Misamis Oriental

Giant oarfish beaching leaves Misamis Oriental villagers in awe, sparks conservation concerns

Uriel Quilinguing

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Giant oarfish beaching leaves Misamis Oriental villagers in awe, sparks conservation concerns

WASHED ASHORE. Curious villagers check out a giant oarfish that is washed ashore at Luz Banzon, Jasaan, Misamis Oriental on September 21.

courtesy of Ash Nabong Cabatuando

A biologist says the country's scientific community should 'take a deeper look' at why the giant oarfish are surfacing from their natural habitats

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – For almost a decade now, marine life conservationists have taken an interest in why beaching incidents of an ocean-deep serpent-like dweller, the giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne), have become more frequent in the coastal waters of at least eight countries worldwide, including the Philippines.

The giant oarfish, often called the “king of herrings,” is a rare and enigmatic deep-sea species known for its immense size and distinctive appearance. They have ribbon-like bodies that can stretch more than 36 feet in length.

They are not well understood, and their behavior and biology remain largely mysterious. Their occasional appearances near the coastlines have led to various speculations and superstitions.

Since 2016, there have been at least 12 beaching incidents involving oarfish in various locations. These include two incidents in Agusan del Norte, three each in Albay, Aurora, Bohol, Cagayan de Oro, Leyte, and Misamis Oriental, and one each in Surigao City and Southern Leyte.

Except for Misamis Oriental and Cagayan de Oro, all these are located on the western seaboard of the Pacific.

On Thursday, September 21, residents of Barangay Luz Banzon in Jasaan town, Misamis Oriental, had a unique experience – they saw, touched, and even smelled an oarfish. The approximately 12-foot oarfish, still bleeding, was pulled from the shoreline at around 4 pm.

Coastal villagers in Gusa, Cagayan de Oro, and Opol town in Misamis Oriental found oarfish carcasses on their shores in 2017 and 2018. On August 20, 2020, a 10-foot lifeless oarfish was spotted along the coastline of Gingoog City, also in Misamis Oriental.

Not on BFAR’s list

However, despite the oarfish beaching reports that leave people in awe, they did not catch much attention from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

BFAR-Northern Mindanao Director Edward Yasay said, “We generally respond to fish kills when several fish in an area are found dead.”

He said this after he was informed about the dead oarfish found in Jasaan, Misamis Oriental.

BFAR, an attached agency of the Department of Agriculture, has been primarily responsible for the development, improvement, management, and conservation of the country’s fishery and aquatic resources since 1974.

Yasay said they would only check samples of dead fish if they belong to endangered and protected species, referencing Fishery Administrative Order No. 208, which does not include the Giant oarfish.

Biologist Arnil Emata, a research consultant at the University of Science and Technology in Southern Philippines (USTP) in Claveria, Misamis Oriental, said the country’s scientific community should “take a deeper look” at why oarfish are surfacing from their natural habitats.

“These are signs of impending destruction of our ecosystem. When a fish leaves its natural habitat, it often means they are surfacing for survival, either for safety or for food,” said Emata, who taught at the Iloilo City-based Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center for 17 years. He holds a doctoral degree in physiology from Louisiana State University in the United States.

Emata said the BFAR, as a government agency, focuses solely on the economic aspect of the fishery industry, and oarfish, in this case, may not have economic benefits compared to other deep-sea species.

He said any study conducted on oarfish should consider the implications of climate change, examining when and where oarfish appear and possibly correlating the data with the occurrence of earthquakes and even typhoons.

The recent oarfish beaching reports, which have left many people in awe, sparked bewilderment and fear among the superstitious.

Christine Bahian, a resident of Luz Banzon, who captured a viral video of the oarfish, describes the carcass as measuring approximately 12 feet in length and weighing about 50 kilograms.

Jasaan Mayor Redentor Jardin ordered the immediate burial of the oarfish, citing its unknown cause of death and the mysterious circumstances of its appearance in their town.

Although Jardin said he found the oarfish beaching strange, he rejected the superstition that it portends a calamitous event.

Yasay said, “As a technical person, I believe that the death of an organism is caused by factors surrounding it.”

Incidentally, BFAR was leading a nationwide celebration of Fish Conservation Week from September 18 to 22 when the oarfish was found in Jasaan, Misamis Oriental.

The week-long event aimed to integrate and synchronize efforts related to maritime events and raise public awareness about various marine and archipelagic issues. 

Studies ongoing

The Palawan Island-based Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute (LAMAVE) Philippines, a Filipino non-stock and non-governmental organization, that has been operating since 2010, focuses on BFAR-declared protected and endangered species, such as dolphins, manta rays, marine turtles, sharks, whale sharks, and blue whales. But the giant oarfish is not on its list of priority species.

Various research institutions worldwide are patiently studying the anatomy, morphology, life history, reproduction, and other unique features of oarfish among deep-dwelling fish species, but there is no such research initiative in the Philippines.

Continued studies on oarfish are being conducted in California since the discovery of an 18-foot-long oarfish carcass on October 11, 2013, off the coast of Catalina Island. 

The University of California has long operated a Marine Science Institute at Catalina Island, and the UC of San Diego, one of the state university’s 10 campuses, is also involved in oarfish research through the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s The Underwater Library.

Even the Washington DC-based National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has joined studies on this mysterious creature. Among the findings so far:

  • The beaching of oarfish occurs either after a storm or before an earthquake.
  • Oarfish are rarely seen because they inhabit ocean depths ranging from 600 feet to 3,000 feet below the surface.
  • They have little body muscle due to the lack of current at such depths, making it challenging for them to survive on the surface due to water turbulence.
  • Oarfish linger on the surface when they are sick or dying.
  • Causes of death include depressurization, injury, and sickness.
  • Oarfish are rarely caught alive.
  • They are solitary animals.
  • The flesh of an oarfish is not highly regarded for eating due to its gelatinous consistency.

A study on the characteristics of Regalecus russellii is also ongoing at the National Marine Biodiversity Institute of Korea (MABIK).

The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) is also conducting similar research on oarfish, which, according to Japanese folklore, is known as the “Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace.” A Japanese legend claims that oarfish appear before earthquakes and tsunamis occur. – Rappler.com

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