FASCINATING FISH OF PUGET SOUND AND THE SALISH SEA

Our local waters are home to some truly amazing fish—according to our friends at the Burke Museum, 253 species of fish have been recorded in the Salish Sea. (Curious about what waters are encompassed by that term? The Salish Sea includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia and the waters around the San Juan islands and Canada’s Gulf islands—roughly 6,500 square miles altogether.)

That’s a lot of fish in the (Salish) Sea! And today, we’re bringing you highlights of some of our favorites, plus three fast facts about each. When we’re able to reopen to the public, we hope you’ll come get to know them better—these species can all be found in our Window on Washington Waters, Underwater Dome and Puget Sound Fish exhibits.

 

 

Salmon

As you probably know, there are several species of salmon—and five of them are found in Pacific Northwest waters: Chinook (also known as king), coho, chum, pink and sockeye. Salmon are a keystone species, which means that other species depend on them for their health and wellbeing (the southern resident orcas’ dependence on Chinook salmon is a great example of this). Look for more interesting info on salmon in our blog post later this week!

Salmon fast facts

  1. Anadro-what? Most salmon species are anadromous, which means they’re born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean on a journey that can be hundreds of miles long, and then return to freshwater to reproduce—most often, to the same stream in which they were born. After spawning, salmon die within a few weeks.
  2. Eggstravaganza: Chinook salmon lay more and bigger eggs than other Pacific salmon species—about 5,400 at one go! Steelhead are next, with 4,900 eggs, and the other species range from around 1,000 to around 3,000.
  3. Magnetic attraction: After salmon hatch in their home streams and reach early adulthood, they travel to the open ocean and spend six months to five years there—sometimes traveling thousands of miles—before returning to those same home streams to spawn. Studies have shown that salmon, while in the ocean, use Earth’s magnetic field to guide their migration. This helps them move from the coastal areas near their spawning grounds to rich feeding areas, and then back again toward the end of their lives.

 

 

Wolf eels

First and foremost—and name and appearances aside!—did you know that wolf eels aren’t actually eels? They’re fish, with one key distinction being that they have pectoral fins behind their heads, which is characteristic of fish (not marine eels such as morays). A wolf eel’s body cavity is close to its head, and the rest of the animal is muscle. So, you could think of wolf eels as relatively small animals with really, really long tails!

Wolf eel fast facts

  1. Will you be mine? Wolf eels may mate for life, and both males and females care for eggs as they develop. The female lays her eggs in the den (up to 10,000 of them!), then both parents guard them for the 13–16 weeks it takes for them to mature and hatch, even wrapping their bodies around the egg mass to keep it safe from predators. During this period, only one parent at a time goes out to feed.
  2. I see your true colors: Juvenile wolf eels are quite noticeable in the water, with vibrant, brick-red color and bright orange and purple highlights. As they get older, those bright colors fade and become shades of gray and brown. Adult wolf eels have a pattern of dark spots on their heads and bodies that is unique to each individual. At the Seattle Aquarium, biologists can identify different wolf eels by their spots!
  3. That slime looks great on you: Wolf eels have a thick coating of slime on their skin that helps protect them, which works like an immune system. Their scales are unlike those of most other fish: they’re very small and imbedded in their skin, which gives wolf eels their distinctive leathery appearance. They also appear to get itchy sometimes and can be seen swimming upside down, rubbing their backs on rocks to scratch!

 

 

Rockfish

There are more than 100 species of rockfish around the world, many of which are found along the Pacific coast—24 of those make their homes in the Pacific Northwest, and we exhibit about 14 of them. Check out our infographic of rockfish species common to Puget Sound for more details!

Rockfish fast facts

  1. The same, but different: While all rockfish are part of the same family (Scorpaenidae), there’s a lot of physical variation between the different species. They can be anywhere from six inches to three feet long; be red, orange, black or green, and splotched or striped; be found at depths ranging from 40 to 2,000 feet; and may group together in large schools or live solitary lives in their rocky homes. But they do share a few key, identifying characteristics: large eyes and mouth; a compressed lower body; a jutting lower jaw; and a large dorsal fin with well-developed spines.
  2. Old timers: Compared to most other fish species, which live from two to 10 years, some rockfish species live very long lives—100 years or more! But there’s a downside: many longer-living rockfish don’t begin breeding until they’re nearly 20 years old. Add in the fact that rockfish are considered a desirable seafood item, and it’s easy to understand why they’re susceptible to overfishing.
  3. Cause for concern: Rockfish are listed as species of concern in Washington state, and some are listed as threatened (yelloweye) and endangered (bocaccio) under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Understanding long-term population stability is important to the effective management of these species. With support from our members and donors, the Seattle Aquarium has been documenting rockfish at five different research stations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just southeast of Neah Bay, since 2004. Since 2009, we’ve expanded the number of survey sites to include nine in Puget Sound, for a total of 14 sites that we survey semiannually to quarterly to gain insight into both seasonal and annual differences in rockfish numbers.

 

 

Sablefish

With their long, slender bodies, these fish are sometimes mistaken for wolf eels. In another case of mistaken identity, they’re often referred to as “black cod.” But, despite some similarities in appearance, sablefish are not a true cod. They’re one of only two members of the Anoplopomatidae family, and true cod belong to the family Gadidae.

Sablefish fast facts

  1. Birds and the bees: Sablefish are typically reproductively mature at 5–7 years of age, and can live to be over 90 years old. They spawn in winter in deep water, and eggs develop for about two weeks before hatching. Once hatched, larvae rise toward the surface, where they may be carried long distances by currents (in some cases over 2,000 miles in six to seven years).
  2. Wait, how old? It’s true: Sablefish can live to be over 90 years old. And how do we know that? Scientists typically use the otolith, or ear bone, to age fish. More of a stone than a bone, the otolith is formed from regular growth and hardening of layers of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate, in the fish’s skull behind its eyes. Since the growth is regular, it can be counted under a microscope like rings in a tree.
  3. But wait, there’s more: Similar to tree rings, the otolith growth can be challenging to interpret, depending on factors like ocean conditions, calcium carbonate availability, and the fish’s overall health. Because of this, additional means of aging fish have been used to predict the otolith’s rate of accuracy, including radiocarbon dating. According to one study by NOAA, the otolith was highly accurate in predicting age with only a one percent chance of over-predicting the fish’s age by one or more years—that’s pretty impressive!

Interested in more fishy-in-a-good-way facts about Puget Sound fish? Check out our grunt sculpin, dogfish and big skate fact sheets! You can also watch some of our favorite Puget Sound fish friends on our YouTube channel.

 

 

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