People seem mesmerized by the pair of serpentlike oarfish that washed ashore in Southern California last week and even more so, perhaps, by the Japanese mythology that says their arrival can signal an impending earthquake.
But two top marine biologists we talked to said it's just that — a myth. Japan was abuzz with news of several oarfish washing ashore in the year before a 9.0 temblor, one of the largest in modern history, hit Tōhoku in March 2011. But …
… the experts we talked to said that oarfish getting beached isn't as rare as many reports would have you believe.
Therefore, correlating the incidents with earthquakes doesn't add up, as there are shakers every day, and oarfish coming ashore every year.
Milton Love, associate research biologist at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute, says:
The Japanese believe that when they wash up, they're harbingers of earthquakes to come. But these animals beach themselves all over the world.
Love, the author of Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast, says it's true that oarfish coming ashore in California is rare, but he says this is not the case worldwide:
It depends on how you define rare. There have been less than a dozen strandings in California history. Japan has had more. The Gulf of California has had more. It's not all that rare in Great Britain or Norway.
Phil Hastings, curator of marine vertebrates at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, says there are eight oarfish in the collection he oversees. He tells us last week's events aren't “nearly as unusual an occurrence as some are leading us to believe.”
“The Japanese have recorded 14 washing ashore in a narrow period,” Hastings said. “It's not unheard of.”
He says that while the fish are known to dwell in ultra-deep waters, they're not bottom-dwellers and wouldn't be in a position to sense shifts in the earth's tectonic plates, if that's what the myth is indeed about:
They're not generally in the habitat where that would be detected. They're not on the bottom. In fact, one could argue that the fish probably don't have the right sensory systems to detect that anyway.
Hastings' theories on why they washed ashore:
The oarfish, which have weak swimming abilities as they move vertically with a long, thin dorsal fin, were caught in a current too strong to resist or simply became disoriented by currents. Or they ended up in a low-oxygen zone.
Love of UC Santa Barbara believes “changing current patterns” swept up the weak fish.
Hastings says the one that washed up last weekend in Oceanside was a 250-pound, 13-foot female who was “not skinny” and had healthy, unfertilized eggs. The Scripps collection will receive her head, he said.
Likewise, Love says, he is getting a DNA sample from one of the two oarfish, noting that while they're not ultra-rare, scientists getting their hands on one is not an everyday happening.
They wash up along Baja's Gulf of California shore, he says, but, down there, “No one's going to haul an 18-foot-long fish in on a flatbed.”