Update August 2019: King-of-the-Salmon sighted in the shallows in Telegraph Cove, British Columbia on August 19th. Sighting and photos by Greg and Kim Ashton. Photos below.
Update September / October 2017: There have been 4 known King-of-the-Salmon washed shore in southern British Columbia / northern Washington. See details and photos below.
Here’s a finding to enhance your sense of wonder about the sea and how little we know about its inhabitants.
On March 23rd, 2012 Darren and Joanne Rowsell found this dead specimen on the beach at Lady Ellen Point, Port McNeill, British Columbia, Canada. When the photos landed in my inbox, I almost fell off my chair recognizing how rare a find this was. It’s a King-of-the Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis). The adults feed in the open ocean at depths of 900+ m (3,000 feet) so they hardly ever wash ashore and I had never seen one before.
The King-of-the-Salmon belongs to the ribbonfish family (Trachipteridae). You’ll note from Joanne’s photos that the species is indeed very ribbon-like. It is extremely thin and maximum confirmed length is 2.45m (Savinykh and Baitalyuk. 2011). The long, high, crimson coloured dorsal fin is also very reminiscent of a ribbon, tapering down the full length of the fish’s back. These fish move in a snake-like fashion, undulating their long bodies.
The unique common name of the King-of-the-Salmon originates from Makah First Nation legend. This fish was believed to be the “king” that would lead salmon back to their rivers to spawn.
To kill one was believed to bring bad luck, causing the death of the salmon. The Makah, like other fisherfolk, must occasionally have caught one on their lines or in their nets.
When one of these very rare and unique fish does wash ashore, it usually draws a lot of attention. See the video and photo below for a large King-of-the-Salmon found near Oak Bay, British Columbia on September 21st, 2017. A second one was also found near Oak Bay a few days later on September 26th. A third was found on a beach off Hood Canal, Washington on October 3rd, 2017. And a forth was found in Sidney, British Columbia on October 29th, 2017. (See photos below).
The species range is believed to be from the Gulf of Alaska to Chile.
Smaller King-of-the-Salmon do feed closer to shore and their diet is known to include copepods, annelid worms, fish scales, and fish larvae. Larger individuals feed on copepods, krill (euphausids), small pelagic fish, young rockfish, squid, and octopus. I presume that stomach content studies have allowed science to determine that the predators of the King-of-the-Salmon include the Bigeye Thresher Shark (Alopias superciloosus), and the Longnose Lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox).
See video below of one swimming. From Dr. Gavin Hanke of the Royal BC Museum: “King-of-the-Salmon swim by passing a sine wave down their dorsal fin – they can get a fair bit of speed just by doing that. They can also reverse using the same fin flutter. They slowly turn by putting a curve in the body. However, in the first few seconds of the linked video you can see that they also swim in a more typical fishy way (using eel-like body oscillation) when they need a burst of speed or a really quick turn.”
And that appears to be all that is known about the King-of-the-Salmon – yet another one of our remarkable marine neighbours.
- Alaska Fisheries Science Centre; Ichthyoplankton Information System
- CBC News; September 24, 2017; ‘Very rare’ King-of-the-Salmon fish found on Vancouver Island beach
- Fishwise Universal Fish Catalogue
- Love, Dr. Milton. Certainly More Than You Want to Know about the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience.
- Royal BC Museum; October 11, 2018; “We Three Kings“
- Salem News; July 23, 2006; “Strange Fish Found on Beach Near Seaside”
- Savinykh, V. F. and A. A. Baitalyuk. 2011. Taxonomic status of ribbonfishes of the genus Trachypterus (Trachipteridae)
from the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. J. Ichthyol. 51:581–589.