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Bizarre, rarely seen fish that washed ashore winds up in La Jolla for scientists to study

A Pacific footballfish that was found on the shore of Encinitas.
A Pacific footballfish that was found on the shore of Encinitas on Dec. 10 is just the 31st known collected specimen in the world. It is now at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
(Ben Frable / Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

A surfer in Encinitas found the blob-like Pacific footballfish last week. It’s the third such creature to wash up in California in the past year, including one reported last month at Black’s Beach.

Confronted with a jet-black globular fish with razor-sharp teeth, prickly skin and a strange stalk protruding from its head, lifeguards at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas knew they had something extraordinary on their hands.

A surfer found the ghoulish-looking, nearly 13-inch dead fish washed ashore Dec. 10 and alerted lifeguards, who in turn notified scientists, said David Huff, a marine safety sergeant with the city of Encinitas.

What had emerged from the depths was a Pacific footballfish, a rare species of anglerfish that inhabits waters 1,000 to 3,000 feet deep, beyond the sun’s reach, said Ben Frable, collection manager of marine vertebrates at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, where the fish was sent.

Frable is preserving the 5-pound fish for the institution’s archive “so researchers all over the world can utilize it for the years to come,” he said.

Only 31 collected specimens are known to exist in the world, and the fish has never been observed in the wild, Frable said. But in only the past year, three of the creatures have washed up on California beaches, doubling the number of sightings on record in the state. One reportedly was photographed last month at Black’s Beach in La Jolla but disappeared — potentially carried back to sea — before scientists were notified.

The Pacific footballfish, one of about 160 to 170 species of anglerfish, is readily identifiable by the elaborate bioluminescent lure protruding from its head — a striking physical adaptation used to attract prey in the pitch-black depths, said Bill Ludt, assistant curator of ichthyology (the branch of zoology devoted to the study of fish) at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. The museum has four of the species in its collection, including one found in Newport Beach in May.

“It has all these accessory appendages coming off of it,” Ludt said. “Each one of those accessory appendages has these bright silver tips that light up as well.

“It is very strange and it’s the talk of the town among us California ichthyologists.”

It’s also one of the biggest species of anglerfish, with large females measuring about 12 to 15 inches. (The males are much smaller than the females.)

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

They also have sharp teeth that angle inward in their mouth, ensuring that what goes in doesn’t come out.

Jay Beiler, who said he chanced upon the one on Black’s Beach on Nov. 13, told news outlets, “It’s the stuff of nightmares.”

Ludt has a different take.

“I think it’s a beautiful fish,” he said.

Every time one washes ashore, Ludt said, he’s inundated with calls from friends and colleagues. They have discussed the curious occurrence, “but it’s hard to jump to any conclusions about why this is happening,” he said.

With less than three dozen dead specimens available to study, very little is known about the fish. Scientists don’t know exactly what it eats, how it reproduces or what might be driving the cluster of sightings.

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

The two recently collected specimens were remarkably well-preserved and don’t appear to bear marks of trauma from an attack or poisoning from something like an oil spill. Ludt surmised that if there were a massive catastrophe or die-off, more would be found. ◆