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Hatchetfish not cut out for coastal living_Sydney's Ocean Log

Sydney the Golden Seal, a retriever-husky, has logged miles and years of ocean swims. She now writes about the ocean realm for the La Jolla Village News. Read Sydney's column, "Sydney's Ocean Log," here. When not dog paddling or opining, Sydney pursues archaeology research in her backyard.

When it comes to reflection, aluminum foil's got nothing on the scales of a hatchetfish. Recently, on a clandestine beach run, I was nearly blinded by an overabundance of lumens emitted by one such expired critter. While nosing around for my Foster Grants, I spied yet another one! Since hatchetfish typically live about a thousand feet below the ocean’s surface, what are two, much less one, doing here on the wet sand doornail-dead?

Hatchetfish are one of many, many ocean critters that seesaw through the water. They can rocket from home base in near darkness to bright light—within an hour. This particular species of silver bullet hurtles vertically about 800 feet up and down during the day and double this distance throughout the night. That’s a Disneyland ride we wouldn’t survive. Why the yo-yoing, you ask? Hatchetfish may be following prey also zipping up and down in the water column. Or they may be thwarting predators (nary a tree to hide behind down there). But we really don’t know all of what they’re up to…or down with, for you hipsters.

But I digress. The hatchetfishes I eyed were in trouble well before the surf body-slammed them onto terra firma. For some months, we have had peculiar ocean conditions resulting from the makings of a singular climate cocktail composed of a light El Nino chased with a big “blob” of warm water sitting offshore. These weird conditions are responsible for herding in all sorts of oddities for us to squint at and wonder about. It’s fair to say that the two hatchetfishes bungled into water shallow enough to be railroaded by the craziness of unanticipated surface conditions, then paid the ultimate price. Once there, it didn’t take much time for Nature’s recyclers (a swarm of marine pillbugs and sand flies) to dine on the soft bits of the carcasses.

I know I’m not the only one questioning the reason behind the fish’s peculiar hatchet shape. And the girth? Let’s just say a hatchetfish looks like it’s been passed through a pasta-making machine one to many times. Further comprising the visual spectacle is the otherworldly big head, googly eyes, upturned mouth full of pointy teeth, and disappearing tail. Is it any surprise that this disturbing-looking animal calls home the twilight zone? I don’t mean Rod Serlings “fifth dimension” Twilight Zone but the deep ocean realm marked by near darkness, frigid temperature, and massive pressure. The only thing that stops this hatchetfish species from being truly terrifying is its size: less than 3 measly inches long.

Lately, commercial fishers (who have steadily been hunting down the food chain since there is now so much less of everything in shallower waters) are angling to open up a hatchetfish fishery. It’s not for your dinner plate because hatchetfish taste nasty to the human palate (I’m withholding judgment). Instead, the fishers want to sell hatchet catches to companies that will grind them up and add them to chicken meal. Oh my seastars! The silvery fish are enormously important to the diet of lots and lots of sea life like sardines, herring, sea birds, tunas, dolphins, and my doppelgangers, the sea lions. Can we risk the existence of so many for chicken meal when scientists are only beginning to sniff out the secrets of hatchetfish behavior and the workings of the twilight zone habitat? I suggest we take more than a moment for this kind of reflection.

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— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to jgarfield@ucsd.edu.