Valentine's Fish
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For Valentine’s Day, a Special Love Note from the Sea

Categories: Creature Features

Flowers, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a warm and tender love song, and a glittery card with completely over-the-top sugary sentiment…these are the tokens of affection we most recognize on Valentine’s Day. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that special someone will deliver a heartfelt token that makes your day even more meaningful.

It could be surprising to many people that in our complex and amazing world of ocean animals there are several creatures known for displaying the type of deep affection and commitment of which only romance novelists can dream. Tropical angelfish and at least one type of Australian seahorse are not strangers to life-long love beneath the waves. (And, by the way, is there any name more apropos to a day celebrating intimacy and devotion than that of the deep-sea sponge known as “Venus’s flower basket?”) There is even a small unglamorous freshwater fish known as the convict cichlid which pairs off into a crevasse made into a home to raise their children.

Without a doubt, our own Atlantic Wolffish exhibits the special bond of love suitable for Cupid’s attention. Male and female pairs (who reportedly mate for 3 to 6 hours at a time and practice internal fertilization, a rarity in fish) seek out their own special love nest under a craggy rock, or maybe down along the hull of a sunken wreck, just big enough to guard the egg mass laid by the female. The male wolffish, exhibiting no scientifically observed “commitment issues,” stands guard at his cave haven ensuring the protection of the growing larvae and juvenile offspring. The male is so devoted that he stops eating for as long as he is on guard, sometimes as long as four months. Not only is the wolffish pair committed to each other, they are highly loyal to their habitat.

Without a place to call their own, the wolffish love story could have an unhappy ending. With wolffish numbers having declined drastically in the last three decades, the connection between wolffish and their undisturbed habitat is even more important. Wolffish are still caught as bycatch in trawls and, possibly even more damaging to their long-term survival, their rocky habitat gets swept away by trawls and nesting areas can be buried in the sediment stirred up by trawling gear. Recreational anglers often catch wolffish, but it’s proven that the wolffish can be safely returned to the sea with the proper “catch and release” practice. (Wolffish do not have a swim bladder that “blows up” on the surface.) For both recreational and commercial fishermen in federal and state waters in New England it is illegal to possess or land Atlantic wolffish. If enforced properly, this can be a great step forward for wolffish conservation.

Now, it may be said that the Atlantic wolffish has a face that only its mother could truly love. But isn’t that the mystery of love itself – finding one’s counterpoint in the ocean of uncertainty can be anything but predictable.

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