, Gloucester, MA

December 3, 2010

Rare local boarfish gets scientists' attention

Ebb & Flow
Peter K. Prybot

The most unusual boarfish, or Antigonia sp., that Annisquam lobsterman Tony Gross trapped on Nov. 23 in one of his wire pots with shrimp twine nettings 60 feet down on the muddy bottom off Lanesville has already attracted the attention of scientists at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology and at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Little did Gross know then that he would be in for another fish surprise the next day, when his daughter Alex returned home from the University of Massachusetts for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Did someone release this from their aquarium? This looks like an aquarium fish," an astonished Gross thought to himself after he first picked up the approximately 11/2-inch long by 2-inch laterally compressed, rhomboid-shaped boarfish from the rear deck of his lobster boat, Sand Dollar.

The fish's silver color and orange bands atop the deck's black matting caught his eye while he was sliding a trap on the railing toward the stern.

"The fish hung up on something in a trap, and it fell out somehow," Gross added. "The creature looked like it had been on the deck for a while, since it displayed all of the signs of dying. I knew it was a goner after I placed it in a bucket of water, and there wasn't much activity.

"I've seen a lot of weird stuff offshore that came up in lobster traps from 600 feet down or hung around the buoys, especially little fish and swimming crabs," said Gross, who has fished inshore and offshore off and on since 1972. He has also trapped semi-rare triggerfish, sea horses and filefish in his pots inshore.

After identifying the boarfish at home, Gross refrigerated it in a plastic bag.

"I'll show it to my (two) daughters (both off at college at the time) and see where it goes from there," he said. "I may throw it in the freezer and keep it there until my wife tells me to get rid of it."

Meanwhile, the boarfish's identity was further corroborated by Dr. Bruce B. Collette, the senior scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service Systematics Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution through an Ebb & Flow photo.

"Most boarfish are from deep water — previous records have been from Georges Bank, so this record from inshore is of particular interest," said Dr. Collette, who co-edited the third edition of Bigelow and Schroeder's legendary "Fishes of the Gulf of Maine."

That book states boarfish can grow to about 12 inches long, and generally reside within the offshore waters of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic.

Dr. Collette further contacted Karsten E. Hartel, the Ichthyology Collection manager at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ).

"My guess is that this fish came into the Gulf (of Maine) as a larvae and settled out in Ipswich Bay," Hartel said. "I mapped out our MCZ records, and almost all are along the shelf break south of the cape. This is a neat record, since it is the first real record from inside the Gulf of Maine proper."

Gross's second fish surprise came about when his older daughter, Alex, returned home from college and saw the fish.

"Now, this is the second one we have. We already have one in the freezer," she said.

Lo and behold, Alex had frozen the original one after picking it off of the deck of her father's lobster boat while helping him one summer's day in Ipswich Bay seven years ago.

Gross's latest boarfish, if not both of them, will also soon have a new home.

"Is the specimen available?" Dr. Collette asked. "If so, it would be well worth depositing it in the MCZ collection."

Hartel has since picked up both boarfish, and they now reside at the comparative zoology museum.

Gross's catches, along with their capture dates, depths and locales, and his name and that of his lobster boat will also be mentioned in the next edition of the "Fishes of the Gulf of Maine."

Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes regularly for the Times about the fishing industry and other local issues.