Rare albino ratfish found in Useless Bay

When marine researcher Jon Reum pulled up the net from his trawler off Useless Bay in June, he didn’t know he’d made history.

Along with the usual suspects — crabs, seaweed, beer cans and English sole — was a strange, translucent fish.

It turned out it was a rare albino ratfish, a member of the largest group of bottom-dwelling species in Puget Sound.

“Ratfish are common, but this one stood out because it had no color,” Reum said. “At some point he lost the ability to manufacture the melanin that would give him color.

“Basically, you could say he’s a freak.”

The catch is the only completely albino fish ever seen by both the curator of the University of Washington’s 7.2 million-specimen fish collection and a fish-and-wildlife biologist with more than 20 years of sampling fish in Puget Sound.

The fantastic fish has made headlines throughout Puget Sound; it landed this week on the front page of The Seattle Times and on TV news shows.

“You’d be surprised how many people are interested,” Ted Pietsch, professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at the University of Washington, said late Monday.

“In 50 years of Puget Sound surveys, this has never been seen before,” Pietsch said.

The fish was almost pure white with a crystalline layer near the surface of its skin that gave it a silvery sheen.

The Sound is filled with a greater number of ratfish than any other fish. In the June survey that turned up the albino specimen, researchers counted 7,100 ratfish compared to 2,300 English sole, the second most prevalent fish in the sampling.

Normally, ratfish live on the muddy bottom of the Sound where their natural brown coloring helps them hide from predators.

Experts say albinos can be found among mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians; they have a gene mutation that keeps them from making the pigment melanin.

But the condition is an oddity in sea life, Pietsch said.

“It’s very rare and easily preyed upon because they show up dramatically against the dark background,” he added. “They lose the ability to reproduce because they don’t live long enough.”

Spiny dogfish are especially enamored of ratfish, Pietsch said.

The foot-long female found in Useless Bay may have been 2 or 3 years old, Reum and Pietsch estimate.

She was caught during a research project that will examine how the food web may change when waters become oxygen starved, something that has been occurring in the fall in recent years.

Fish were sampled in Puget Sound waters around Whidbey Island as a baseline to compare with Hood Canal.

“We were looking at which fish ate other fish and whether certain species can be altered by the environment, pollution or predators,” he said. “How all of this affects the marine community structure is an ongoing project.”

After the albino ratfish was caught the researchers tried to keep her alive in a bucket of water. In spite of boards placed over the top, the freaky fish managed to flip out of the bucket onto the deck during the night.

It took a while for the news of the rare discovery to get out.

“I had a research assignment in Alaska so we put the ratfish in the freezer,” Reum said.

Asked if his name would be affixed to the albino, like a newly-discovered planet, Reum laughed at the thought.

“No, that only works if it’s a new species.”

Those dying to see the albino ratfish up close can check it out at the University of Washington’s fish collection, housed in the basement of the Fisheries Teaching and Research Building, located at 1140 NE Boat St.

The collection has 82 other ratfish specimens, ranging from eggs to full-grown adults. The collection focuses on North Pacific and Bering Sea fish and is used by researchers on and off campus to identify species and to understand fish biology and conservation.

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