Rescuers Come To The Aid Of Giant Fish
By: Michael J. Rausch
It was a rescue like none other Bourne Fire Department Call Captain Robert R. Ronayne had ever been involved in during his 39-year firefighting career.
Last Wednesday evening around 6:30, Captain Ronayne, and call firefighters Robert L. Hodge and Timothy P. Young were manning the Monument Beach firehouse when a call came in about a beached sunfish.
No, not a Sunfish like the sailboat recreational boaters take out for a day on the water. This was a marine animal that, by Captain Ronayne’s estimation, was about seven feet in diameter and weighed 700 to 1,000 pounds. The gargantuan sea creature had washed ashore in Little Buttermilk Bay, near Head of the Bay Road.
“If I were swimming in the water,” Captain Ronayne said, “and saw one, I’d get out of the water quick.”
According to Kathryn A. Zagzebski, president and executive director at the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, there are three distinct species of sunfish. The one most commonly seen around Cape Cod is called mola mola. Mola presently hold the record for the heaviest bony fish in the world. The average mola is about six feet in length and eight feet in height and weighs about 2,200 pounds. A 10-foot-long specimen, discovered by British zoologist and conservationist Mark Carwardine in 1995, weighed in at 4,927 pounds.
The website “oceansunfish.org” charts sightings of sunfish around the globe. A check of the website shows at least 65 sunfish sightings from Bourne to Chatham to Provincetown, and off both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, over the past decade.
Like all sunfishes, mola appear as if their bodies have been somehow cut off, leaving them with little more than a large head equipped with long sweeping fins up top and below. They have a tall, pointed dorsal fin that flaps above the water when the animal is in its normal vertical swimming position.
Mola is Latin for millstone and refers to their roundish shape. The name sunfish comes from their habit of lying on their side on the surface of the water and basking in the sun.
Sunfish typically migrate north sometime around June for the cooler waters where there is a better food supply. The typical diet of a mola consists of jellyfish, crustaceans, small fish and fish larvae, even eelgrass.
They are usually in the area until December, when they head south again, but often they become lethargic in much colder waters and have trouble navigating into open waters. That is when they wind up beached and, in many cases, dead.
When the call came in last Wednesday, the Bourne Fire Department turned to a local authority on sunfish to help them: marine expert Carol D. Carson.
“I was actually on my way back from a necropsy on another sunfish that had washed ashore at First Encounter Beach in Brewster two days earlier when they called me,” Ms. Carson said in a phone interview.
“I told them ‘I’m at Exit 3 in Sandwich, I’ll be right there.’ I think I broke every speed record getting there.”
Ms. Carson is a marine biologist who has worked in the New England area since 1980, notably for the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary.
She currently works for Captain John Boats in Plymouth and at Bridgewater State University, teaching biology labs. In 2005, the 51-year-old, who prefers her better-known nickname Krill, for shrimp, (a reference to her 4-foot, 11-inch height) founded a volunteer, nonprofit organization called the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, an organization dedicated to the study of whales. Over time, her work with the alliance shifted to the study of sunfish.
“We know so little about whales, we know even less about sunfish,” she said. “We as biologists have to do something to save these animals.”
Ms. Carson and Captain Ronayne grabbed a couple of nylon straps that were part of a tripod she uses to weigh sunfish carcasses, and wrapped them around the body. According to Ms. Carson, the hard part was getting it into the water.
“It was right at the water line, but the tide was going out.” She, the call firefighters, and some neighbors somehow hauled the sunfish to the water’s edge. “There were about ten of us, and it was ‘pick it up, drop...pick it up, drop.’”
Once it was in the water, the sunfish was easier to move, but the problems were not over. They spent four hours, leaning over the side of the boat, grabbing its fins, while maneuvering it into the channel between Little Buttermilk Bay and Buttermilk Bay.
Ms. Carson said this was just one of several sunfish calls she has answered in the past couple of weeks. She helped rescue a six-foot sunfish on October 29 in Little Buttermilk Bay, the one in Brewster, and another at Monument Beach on Friday, November 5. Following her phone interview, she was leaving for yet another beached sunfish in Duxbury.
Captain Ronayne characterized the fish as “very friendly” and said it seemed to appreciate the rescue efforts??. He said the sunfish even did its part to help out by flapping its flippers to get back into the water. For Captain Ronayne, whose four decades as a firefighter are filled with fires and accidents, where tragedy is too often the end result, seeing the sunfish swim away, healthy, was a welcome change from the norm and made him feel good.
“This was the first time I’ve ever been involved in something like this,” he said, “it was kind of neat.”
Ms. Carson says while there are records of sunfish sightings, so far there is no satisfactory way to identify them. Marine scientists have tried using the same tags placed on whales and seals, but the dorsal fin is too thick. Better identification methods, she said, are crucial to more comprehensive study. “If anyone is going to release them back into the water, we have to identify them to know if we’re doing them any good.”
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