Your Corner: 2 Million Dead Fish Can Tell Us a Lot

In a room at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, you will find two million fish representing 6,000 species -- carefully preserved in jars and catalogued, some of them dating back more than 100 years

There is a room in La Jolla few people ever get a chance to see.  It's not open to the public, which means the two million dead fish carefully stored inside are mostly for an audience of two.

Ben Frable is the collection's manager. Dr. Phil Hastings is the currator of the marine invertebrate collection at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"It's really quite a fascinating job," said Hastings. "I have one of the best jobs in the world."

Strolling through the room, it looks more like a library than a morgue.

Two million fish representing 6,000 species, are carefully preserved in jars and catalogued, some of them dating back more than 100 years.

Frable pointed out a rock fish originally purchased at a Japanese fish market in 1884.

"Some of these are quite scary looking," Frable explained, as he walked down, pointing out fish along the way.

He calls out names that would sound made up to most non-scientists, like the Cookie Cutter shark, Goblin Shark, or the Sarcastic fringehead.

The collection includes a baby whale shark, the largest fish in the world. That jar sits a few feet away from a stone fish, which Frable noted is the most venomous in the world.

He also showed NBC 7 a deep sea angler fish recognizeable from a scene in the movie, "Finding Nemo," where the fish dangles a glowing lure to attract its pray. The real-life version is much smaller than Pixar's.

A total of 250 species in the collection come from just offshore in La Jolla, but Hastings said less than a quarter of those would be seen by divers. A lot of the fish come from depths that humans rarely venture. 

It's a fascinating room with one obvious question. Why?

For one, the collection is used to help identify and name newly discovered fish. The collection can also tell us a lot about how fish and the ocean have changed over the past century.

"So, as things become overfished, or the environment degrades, species that are still present don't get as large as they used to, and that's because they don't survive as long," said Hastings.

And he said studies on the reproductive lives of fish are showing that the largest fish generally reproduce the best. So, this type of information can help support different types of size limits in fishing, where the largest fish are the ones that may need to be protected most.

The changes observed in the collection's fish involve more than just their size.

Frable talked about a study on fish diets that took some of the collection's tuna from the early 20th century and compared it to more modern samples.  

"There was a rapid acceleration in mercury in the 1940s during World War II with the rise in Global Shipping," Frable explained.

The collection was founded in 1944, and has become one of the largest deep sea fish collections in the world. It's growing as quickly as the ocean is changing.

In other words, there actually is a lot of life in this room full of dead fish.

"Kinda think of it as a library," said Frable. "You can just go up to any shelf and find something interesting."

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