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Very Rare Fish Find: King-Of-The-Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis)

King-of-the-Salmon at ~1.5m long. Photo: September 2017 by Collin Jay Johnson; near Tattoosh off Neah Bay Washington; depth ~100 fathoms.


Update September 20, 2020: King-of-the-Salmon washed up at Whiffen Spit (Sooke) on September 18 and documented by Dana LeComte (photo below).


Update June 24, 2020 (posted 2020-09-28): ~1.5 m long King-of-the-Salmon found struggling to stay upright by Al Champ and Wendy Cooper in East Sooke (photo and further details below).


Update June 8, 2020: King-of-the-Salmon documented by Harbor WildWatch in Salt Creek, west of Port Angeles, Washington. They provided the insight that “We speculate that this individual swam too close to shore and was killed by the waves as there was no evidence of predation. These are thin delicate fish adapted to the deep ocean. The tide pushed it up into the creek where it was discovered.”


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.

Darren Rowsell with the King-of-the-Salmon found on March 23rd, 2012 near Port McNeill. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

Easy to see why the King-of-the-Salmon belongs to the ribbonfish family. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

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 is said to originate from Makah First Nation legend. The legend is said to be that the fish was believed to be the “king” that would lead salmon back to their rivers to spawn and that 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. HOWEVER, I have never been able to verify if this is indeed a Makah legend and am currently (September 2020) trying to find out if there is indeed validity to this.

King-of-the-Salmon. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

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).

King-of-the-Salmon’s dorsal fin extends all the way down its back. Photo Joanne Rowsell.

Range: The species’ range is believed to be from the Gulf of Alaska to Chile.

King-of-the-Salmon found at Freshwater Bay, Clallam County, Washington in 1973, by Oscar Stigen. Photo provided by his daughter Jean Stigen.

 

Diet and Feeding Method: 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), polychaetes (bristle worms, small pelagic fish, young rockfish, squid, and octopus.  Part of what makes the species so unique is that they can capture (and process prey) by extreme protrusion of the upper jaw. See photos below.

From Ferry, et al (notably the ONLY research I could find on this species): “T. altivelis does appear to have earned the title of “most extreme”in terms of premaxillary protrusion. The distance to which the upper jaw is protruded anteriorly away from the head exceeds that of any other known species  . . .the gut was examined in an attempt to gain further insight into this speciesecology. The gut was empty, but the anatomy was unusual and potentially suggestive of extreme foraging habits. There were hundreds of very small diverticuli lining the gut, which suggest to us a mechanism for increasing digestive surface area and/or efficacy. This species has been described as a deep-midwater forager on crustacean zooplankton (Hart, 1973; Shenker, 1983), which is consistent with such mechanisms.”

 

Replicas of the head of the same King-of-the-Salmon by Bilz Rockfish. Compare the top and bottom photo (cast from the SAME fish) to see the extreme capability of this fish to extend its jaw.  learned that the nose can push outward as you see by contrasting the top and bottom casts (from the same fish).

 

Photo: Harbor Wildwatch, June 8, 2020 which allows for insight into the protrusion method this fish uses to eat.

 

A different species but provides some insight into how fish jaws can protrude. Species in this slow-mo GIF is “the Neotropical cichlid, Caquetaia myersi, showing off its highly protrusible jaw while feeding on a black worm.” Source: Martinez et al.

Predation: 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).

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.” See video below of one swimming.

And THAT appears to be all that is known about the King-of-the-Salmon – yet another one of our remarkable marine neighbours.
From Ferry, et al (2019): ” While much work remains regarding the ecology of T. altivelis and its relatives, it is certain that this fish holds many surprises yet in store”. No doubt.


Sightings photos and video. 

King-of-the Salmon found near Oak Bay, British Columbia on September 21, 2017 by Ben Clinton Baker. It will end up on display in the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea in Sidney, British Columbia. Photo: Oak Bay News. Click here for the story.  Below, video of what is presumably this individual when still alive. Credit: Peter Rowand. 

 

Second King-of-the-Salmon found near Oak Bay in September 2017. Photo: Emily Walsh, September 26, 2017.

 

Third found: 1.8 m long female King-of-the-Salmon found on October 3rd, 2017 off Hood Canal, Washington by Chris and Randi Jones. As relayed to Randi by Davy Lowry of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife “this is the first reported occurrence of this species in Hood Canal ever, and the only other one found in Puget Sound was discovered on a beach back in the 1990s near Tacoma.”

