LONG BEACH — Good Samaritans on March 14 rescued an unusual semi-tropical Pacific snake eel from Long Beach sands a mile south of Cranberry beach approach. Personnel from Seaside Aquarium responded to the scene and are trying to nurse the chilly eel back to health.
Candace Woodbury found the fish buried in the sand far inland from the water’s edge. Concerned and curious about what type of fish is was, she called the aquarium.
"Being part of the Southern Washington/Northern Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network, we are used to getting strange calls at all hours," the aquarium's Tiffany Boothe said. After business hours, the aquarium got a call "about a strange animal buried in the sand on the Long Beach Peninsula. We were very surprised to find out that it was a Pacific snake eel (Ophichthus triserialis) an animal which has never been seen on the Washington coast."
Though they are common and unendangered in their home habitat, one of our region's top biologists called the find in Long Beach "incredibly rare."
The eel was mostly buried in the sand but had been out of the water since the tide went out. Burrowing into sand is routine for this species that dines on things like clams, however they are usually found at depths between 25 feet and 500 feet.
"When we arrived, we uncovered the fish, which was remarkably still alive and got it into seawater," Boothe said. "Too lethargic to be returned to the sea, we decided to bring it back to the aquarium. The eel is currently in an isolated in a tank which we are slowly warming to make the eel more comfortable. There is some damage on its pectoral fins that we are hoping will heal."
Pacific snake eels ordinarily range from Peru to northern California. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, they have only been found twice on the Oregon coast — one in the far south and one near Lincoln City. Both had already died before being spotted.
In its April 21, 2017 Field Report, ODFW commented on unusual species being found on the Oregon coast: "a Pacific Snake Eel (Ophichthus triserialis) washed up near Bandon, Oregon. This fish is a southern species, native to Mexico and California, and is the second one ever recorded in Oregon waters (one also washed up in January  off of Lincoln City — which is the farthest north this species has ever been recorded). Prior to this year’s sightings, the mouth of the Klamath River [in Del Norte County, California] in 1975 was the farthest north this species was reported."
Daniel J. Kamikawa, research fisheries biologist with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and author of "Survey Fishes," the definitive guide to Pacific Northwest fish, said Monday, "While Pacific snake eels have been documented off both OR and WA they are incredibly rare this far north. The bulk of their distribution appears to be from central and southern CA south to Peru and includes the Gulf of California. We had a dead one turned in by a beachcomber here in Newport a few years back and we had another wash up on the beach. They are not in my book since they are incredibly rare north of Point Conception, CA and in waters outside 20 meters."
The creature's scientific Latin name Ophichthus means serpent fish, and triserialis means three-rowed, referring to its pattern of spots.