From the spotted cusk-eel to prickly sculpin and warm-water opah, the first analysis in 35 years documents 253 species — and counting.
Living in a region with more than 5,000 miles of shoreline, Pacific Northwesterners are pretty savvy about fish. School kids can reel off the names of a half dozen different salmonids, and anglers are well versed in the habits of lingcod, perch and flounder.
A new analysis published this fall puts the region’s total number of fish species at 253. That includes 37 species never before documented in the Salish Sea — the 6,500-square-mile expanse that includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Georgia.
And since the report, “Fishes of the Salish Sea: A Compilation and Distributional Analysis,” was finished, scientists have added another five to the list.
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“We’re working on a sixth right now,” said Ted Pietsch, emeritus professor of aquatic and fishery science at the University of Washington. “Who knows what will happen tomorrow?”
Some of the new entries, like the opah — a speckled, orange Frisbee of a fish that can measure 6 feet across — are warm-water natives that may be edging northward. But many others, including the California skate, smallhead eelpout and longsnout prickleback, are based on sightings that date back decades, but which were only recently uncovered and validated.
“With climate change and warmer waters, we’re getting a few things coming up from the south,” Pietsch said. “But we’re not being flooded.”
The new census — the first in 35 years — is a catalog of all species ever recorded and verified across the Salish Sea. It builds on several previous lists, including one published in 1880 that counted just 90 types of fish.
Many of the common names on the list sound like Dr. Seuss inventions.
There’s the slender cockscomb, a fish about the size and shape of a night crawler that frequents the intertidal zone. Spotted ratfish crowd the depths of Puget Sound. The Pacific viperfish, a nightmare whose gaping mouth bristles with needlelike teeth, usually lurks in the deep ocean — but occasionally ventures into inland waters. On the brighter side is the longfin sculpin, with psychedelic stripes that seem more suited to a tropical reef than the Northwest’s frigid conditions.
Pietsch and his co-author, James Orr of the National Marine Fisheries Service, relied heavily on the UW’s collection of 11 million fish specimens, along with collections at other universities and museums, published reports and fish-survey logs. Only species with bona fide specimens or high-quality photos on record made the cut.
In fact, five species from the previous catalog were booted off because they were misidentified or valid proof that they had actually been collected in the Salish Sea was lacking. (Bye-bye, Bering snailfish; so long, walleye surfperch.)
Orr estimates the new list captures 90 percent of all fish in the Salish Sea. “It seems like we’re pretty close to everything that’s out there,” he said.
But the region is so vast, with depths reaching nearly half a mile in places, that it wouldn’t be surprising to find at least a few more that have so far escaped detection, the scientists said.
“Many of these things live under rocks and in little crevices,” Pietsch said. “Not a week goes by here at the UW that we don’t get somebody calling and saying: ‘Hey, I found a funny fish.’ ”
There’s no way to know if all the fish on the list still inhabit the region’s inland waters. The California skate, for example, is represented by a single specimen collected in 1891 near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
But having a checklist that spans the entire ecosystem will be a valuable tool for tracking future shifts in fish populations, said Joe Thoron of the SeaDoc Society, the conservation group that funded the new report through private donations. “We’re going into a period when we expect things are going to keep changing,” Thoron said. “It’s really helpful to know what was here before 2015.”
The 106-page report is precursor to a book — expected to run 700 pages — that will include full descriptions and life histories, along with information on species distribution and abundance. While the report contains color drawings of only a few types of fish, the book will feature drawings of every species.
Artist Joseph Tomorelli, who’s working on a catalog of Salish Sea fishes, describes how he produces his lifelike drawings:
Created by Kansas-based artist Joseph Tomelleri, the pencil-and-watercolor illustrations are so lifelike they are often mistaken for photographs. “I’d like them to be dead-on to what the fish looks like in nature,” Tomelleri said.
To achieve that level of accuracy, he works from preserved specimens and photographs of live fish. He counts rows of scales, fin rays and spines. A simple minnow takes about 12 hours to draw. An opah from Puget Sound that weighed more than 50 pounds took 70 hours.
A veteran of freshwater field guides, Tomelleri said the Salish Sea project is the most complex he’s ever tackled. “There’s so much variety in color and shape with the saltwater fish,” he said. “Some of them are so bizarre, you look at them and wonder: Is this thing really a fish?”
His most recent infatuation is the kelp poacher, one of the newest additions to the Salish Sea list. A shallow water inhabitant that climbs rocks, the poacher is armored with spikes and wreathed in feathery fins mottled red, orange and brown.
Among Pietsch’s current favorites is the redtail surfperch. Though common off the coast, the species proved tough to nail down in the Salish Sea. A railroad surveyor collected five of the silvery fish near Victoria, B.C., in the 1860s. But he shipped the specimens to the British Museum in London, where they sat unnoticed until Pietsch enlisted a British colleague to photograph them.
The new fish list joins a recent survey of Salish Sea birds and mammals, also supported by SeaDoc. Next, the group hopes to tackle an even more daunting task: cataloging the region’s more than 3,000 species of crabs, mussels, nudibranchs and other invertebrates.