In 35 years as a fisherman, Jim Eastwood has only seen seven skilfish.
On Wednesday morning, Eastwood and his crew brought in five of them, caught while longlining more than 200 miles south of Juneau. The largest of the mottled gray fish weighed in at about 110 lbs. and looked to be a little more than 5 feet long — bigger than Eastwood.
“Oh yeah, well, that doesn’t take much,” he laughed, but he’s heard of larger skilfish, too. They can get to be about 6 feet long and up to about 200 lbs.
Eastwood’s crew includes his wife Gail, Roberta Eastwood and Greg Lutton. They longline for halibut and black cod mostly and were surprised to find the skilfish among the catch. They caught two last year.
Eastwood said he also works as a tender for Alaska Glacier Seafoods, which is where they brought their fish, including the skilfish, for processing.
Eastwood and his crew will keep two for themselves — “phenomenal eating,” he claimed — and sold three to AGS. Pete Hochstoeger with AGS said they’ll keep one to eat and the other two have already been sold. The rarity of the fish is a double-edged sword. It’sintriguing, but people also like what they’re familiar with, he said.
In his nearly 20 years working with AGS, this is the first skilfish he’s seen. He’s excited to try it. It’s described as being similar in flavor to black cod, but firmer in texture.
“They don’t look like much but they are impressive, just in their size,” Hochstoeger said. “After all these years it’s kind of nice to just see this fish.”
Fish and Wildlife Technician Brandi Adams of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game joined the rubber-clad cadre of fisher-folk and processors that morning. She typically does commercial port sampling of salmon but considered herself lucky to be the only one free to check out the rare skilfish. The five were weighed, measured and tagged with yellow caution tape labeled with Sharpie before being put back on ice. Once they’re processed and eaten or sold, Fish and Game will get the skulls.
Not a lot is known about skilfish, Fishery Biologist Aaron Baldwin said, who has now made it a pet project to learn more about them.
The term “rare” was thrown around a lot in conversation about the fish, but Baldwin said they’re “undoubtedly common out in the deep ocean” of the North Pacific. They’re simply so deep that they’re not commonly caught and aren’t considered a commercially viable fish.
They were caught in waters where a map shows depths of 850-944 fathoms. Eastwood said his lines reach about 2,000 feet deep, or about 333 fathoms.
Aside from being an uncommon catch, skilfish also have an indigestible wax in their flesh that isn’t toxic but can cause gastrointestinal distress. Baldwin said the indigestible wax is also found in escolar, an unrelated deep-sea fish. It’s not recommended that people eat more than 6 oz. of skilfish, and not with great frequency.
Despite that recommendation, a 2009 study in the Journal of Ichthyology from the Kamchatka Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography indicates there may be a somewhat substantial market in Japan.
Baldwin suspects — and there’s evidence he’s right — that skilfish have been misidentified as other fish in the past. Skilfish share a family with black cod — they’re the only two species in the family — and reports of giant black cod were likely skilfish. Eastwood said people think they look like grouper.
Though Baldwin wasn’t able to see the fish on Wednesday morning, much to his disappointment, but he did encounter one last summer. It was a female, about 3 feet long, and had not yet begun to mature. He’s not certain of its age, so doesn’t know if it was young and grew quickly or if they are a slow-maturing fish.
There isn’t much data on the skilfish’s diet, but the fish he cut into had a stomach full of rockfish spines. The stomach itself was about a half-centimeter thick and tough like leather, he said.
“Looks to me like it’s pretty adapted to eating pretty spiky things that other fish might not be able to exploit,” he observed.
Baldwin didn’t want to speculate about why they’ve been showing up on lines in the past couple years, but said his best guess was that fish populations tend to increase and decrease over time, so there may just be more of them. There’s not enough data to say much about the species and its habits.
Baldwin is excited they can add more data points about the under-studied fish. Fish and Game can use the fish’s ear bones to tell its age, and Adams recorded the length, weight and location it was caught.
The data will be available to other agencies and while Baldwin doesn’t know that anyone is necessarily studying skilfish now, the data may be used in the future.
The last rare fish find to cause a stir in Juneau was a ragfish that washed up on Lena Beach in 2013.