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Oceanside oarfish death puzzles scientists, but everyone wants a piece

Scientists have dissected a 14-foot-long oarfish that washed up on an Oceanside beach on Friday, and sent the segments to scientists around the world. The elongated sea creature is rarely seen because the oarfish keeps to deep waters. So when two of them emerged in Southern California last week, everyone wanted a piece.

"I've never seen one [oarfish] ever, other than stuffed on the wall of a museum," said Dr. Russ Vetter, director of the Fisheries Resources Program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Vetter helped disassemble the oarfish on Monday and found more questions than answers. But scientists do know one thing about the the fish — she's a lady. And when she washed up on shore she was extremely fresh.

"The fish came up in a good enough condition that you could eat it," he said.

Vetter said this indicates the fish died recently and close to where it was found on the beach. That's also true of the oarfish found off the coast of Catalina. Which is puzzling, because oarfish typically keep their distance from the shore. This is how they maintain their air of mysteriousness, and why so many scientists have never had a first-hand experience with the massive sea creature. 

The oarfish also showed no obvious signs of trauma, such as being attacked by a shark or hit by a boat, said Vetter. It also didn't look exceptionally small or weak or like it suffered from a nutritional deficiency.

“It’s very puzzling, and I don’t know what to make of it other than maybe, like I say, an ocean current took a detour and brought some ocean water close to shore," said Vetter.  "And in that sense Oceanside and Catalina are pretty darn close. And maybe this fish got trapped.” 

The oarfish could have gotten caught in a current and disoriented, ending up beached on the sand like a sea mammal.Or, the fish could have hit a patch of ocean with an oxygen deficiency, but Vetter said if this were true he would have expected to see a lot more dead fish. 

Research biologist Milton Love of UC Santa Barbara told KPCC that he plans on comparing tissue samples from both oarfish to try and determine whether multiple species of the sea creature exist.

"The leading thinking until about 15 to 20 years is there was one species and it’s found all over the world," Love said, but now scientists believe there is at least one species in the Pacific and another in the Atlantic.  

Oarfish are the longest bony fish in the sea and grow to be more than 50 feet in length. There's a lot of unknowns about the fish, but they typically only to come to the surface when they're injured or dying.