When a 20-foot-long boat from Japan washed ashore on the Washington coast last month, the open bait box in the back of the boat surprised biologists with a microcosm of coastal Japanese species.
Five striped beakfish, along with sea anemones, sea cucumbers, scallops, crustaceans and worms - overall, at least 30 different species of marine life - had turned the bait box into a trans-oceanic aquarium as the boat floated across the Pacific with other debris from the March 2011 tsunami.
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"This is the first time we've seen vertebrates come ashore in tsunami debris," Bruce Kauffman, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist in Montesano, told The Seattle Times. "Finding these fish alive was totally unexpected."
The boat apparently floated upright with the bow above the water line and the stern submerged, providing the fish "a little cave of refuge," biologist Allen Pleus told the Associated Press. "The fish could go out to feed and come back in. The boat was their home, their house."
While debris in the ocean commonly attracts fish, "nobody's seen fish that have traveled with debris this distance," Pleus said. The biologists now suspect other fish may have reached the coastline, but dispersed in the surf prior to reaching the shore.
"There could be other types of fish associated with this debris that we don't see but down the line we could find new populations of fish established on the coast," Pleus said.
To reduce the chance of invasive species populating the coast, the biologists euthanized all but one of the creatures, found in the boat, "Saisho-Maru."
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The sole-survivor of the journey is one of the juvenile beakfish, which the Seaside Aquarium in Oregon agreed to quarantine and is now debuting to the public. Curator Keith Chandler told The Oregonian that his staff dubbed it the "tsunami fish." Beakfish can grow as long as 15 inches and turn black as they mature.
"It's pretty cool. It's about 4 inches long," Chandler told the newspaper. "We're trying to get it different things to eat ... and it may have eaten, but it's a shy little guy."
IMAGE: "Tsunami Fish" at Seaside Aquarium. (Tiffany Boothe/Seaside Aquarium)