Vancouver Island resident Rachel Bell snapped photos of this odd-looking fish – identified as a spotted ratfish – before pushing it into deeper water on Jan. 14 at Saratoga Beach, near Campbell River.

Ratfish generates social media buzz on Vancouver Island

Boneless, glowing creature a common bycatch, but it usually stays in deep waters – fish expert

Talk about a fish out of water!

An odd-looking fish spotted on Vancouver Island lit up social media this week.

On Tuesday, Campbell River area resident Rachel Bell posted images of the shark-like creature – which has since been identified as a ratfish, a glowing and boneless specimen normally found deep under the sea – to social media.

“Can anyone tell me wtf this thing is?” Bell said in the Facebook post.

In the photos, the two-foot long fish appears to be writhing around in shallow water on a sandy beach. It has bulging turquoise-coloured eyes and white spots covering its long, slender rat-like tail.

More than 70 people from the Facebook community soon responded, most of them in agreement that it was a ratfish or spotted ratfish, known among scientists as Hydrolagus colliei.

Some also suggested “nuclear fish,” “Godzilla baby” and “alien fish that’s supposed to be in the dark deep depths of the ocean.”

Dr. Jim Powell, a fish expert and CEO of the Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences in Campbell River, examined the photos for the Mirror and confirmed what dozens of online observers already knew: it’s a ratfish.

“Hydrolagus colliei,” said Powell after viewing the images on Wednesday.

“It’s a male,” he said, pointing to a set “claspers” protruding from its underside.

The ratfish, a relative to the shark, has a skeleton made of cartilage – it “doesn’t have a bone in its body,” he said. It’s not a very common sight on the shore, because it’s a deep-water fish.

The species doesn’t have a swim bladder, so if it doesn’t swim, it sinks, he said.

He declined to speculate on how it ended up on the beach, but said it might have something to do with its health or age.

Powell, a scuba diver, said the glowing fish are often spotted underwater at night.

“They’re beautiful, to see them underwater and see them swimming,” he said. “They’re just gorgeous because of their iridescence and that large eye, and they really do glow.”

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Bell told Black Press that she snapped the photos around noon on Jan. 14 while walking her dogs at Saratoga Beach, near Campbell River.

The fish was about two feet long, she said, and it appeared to have washed up on the shore alive. Someone tried to roll it back into the sea, and Bell pushed it into deeper water.

To avoid a spike on its top dorsal fin, she used her gumboots and the plastic handle of a retractable leash to move the fish, she said.

“I believe it fully regained strength and swam away,” Bell said in a Facebook message. “Made me feel pretty good.”

Vancouver Island resident Rachel Bell captured this photo of a spotted ratfish before pushing the odd-looking creature back into the water on Jan. 14 at Saratoga Beach, near Campbell River.

The spotted ratfish, which has a venomous spine, occurs throughout the northeast coastal sections of the Pacific Ocean, from southern Alaska to Baja California, at depths in excess of 900 metres.

Its numbers are increasing, and it’s considered a species of least concern, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

It’s from a group of fish known as chimaera or chimera – a name rooted in a Greek myth about a creature that resembles a lion, goat and dragon combined.

The spotted ratfish is the only type of chimaera in Canadian Pacific fisheries waters, according to a shark conservation plan published by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2007.

“Ratfish are a common bycatch (about 700 tonnes per year) within the commercial trawl fishery for skates,” a type of ray, according to the document. “Since ratfish are of no commercial value, they are discarded at sea.”

The chimaera are also called ghost sharks. The earliest chimaera fossil specimen, a skull, is dated to about 280 million years ago, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The ancient lineage of the ratfish shows, Powell said.

“It’s definitely prehistoric looking, isn’t it?”

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Vancouver Island resident Rachel Bell snapped photos of this odd-looking fish – identified as a spotted ratfish – before pushing it into deeper water on Jan. 14 at Saratoga Beach, near Campbell River.

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