Folk fear disaster after oarfish accidentally caught off Surigao del Norte

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oarfish
Screenshot of the oarfish from GMA News TV’s Balitanghali report today (link below).

Residents of a town in Surigao del Norte have been left fearing disaster after an oarfish was caught in shallow waters off Malimono town.

Jouralie Petros told GMA News TV’s Balitanghali today (Saturday, December 15) how she caught the 16-foot fish by accident and was unable to sell it at market. 

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According to tradition, appearances of the deep-sea fish — which are known in Japan as ‘The Messenger from the Sea God’s Palace’ — are associated with impending earthquakes.

However, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has said there is no basis for such fears. The BFAR also ordered that the oarfish be buried since it cannot be eaten.

In recent history, about 20 of the deep-ocean fish were found washed ashore in the days leading up to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.

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While there is no direct scientific evidence to support the idea these fish are sensitive to seismic activity, it should be remembered that science itself has no way to predict earthquakes.

However, their deep sea habitat, living in close proximity to undersea fault lines does suggest a rational basis for the ancient Japanese myth.

Rachel Grant, a lecturer in animal biology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, has begun a study to test the idea.

“It’s theoretically possible because when an earthquake occurs there can be a build-up of pressure in the rocks which can lead to electrostatic charges that cause electrically-charged ions to be released into the water,” she said.

“This can lead to the formation of hydrogen peroxide, which is a toxic compound. The charged ions can also oxidise organic matter which could either kill the fish or force them to leave the deep ocean and rise to the surface.”

Another possibility, she added, was that prior to a quake there is a release of large quantities of carbon monoxide gas, which could also affect oarfish.

“The geophysical processes behind these kinds of sighting can happen before an earthquake,” she said.

Oarfish are usually found at depths of 1,000 metres and very rarely above 200 metres from the surface. Long and slender with a dorsal fin the length of its body, the oarfish resembles a snake.

It is believed that its rare appearances on the surface of the sea gave rise to legends about sea serpents.

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