Rare Pacific soccer ballfish washes ashore near San Diego


Seeing a jet-black, spherical fish with razor-sharp teeth, spiky skin, and a strange stalk sticking out of its head, lifeguards at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas knew they had something extraordinary on their hands.

A surfer found the creepy-looking, nearly 13-inch dead fish that washed ashore Friday and alerted lifeguards, who in turn called scientists, said David Huff, a marine safety sergeant for the city of Encinitas.

What had emerged from the depths was a Pacific footballfish, an extremely rare species of anglerfish that lives in deep waters out of reach of the sun, said Ben Frable, marine vertebrate collections director at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where the fish was sent became.

Frable is preserving the Β£5 fish for the institution’s archives “so researchers around the world can use it for years to come,” he said.

Only 31 collected specimens are known to exist worldwide, and the fish has never been observed in the wild, Frable said. But in the last year alone, three of the creatures washed up on California beaches, doubling the number of sightings recorded in the state. One was photographed near Black’s Beach in La Jolla last month but disappeared – possibly back into the sea – before scientists were notified.

“It’s very odd, and it’s the talk of the town among us Californian ichthyologists,” or zoologists who study fish, said Bill Ludt, associate curator of ichthyology at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. The museum has four of the species in its collection, including one found by a beachgoer in Newport Beach in May.

Every time one washes ashore, Ludt says, he’s inundated with calls from friends and co-workers. They have discussed the curious incident, “but it’s hard to jump to conclusions as to why this is happening,” he said.

With fewer than three dozen dead specimens available to examine, very little is known about the fish, which lives at depths of around 1,000 to 3,000 feet. Scientists don’t know exactly what it eats, how it reproduces β€” or what might be driving the accumulation of sightings.

“That’s the million-dollar question right now,” Ludt said.

The two specimens recently collected were remarkably well preserved and appear to bear no traces of trauma from attack or poisoning by anything such as an oil spill. Ludt suspected that if there were a massive catastrophe or extinction, more would be found.

One of about 160 to 170 species of anglerfish, the Pacific soccerballfish is easily recognized by its particularly elaborate bioluminescent lure protruding from its head — a striking physical adaptation used to attract prey in the pitch-black depths, Ludt said.

“It’s got all these accessories that go off of it,” he said. “Each of these accessories has these bright silver tips that also glow.”

It’s also one of the largest species of anglerfish, with large females measuring around 12 to 15 inches. (Monkfish exhibit what is known as extreme sexual dimorphism: the males are much smaller than their female counterparts.)

“They’re so much stockier” than other anglerfish, which come in many shapes and sizes, Frable said. “They’re pretty much these balls…covered with little spikes” that help ward off attacks from would-be predators.

They also have sharp teeth that slope inward in their mouth, making sure what goes in doesn’t come out.

Some find the appearance of the fish repulsive.

Jay Beiler, who recently stumbled across one on Black’s Beach, told news outlets, “It’s the stuff of nightmares.”

Ludt sees it differently.

“I think it’s a beautiful fish,” he said. Rare Pacific soccer ballfish washes ashore near San Diego

Tom Vazquez

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