Cape Cod Bay beaches in Massachusetts have recently been bombarded with thousands of dead needle-nosed fish. According to the Cape Cod Times, a local newspaper in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, the fish in question are the Atlantic saury–a species of Scomberesocidae fish that swim together in large schools. The reason for the mass fish beaching is still a mystery.
Owen Nichols is the director of marine fisheries research at the Center for Coastal Studies. He weighed in with told Cape Cod Times possible about the issue. The reason for the beachings, he explained, could be due to prevailing winds. It could also be due to large tides, cooling water temperatures, predators or the fish breed’s slender shape.
According to Nichols, similar beach strandings occurred in 2018, 2016, and 1998. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the Atlantic saury is an “open-ocean, forage fish.” The Atlantic needle-nose fish is a type of fish that can typically be found in the waters off the coast of Cape Hatteras. It can also be found from North Carolina to Newfoundland, Canada.
The needle-nosed fish has a history of mass beachings
According to an NOAA profile on the Atlantic saury, citing a 1981 study from the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) Science Council, these fish engage in seasonal cross-shelf migrations. During the summer and fall months, Atlantic sauries migrate to continental shelf waters in areas like the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank (an elevated sea floor between Cape Cod & Massachusetts and Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia), and Scotian Shelf (a geological formation southwest of Nova Scotia).
Theories about this strange phenomenon abound
In the November 19, 1998 edition of the Register newspaper, Sherrill Smith wrote a column called “Woodstove”. In one writeup, she floated another theory on the cause of saury strandings. Here’s what Smith had to say about sauries. “Lately we’ve heard about or seen the massive landings of saury that came ashore on Cape Cod Bay harbors and marshes. These needle-nosed fish, sometimes called skippers, are slender and silvery and have a forked tail and those I saw were mostly less than 12 inches long.”
“Saury have left their distant habitats and visited the Cape’s inner arm in the past,” Smith continued. “In the days of fish weirs, they were an occasional by-catch and went most often for bait. It is not known why they beach themselves and that means theories are up for grabs. Mine is that they are light attracted by the rising sun. They go for it, due east, and hit the beach and that’s why they die. Why they are in the Bay in the first place can be someone else’s homework.”
According to the NOAA, Atlantic sauries have a “low” vulnerability rank. The needle-nose fish are eaten by squids, swordfish, marlins, sharks, tunas among others. People don’t usually think to eat Atlantic sauries. However, “it’s said to be “an important food fish in other parts of the world,” according to NOAA.