2017-09-28 / Nature

'Gulf Stream Orphans' Make Their Way to the Bay

By Charles Avenengo


Spotfin butterfly fish. (Photo by Adam Kovarsky) Spotfin butterfly fish. (Photo by Adam Kovarsky) Every year at this time, thousands of tiny, jewel-like tropical fish arrive in Narragansett Bay, having been accidentally caught up in the offshore Gulf Stream and transported here by the current. Often, these colorful gems are only a few feet under the surface of the water.

With exotic names like kingfish, queenfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, angelfish, scorpionfish, moonfish, snowy grouper, flying gurnard, greater amberjack and even the occasional barracuda, the list of tropical fish collected in local waters amounts to more than 60 species. “Gulf Stream Orphans” is a recently-coined term used to describe these tropical strays.

The Gulf Stream is more than 100 miles south of Newport, and how these fish get to our shores is that the newly hatched or their egg masses get trapped inside the lens of a warm water eddy that breaks off from the Gulf Stream. The eddy then churns and swirls its way toward our shores. These warm water eddies can be 100 kilometers wide, and the fish, who are accustomed to the warm tropical water, swim from the eddy into the surrounding colder water, immediately feel the chill and dart directly back into the warmer water, northward. The core of warm water eventually reaches our shores, depositing the “tropicals” into our bay.

Divers and snorkelers assemble last weekend at Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, preparing to collect tropical stray fish during an event sponsored by the New England Aquarium Dive Club. (Photo by Charles Avengo) Divers and snorkelers assemble last weekend at Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, preparing to collect tropical stray fish during an event sponsored by the New England Aquarium Dive Club. (Photo by Charles Avengo) Once the first “cold-stun” water occurs in October, the fish are unable to work their way against the currents, and they perish. Because the fish are essentially doomed, collecting them is considered a rescue mission. Once collected, their lives are extended, often by years, as they receive food and housing, complete veterinarian care and a predator-free home. In return, they become an attraction for thousands of annual visitors. According to an official from the New England Aquarium Dive Club, one type of fish collected locally, a type of jack called a “permit,” has been on display for 20 years. They were only about the size of a quarter when first collected, but have grown to more than two feet.


The senior residents of the Save the Bay Aquarium on Easton's Beach. These striped burrfish are tropical strays and have been on exhibit since 2006. Striped burrfish (Photo by Adam Kovarsky) The senior residents of the Save the Bay Aquarium on Easton's Beach. These striped burrfish are tropical strays and have been on exhibit since 2006. Striped burrfish (Photo by Adam Kovarsky) In late summer and early fall, New England aquariums send out major expeditions to collect these tropical fish. In Rhode Island, the three main collecting sites are at Green Bridge along Ocean Drive, Jamestown’s Fort Wetherill and the Charlestown Breachway. Over the course of a season, hundreds of the tiny fish are collected by the aquariums and enthusiastic amateur aquarists.


"This juvenile tropical fish, a jack family species called a "permit," can live for decades in aquariums. An adult can weigh over 50 pounds." 
(Photo by Adam Kovarsky) "This juvenile tropical fish, a jack family species called a "permit," can live for decades in aquariums. An adult can weigh over 50 pounds." (Photo by Adam Kovarsky) This collection process is called a “Tropical Fish Rescue.” All of New England’s aquariums have spent time this year in local waters collecting these fish. Earlier this month, Norwalk Aquarium (CT) sent divers to the Green Bridge area, though due to the recent spate of rough seas, the divers came up but the fish weren’t with them.

Last weekend, the New England Aquarium Dive Club hosted its annual Tropical Fish Rescue at Fort Wetherill. Dozens of divers and snorkelers descended into the cove and searched for the tiny refugees. Although the divers were happy to encounter crystal-clear waters with excellent visibility, a complete surprise given the week’s rough swell, the pickings were also slim.

On Easton’s Beach, however, the Save the Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium enjoyed a homecourt advantage. Not only is the ocean at its doorstep, the aquarium also doesn’t have to transport its valuable catch across state lines. In addition, because of the increased public awareness of this late summer phenomenon, the center receives many live donations from the early autumn underwater treasure trove. While the center’s director, Adam Kovarsky, admits this season has been slow, the aquarium has obtained some new tropical fish this fall, including a pair of band-tailed puffers and a permit jack.

When asked which of the tropical fish on display have lasted the longest, Kovarsky said, “We have two striped burrfish [that] were collected in 2006 from near the outflow pipes of the power plant in Fall River, and they have been here longer than I have.”

He said they were collected in November, a time when the tropical fish normally perish in the colder waters. However, they survived due to the warmer water surrounding the power plant. “And they have gone on to educate hundreds of thousands of visitors,” he said.

So, the next time you are at a New England aquarium, it is very possible that the colorful fish peering back at you were collected not from a tropical coral reef, but from the waters of Narragansett Bay.

List of Orphans at Save The Bay Aquarium

Snowy grouper
Grey triggerfish
Band-tailed pufferfish
Smooth trunkfish
Short big-eye
Striped burrfish
Permit Jack
Pinfish

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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