Ocean Sunfish Strandings, Brewster and Eastham MA.
2012 Ocean Sunfish Strandings, Wellfleet MA.

We hope our ocean sunfish stranding season has ended, but only time will tell. Thank you again to all who assisted us with both live and dead strandings of ocean sunfish this season and seasons' past. Without your time and effort, we could not do this very important work. Thank you for caring!

A big thank you to the staff and volunteers at Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay. Without their efforts, we would not have been able to locate and necropsy many of the carcasses that stranded along the shores of Cape Cod.

Also a big thank you to Dr. John Jahoda and others at Bridgewater State University (BSU). BSU provides material and mental support : ) for this work and our other marine wildlife projects. Most of our ocean sunfish samples are stored at BSU and we are working with Biology student Lauren Tauer on aging studies related to this species. 

The information obtained from these examinations is being shared with researchers in the New England area and around the world. With your help, we now have a better understanding of the biology and ecology of this very unusual, but very deserving, marine fish in our New England waters.  

Go Team Mola!

Best to all and a very Happy New Year! 

Krill Carson
Marine Biologist and President

Friday, December 21, 2012

December 20, 2012 Ocean Sunfish Strandings Continue

Jamie with the carcass at Breakwater Beach, Brewster MA
This morning, my son Jamie and I headed down to Cape Cod to locate and necropsy a dead ocean sunfish that had been reported to NECWA the night before. Volunteers with Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay who were walking the beaches for stranded sea turtles had come across a dead stranded ocean sunfish that had washed up on Breakwater Beach in Brewster.

Jamie recording the weight of the sunfish.
As we drove south on Route 3, my cell phone started ringing off the hook as additional ocean sunfish carcasses were being reported in Brewster and Eastham. By the end of the day, we were able to determine that a total of 6 dead ocean sunfish had stranded dead on the beaches of Cape Cod. When all was said and done, we were able to locate and examine 5 carcasses and all were females!

Bruce, Jamie, Kelly and Mary collecting body measurements. 
In an effort to get some additional help with what was turning out to be a very busy day, I made a frantic call to Michael Sprague at Mass Audubon. Michael put the word out to their volunteers and found 3 people who were available and interested in helping out. Those volunteers were Kelly, Mary and Bruce. I could not have examined 5 of the 6 carcasses that were reported that day without their help. I can not thank them enough for their time and efforts over the course of the day as we moved from one carcass to the next. Never a complaint and always a "can do" attitude. People like this are gems and their efforts are greatly appreciated. Thank you Mass Audubon for sharing your volunteers and sending us such amazing help!

Damaged clavus of this ocean sunfish carcass. 
Propellor cuts through dorsal fin. 
Our first stop was the carcass that had been reported on Breakwater Beach in Brewster. This turned out to large female ocean sunfish that weighed approximately 725 pounds. This carcass was very fresh for its exposed eye was still present. This animal had been hit by a boat sometime in the past for there were extensive propellor cuts through it dorsal fin and some of the scalloping on its tail fin (clavus) were missing. All wounds were nicely healed. Sad to think that this individual survived a collision of this magnitude, only to become trapped by Cape Cod and die from cold-stunning.

Puffy tissue band close to clavus .
High head crest of this small female ocean sunfish.
Small fish with high head crest.
Bruce and Kelly measuring the carcass. Jamie is looking on. 
The next fish was a very small, but condensed female that stranded between Thumpertown Beach and Campground Beach in Eastham. I have never seen an ocean sunfish with such an extensive head crest and such a puffy tissue band near its clavus. This fish weighed close to 330 lbs. and was so compact that we couldn't collect some of our body measurements for the body parts were too close together. 

Large carcass south of Cook's Brook Beach.

Less than a few hundred feet from this small carcass was a second carcass, but this carcass was immense in size!  Due to the large size of this animal, we didn't even attempt to weigh it using our portable weighing tripod. But we did determine that we had yet another female on our hands and we were able to collect all the necessary information before continuing on to the last two carcasses for the day. 

Mary and Bruce next to the small carcass at Cook's Brook Beach.
Kelly and Bruce working on the carcass at Cook's Brook Beach.
The last two carcasses were located close to Cook's Brook Beach in Eastham. Both carcasses were more decomposed than any seen that day so they must have been floating around for some time before they stranded. The first carcass had stranded right in front of the parking lot was small in size. This individual turned out to be a female.

Jamie with the fifth ocean sunfish carcass. 
The second carcass was a bit south of the parking lot and was much larger in size. But the tide was coming up so we could only collect a few measurements and tissue samples from this animal. In the coming days, we hope to return to this last fish to collect the otoliths and vertebra, but we were able to determine that it was also a female ocean sunfish.

