Rare deep-sea fish washes ashore in Gustavus

A type of big, deep-ocean fish rarely seen at the water's surface was found washed ashore Thursday in Gustavus in Southeast Alaska, the National Park Service reported.

A ragfish, measuring 65 inches long, was spotted near the dock in Gustavus, the town that serves as the headquarters for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, officials said.

The discovery was made by a state transportation worker, said Craig Murdoch, a Park Service fisheries biologist.

"He was checking the dock and he noticed what he thought was a halibut," Murdoch said. "He went and checked it out, and it was a fish he had never seen before."

Thursday's sighting followed one in the same area in July, when a 78-inch ragfish turned up on the shore of Bartlett Cove, Murdoch said.

In both cases, the fish were dead adult females and were full of eggs, he said.

There have not been many observations of ragfish, so it is hard to know the significance of two sightings in the same area within six months of each other, Murdoch said.

There is not a lot of information available about them, either. The formal species name, Icosteus aenigmaticus, is a nod to its enigmatic qualities. The common name "ragfish" derives from its limpness; its bone structure is mostly soft cartilage and its flesh is squid-like, according to the Park Service.

They are occasionally caught accidentally in some commercial seafood harvests, but there has been little research about them, said one study published in 2001 that analyzed records of more than 825 ragfish caught around the North Pacific.

They are found in much of the North Pacific, from the California coast to Japan. Adults are believed to live in waters 4,000 feet and deeper, though the maximum depth is not yet known. They are believed to eat squid, octopuses and jellyfish, Murdoch said.

The two fish found in the Glacier Bay area had empty digestive tracts, according to a Facebook message posted by the park.

Having two sightings occur within a short period in the same area "raises questions," Murdoch said.

Ragfish are native to waters of Alaska, so this is not likely a case of a southern fish being pushed north by warm waters, he said. It could be a byproduct of a bigger population, or it could be a product of some changes in the ocean, or it could be tied to whatever may be killing off murres in the Gulf of Alaska, he said. Or it could be just a matter of luck and coincidence, he said.

There were two similar sightings on a beach in Juneau in 2013.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for the discovery of the fish. It was found Thursday, not Wednesday.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.