 

Same fish as in the photo above. Female King-of-the-Salmon found off Hood Canal, Washington
 on October 3, 2017 by Chris and Randi Jones. It was 1.8 m long (71′) and 3.3 kg (7.25 lb) and necropsy found that “there was nothing in the gut to indicate it had eaten recently”.  and Photo: Lisa Hillier; Washington Department 
of Fish & Wildlife. 


Fourth King-of-the-Salmon found in the fall of 2017 in southern British Columbia / northern Washington. This one was found on October 29th near Sidney British Columbia 100 m north of Reay Creek. Report and photo by Josh Grant. Coordinates: 48°38’03.3″N 123°24’22.7”W

 


Sighting of a King-of-the-Salmon August 19, 2019 (at least 70 cm long). Greg and Kim Ashton relayed how “We had just tied up our boat in the marina and were walking to shore when Kim spotted what at first we thought was an eel, but quickly realized it wasn’t but some type of fish we had never seen before. It was in five to six feet [~2m] of water and then swam up into shallower water . . . I was amazed at how it seemed to be looking at us and how brightly colored chrome-like its body was . . .”. Video of this individual (below) reveals this individual may not have been healthy.


Below, the June 8, 2020 documentation by Harbor Wildwatch in Salt Creek, west of Port Angeles, Washington



June 24, 2020 : ~1.5 m long King-of-the-Salmon in poor condition found by Al Champ and Wendy Cooper in East Sooke, across from the Sooke River. They strived to help it on its way but ran out of daylight, finding it was getting weaker and weaker and that it made no attempt to swim away.  


King-of-the-salmon found near Salem, Oregon in 2006. 1.83 m (6 foot) long and the head was about 23 cm (9 inches) wide. Source: Salem News; July 23, 2006; "Strange Fish Found on Beach Near Seaside" Click here to read the story.

King-of-the-Salmon found near Salem, Oregon in 2006. 1.83 m (6 foot) long and the head was about 23 cm (9 inches) wide. Source: Salem News; July 23, 2006; “Strange Fish Found on Beach Near Seaside”
Click here to read the story.

 

 

Plankton life stages of the King-of-the-salmon. Source: http://access.afsc.noaa.gov/ichthyo/LHDataIll.cfm?GSID=Trachipterus!altivelis
Credits:
A: Matarese, A.C., and E.M. Sandknop. 1984. Identification of fish eggs. In H.G. Moser, W.J. Richards, D.M. Cohen, M.P. Fahay, A.W. Kendall, Jr., and S.L Richardson (eds.), Ontogeny and systematics of fishes. Spec. Publ. 1, Am. Soc. Ichthyol. Herpetol., p. 27-31. Allen Press, Lawrence, KS, 760 p.
B: Charter, S.R., and H.G. Moser. 1996.Trachipteridae: Ribbonfishes. In H.G. Moser (ed.), The early stages of fishes in the California Current region. CalCOFI Atlas 33, p. 669-677. Allen Press, Lawrence, KS, 1505 p.
C and D: Matarese, A.C., A.W. Kendall, Jr., D.M. Blood, and B.M. Vinter. 1989.
Laboratory guide to early life history stages of Northeast Pacific fishes. NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS 80, 652 p.


Photo above and the following information was shared by Micah Quindazzi who is a masters student at the University of Victoria studying the King-of-the-Salmon. He extracted the ear bones (otoliths) of two full-grown adult King-of-the-Salmon (the September 18, 2020 and February 6, 2019 individuals). The photo shows the left and right otoliths from the September 18th individual. He shared that it is notable that the otoliths are tiny in comparison to the body size of the fish.


Sources:

9 Responses to “Very Rare Fish Find: King-Of-The-Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis)”

  1. Anonymous

    So wonderful that people share with you and you share with us! otherwise I would never know about these amazing creatures . Thanks MD!

    Reply
  2. Dino

    I believe deep sea trollers pull these up every so often, I too have seen pictures of these rare beasts. Great to get some background info on why they are called King of the Salmon.

    Reply
  3. Abby Schwarz

    Enormous eyes correlate well with life in in dark waters. Wonder if it makes vertical migrations as some ribbonfish do.

    Reply
  4. Valerie K. Yukluk

    My Dad was on a reefnet gear on Lopez island they caught one 6 foot long. 5 lbs in 1958. I have a poloroid picture, but it is in bad shape.

    Reply
  5. Ole

    Hi!
    I enjoyed reading your article. I came across a King of the Salmon fish at the Channel Islands off California a few years ago, had no idea what it was at the time but had so e friends at NOAA ID it after i sent them the video.
    If you wantto check it out, I put it up on youtube:

    Reply

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