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Funky Little Fish is a Rare Find Off Oregon Coast: Prowfish

Published 01/14/22 at 6:32 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Funky Little Fish is a Rare Find Off Oregon Coast: Prowfish

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(Oregon Coast) – One wee beastie beneath the waves off the Oregon coast is one you'll likely never see. It's not that there's that few of them, necessarily, but they live too far beneath the surface to even wind up in an aquarium attraction, such as Oregon Coast Aquarium, Charleston Marine Life Center or Westport Aquarium on the Washington coast. (Photo above courtesy Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium)

However, Seaside Aquarium had one briefly, but it didn't live long. They were lucky enough to be able to snap some pics of the kooky critter, called a prowfish (Zaprora silenus).

With its wacky bulging eyes and rather silly face, it was something Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe referred to as “comic-looking” back around 2010. At the time, a fisherman off Garibaldi snagged one as bycatch and gave it to the aquarium.

She also referred to it as one-of-a-kind, and she's not kidding - in numerous ways.

“It is the only species and the only genus in the family Zaproridae,” Boothe said. “They can get quite large, reaching lengths of nearly 40 inches and weighing in just over 20 pounds.”

They had never had a prowfish at the aquarium before, so this was a striking find.

Boothe said the creature generally lives in the midlevels of the sea, somewhere between 900 and 2000 feet. This makes this find slightly unusual, as it means the fish was lingering a little higher than normal in the water, leaving itself open to being caught by crabbing pots.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), prowfish aren't found as bycatch very often, either.

They called it an “infrequent component of bottom trawl catches,” as surveyed in over 40,000 trawl catches from Alaska to California – which includes the Washington coast. However, they are found a little more often way up in Alaska's waters and the Aleutian Islands.

Boothe said their primary prey is jellyfish, and this creates some unusual relationships.

“As juveniles they are pelagic (living in open ocean) and are closely associated with jellyfish,” she said. :Typically, they are found hovering along the sides or resting on the bell of larger jellyfish, however, they take refuge inside or around the stinging tentacles of jellies when startled. Jellyfish also make up a majority of this fish's diet, along with salps and comb jellies.”

Once the prowfish reaches a certain age and gets beyond seven inches, they make a dramatic lifestyle change. They settle down to living on the seafloor.

“Prowfish can live for a least 20 years and as adults they are often found co-occupying caves with lingcods and wolf eels,” Boothe said. “There is no commercial fishery for prowfish but every once in a while one will come up in a crab commercial crab pot.”

Baby prowfish may take refuge in their favorite munchie, but they in turn are the preferred food of an Oregon coast favorite: the tufted puffin.

“Studies have revealed that juvenile prowfish make up 25% of the food biomass taken back to feed the puffin chicks,” Boothe said. “Juveniles are also eaten by both Chinook and coho salmon.”

The white or blue fringes on their heads are sensory organs that help them perceive the world around them.

Photo courtesy NOAA

Years ago, when the Seaside Aquarium encountered this prowfish, it showed how hardy it was. It took quite a beating in that crab pot off Garibaldi, Boothe said at the time, and it actually lived for 20 minutes outside the water.

Back then, the aquarium tried to offer it to other aquariums in Washington or the Oregon coast, but no one wanted it. So it passed away in Seaside shortly after.

A scientific expedition from NOAA caught one several years ago and showed it off. Scientists said it was “slimy and malleable,” but after a brief study they threw it back in the ocean.

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Photos below courtesy Seaside Aquarium: an oddball fish you might see at the aquarium, the lumpsucker

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