Well, Officer, We're Poaching!

The Washington State Fish and Wildlife game warden pulled up next to the boat. "Whatcha fishing for?" he asked.

"Bocaccio," Nick replied.

The game warden gave him a skeptical look, owing to the fact that Puget Sound bocaccio rockfish are an endangered species, totally off-limits to fishermen.

"And canary," Nick continued.

The canary rockfish, a lovely orange-creamsicle with scales, is listed as threatened in our area.

"Really," responded the game warden, not sure now whether he was kidding.

"Oh! and yelloweye," Nick finished, naming the third and final species of threatened rockfish in the Sound. [Click here to read about my impromptu beach necropsy of a dead yelloweye!]

The warden's eyes got wide as he began to believe Nick's story. I've caught the dumbest poachers in Washington State! he must have been thinking.

That's when Nick hit him with the final piece of information. "Oh, and we're with NOAA under a federal fisheries research permit."

Nick keeps the game warden on his toes.

Sadly, I was not present when this conversation took place. I've heard it retold by my NOAA Hollings Scholarship mentor, Nick, and I can only imagine that game warden's face. I was, however, lucky enough to accompany Nick and a band of dedicated local anglers on a similar mission.

Our goal was to obtain genetic samples of these three endangered species of rockfish to determine whether their south Puget Sound populations were distinct from their open coastal counterparts, as had been predicted when these populations were given endangered status, or if they moved and bred freely with coastal fishes.

The yelloweyes, canaries and bocaccios evaded us that day, but I proudly hauled up one brown rockfish, Sebastes auricuculatus.

My most exciting catch, the relatively common a brown rockfish.

We measured each fish before releasing it with a special weighted pressure-release clip that held the fish by its lower jaw without damaging it.

The rockfishes, used to being at depths of at least 100 feet, had a little expansion trouble at the surface. This one's stomach can be seen protruding from its mouth. The hope is that everything returns to its normal deflated state once the fish is released at depth.

The crew also caught two species of sculpin: a buffalo or Enophrys bison, shown here, and a red Irish lord or Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus, my personal favorite. I sure wish I could have magically shipped these guys back in time and space to Friday Harbor Labs, where my Puddle research crew could have studied the functional morphology of their jaw muscles!

A buffalo sculpin shows off his preopercular spines and makes cute little growling sounds.

But mostly we caught dogs. By which I mean sharks.

"I got a big one!!!"

A spiny dogfish, Squalus acanthias, to be exact.

Another dog!

Did I mention it was Shark Week?

We recorded the size and sex of each dogfish we caught, even though we weren't there for shark research. The day's motto: "Don't waste an opportunity to take data because you'll never know when you might need it!" I lost count around fifty. Next time you're trying to sex a shark, just remember:

A male spiny dogfish has two claspers, modified pelvic fins that transfer sperm to the female during sexual reproduction.

A female spiny dogfish has no claspers. 

Dude, that's private!

We also hooked some unexpected invertebrates...

Such as this scallop.
And this purple sea star, Pisaster ochraceus.

We didn't accomplish our goal of sampling endangered rockfish genetics, but we had a great time out on the water. There's no such thing as a bad day spent boating on the Puget Sound, sandwiched between silver water and pewter sky.

I think these gulls, hitching a leisurely ride on a barge of sand, would certainly agree.


  1. What a great fishing expedition. Such fun to find sea stars and sculpin. My personal favorite part is that I have now learned to sex a shark!

  2. I'm with your mom...shark sexing info is priceless. I remember fishing out on the Sound with my dad as a kid and catching a albino dog fish, it put up quite a fight. Thanks for sharing your fun day. Jeanette

  3. Nice. Amazing that a yellow eye has such a long lifespan, is a threatened species, and you found a dead one on your earlier adventure! What do those little sharks eat?

  4. Jeanette: Wow, an albino dogfish would be amazing to see!
    Russ: Handily, my friend Jenny is a shark researcher and is also sitting across from my at Denny's as I type. She says she had found small fish and crabs in dogfish stomachs. There you go, primary source! :)

  5. Nina, I love getting a glimpse into your work and life. To read your blog posts is to find tiny internet treasures, and to hear that goofy Nina voice that I miss so much! Great work, Leche.

  6. Great blog. All posts have something to learn. Your work is very good and i appreciate you and hopping for some more informative posts. Shark Internship South Africa


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