As Jamie and I headed home, we received a call from a good friend, Lisa, from Brewster reporting a 6th stranded dead ocean sunfish. I will include one of Lisa's photos below. Hard to believe that Lisa's fish makes carcass #39 for us this season. This is the highest number of dead ocean sunfish that we have had in any season and we fear that the season is not over yet. We will be heading back down to Cape Cod to try and locate Lisa's fish and hope that no additional carcasses are sighted.

A busy day to be sure, but a productive day that will help us better understand this strange and unusual fish as well as protect those living animals. Thanks again to everyone who helped today, not just the people who assisted on site, but all the people who took the time to call Krill with sighting information. We couldn't do this work without your help.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 16, 2012 Sea Turtle Rescues

Today my son Jamie and I headed to Wareham to pick up a sea turtle that had been reported as stranded in that area. As we headed south on Route 495, my son asked me if the turtle would be alive. I said I did not know, but we could only hope that it was.

When we arrived on site, we were met by local residence David, Jay, Nat and Suze who directed us to the location of the sea turtle on the beach. We found a medium-sized loggerhead sea turtle at the high tide line, but unfortunately, it did not appear to be alive.

We put the turtle in the truck and thanked everyone for their amazing help. And then off Jamie and I went to Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to deliver the loggerhead to Bob Prescott and his team.

Jamie with the loggerhead as we arrive at Wellfleet Bay. 

Bob Prescott and his staff which included Molly, Tom and Michael weighed the loggerhead (approx. 40 lbs.) and collected a number of external body measurements. This carcass will now go into the freezer and will be necropsied this spring down at Woods Hole. 

Weighing the sea turtle. 
Tom using calipers to determine the length of the shell.
Tom using calipers to collect body measurements.  
Tom measuring the length of the shell.
Tom measuring the girth of the turtle. 
Tom examining the plastron of the loggerhead. 
It is very sad that this loggerhead died in Buzzards Bay. But hopefully the information that we obtain from this carcass will help us better understand and protect this endangered species in our New England waters. 

As Jamie and I headed home, we received a call from a local resident, Donna, about a stranded sea turtle at Rock Harbor. Since we were still on the Cape and close to exit 11, we turned around and headed back to the Orleans rotary. 

Jamie with the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. 
When we arrived at Rock Harbor, Donna met us on the beach and showed us where the sea turtle was located. This turned out to be a little Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the most endangered of all the sea turtles in our waters. 

After thanking Donna for her time and efforts on the sea turtle's behalf, we had an unsettling feeling that this turtle was also dead. When we arrived back at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the team confirmed our suspicion by indicating that this turtle was indeed dead. 

How very sad to lose two sea turtles in one day. We can only hope for a better day, one filled with live sea turtle rescues. On the way home, I had one very tired boy who slept in the car most of the ride home. A big day filled with rescues and sea turtles. Sweet dreams!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

December 13, 2012 Ocean Sunfish Strandings

Ocean Sunfish carcass off South Sunken Meadow, Eastham MA

Today Krill was able to locate and necropsy two medium-sized ocean sunfish that stranded on Cape Cod. The first fish had stranded in South Sunken Meadow and had been reported to Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay on Monday, December 10th.

This fish had stranded on the tip of the sand spit leading into the marsh area. Krill was not able to weigh this fish for it was too far from a road access. But she was able to collect photographs, body measurements as well as conduct an internal examination.

As she was finishing the necropsy on this animal, she received a call from Jim Mullin in Brewster. Jim had contacted Krill the day before about a mola carcass off Seaway Road in Brewster. Jim was kind enough to return to the carcass at night at the next low tide and collect photos in case the carcass floated offshore on the next incoming tide.

Photo by Jim Mullin.
Photo by Jim Mullin.
Photo by Jim Mullin.
Jim met Krill down on the beach and helped Krill collect body measurements of this carcass. Jim was very interested in this unusual marine fish and was an excellent assistant over the course of the examinations.

Jim Mullin next to the ocean sunfish carcass.
Like the previous carcass, this ocean sunfish turned out to be a male. But this carcass was in better shape than the one at South Sunken Meadow indicating that it was a fresher carcass.

As dusk approached, Jim and Krill finished up their work on the beach. Time and tide wait for no man and this saying is very appropriate when we rescue or necropsy an ocean sunfish in the field. All in all, a very busy day. These carcasses bring NECWA up to 32 stranded ocean sunfish that we have responded to. That is a new record for us and it is unclear why we are having so many fish stranding on our Cape Cod beaches. 

Ocean Sunfish carcass at Seaway Beach.
Much thanks to Jim for all his help with the ocean sunfish carcass off Seaway Road. Krill couldn't have done the work today without his support and help. Love the people we meet when we do this type of work. 

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!